I smiled and gave them a couple of reasons. It forces them outside their comfort zone. It raises some profound ideas. It's a short novel. And, it was recommended by a former student in the same class who later served as my teaching assistant.
And lastly, I told them this:
"I promise you that this book will NOT be the worst book you ever read in college."
A spiritual quest novel and a novel of ideas, the book follows a young Indian man who is on a path to finding peace and enlightenment.
As one might expect, it's not an action book. It doesn't offer fireworks. It's rather quiet and rather contemplative. It demands that you think about what's going on. It asks you to ask yourself questions about what the heck Siddhartha (or Sid, as one student nicknamed him in his journal) is up to.
Much of Siddhartha's quest is very much tied up with a search for the self, or more precisely, for the erasure of self! What a concept! Get rid of our egos? Those egos that we can never really escape? Why ever would we want to do such a thing?
"Siddhartha had one single goal -- to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow -- to let the Self die. No longer to be Self, to experience the peace of an emptied heart, to experience pure thought -- that was his goal. When all the Self was conquered and dead, when all passions and desires were silent, then the last must awaken, the innermost of Being that is no longer Self-- the great secret!"
But it's tricky business trying to do away with the Self. No matter how hard you try to rid yourself of your SELF, it has a way of sneaking up on you, meeting you around every corner. As a Samana, an ascetic, Siddhartha fasted and meditated and prayed and engaged in self-denial and suffered pain -- "He lost his Self a thousand times and for days on end he dwelt in non-being. But although the paths took him away from Self, in the end they always led back to it."
Later, Siddhartha recognizes that perhaps it isn't the self at all that should occupy his attention; rather he realizes that he would be better served to listen for an authentic inner voice:
"He had known for a long time that his Self was Atman [the overriding reality of Oneness] of the same eternal nature as Brahman, but he had never really found his Self, because he had wanted to trap it in a net of thoughts.The body was certainly not the Self, nor the play of senses, nor thought, nor understanding, nor acquired wisdom or art with which to draw conclusions...He would only strive after whatever the inward voice commanded him not tarry anywhere but where the voice advised him. Why did Gotama once sit down beneath the bo tree in his greatest hour when he received enlightenment? He had heard a voice in his own heart which commanded him to seek rest under this tree...he had listened to this voice. To obey no other external command, only the voice, to be prepared -- that was good, that was necessary. Nothing else was necessary."
Later, after Siddhartha immerses himself in the pleasures of the flesh -- women, fine food, good clothing, gambling, money-making -- and then despairs and tires of that lifestyle, he comes to see again that he must listen to an inner voice to lead him out of despair.
"Onwards, onwards, this is your path. He had heard this voice when he had left his home and chosen the life of the Samanas; and again when he had left the Samanas and gone to the Perfect One, and also when he had left him for the unknown. How long was it now that he had heard this voice, since he had soared to any heights?"
Siddhartha's epiphany -- or one of them -- occurs shortly after he abandons the sensual life he's been leading. Disgusted with himself, he approaches the river, where he sits beside a tree and gazes into the water. He spits at his rotting image. Nauseated and repulsed by himself and the way of the flesh he's been living, he wants to die: "Might the fishes and crocodiles devour him, might the demons tear him to little pieces." He is drawn toward death but in that moment he hears a special sound, the one word, the one sound, the "ancient beginning and ending of all Brahmin prayers."
He speaks THE HOLY OM and it is profoundly transformative. "At that moment, when the sound of Om reached Siddhartha's ears, his slumbering soul suddenly awakened and he recognized the folly of his action." He is horrified by the fact that he is so lost he wants to die.
Overwhelmed and inspired by the sound of OM, he falls asleep and when he wakes, he feels revived, refreshed, renewed, reborn. He meets Govinda his friend again, realizes that he is going in circles or spirals, but feels happy and liberated.
Once again, the saving grace for Siddhartha is rooted in voice, which he refers to as a bird..."you have again had a good idea, ...you have accomplished something...you have heard the bird in your breast sing and followed it." Indeed, he realizes that the source of his joy is the bird: "the clear spring and voice within him was still alive -- that was why he rejoiced, that was why he laughed, that was why his face was radiant under his gray hair."
Finally, Siddhartha recognizes that the bird of voice, "singing happily" inside him, has led him toward his long-time goal, that is, to destroy the Self:
"No something else in him had died, something that he had long desired should perish. Was it not what he had once wished to destroy during his ardent years of asceticism? Was it not his Self, his small, fearful and proud Self, with which he had wrestled for so many years, but which had always conquered him again, which appeared each time again and again, which robbed him of happiness and filled him with fear? Was it not this which had finally died today in the wood by this delightful river? Was it not because of its death that he was now like a child, so full of trust and happiness, without fear?"
If you think about it, the "self" is really the source of so much of our pain. Fear of death is rooted in the self's awareness of its own mortality. Pride, greed, jealousy, all of them center on egoical drives set up in the self seeking to materialize its desires.
Siddhartha isn't the first man on a spiritual path, determined to find and lose the self.
In the end, many of my students found themselves liking Siddhartha a lot. I'm reading their final papers, and many chose to write about the many lessons that Sid taught them. Lessons like how to stand up to parents. How it is to follow a journey, and keep changing one's mind about the goals and the direction. How to think about what one wants in life. Where to look for teachers, and how much to rely on one's own experience and inner wisdom.
And how to sit by a river and see all of creation passing by.
I'm not sure how many of the students loved the book. But many of them learned something.
Funny thing about works of literature. The "classics" so often have a way of speaking to us, over and over again, through the years.