German-Swiss novelist and poet Hermann Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. One of his most widely read novels, Siddhartha, takes place in the time of Buddha, who is alternately referred to in the text as “Gotama” and the “Exalted One.” The story follows two friends, Govinda and Siddhartha, as they embark on a search for spiritual truth. The young men part ways when Govinda joins Gotama’s discipleship and Siddhartha continues along his own, self-guided spiritual path. At the end of the book Govinda, now an old and highly regarded monk, resumes his wandering, having not yet found enlightenment. On the first stop of his journey he arrives at a river, where he discovers that the sage ferryman who takes travelers across is his old friend Siddhartha, and he asks Siddhartha what insights he has about life. From Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, first published in 1922. Translated by Sherab Chödzin Kohn. © 2000 by Shambhala Publications. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA.


Siddhartha said: “I have had ideas, yes, and insights too, all along. At times I have felt wisdom in me for an hour or for a day, just as a person will sometimes feel the life in his heart. There were many ideas, but it would be difficult for me to express them to you. See here, Govinda, this is one of the ideas that I have come to: Wisdom is not expressible. Wisdom, when a wise man tries to express it, always sounds like foolishness.”

“Are you joking?” asked Govinda.

“I am not joking. I am telling you what I have discovered. Knowledge can be expressed, but not wisdom. One can discover it, one can live it, one can be borne along by it, one can do miracles with it, but one cannot express it and teach it. This is what I already sensed as a youth, what drove me away from teachers. I have come to an idea, Govinda, that you once more will take for a joke or some foolishness, but nevertheless it is my best idea. It is this: The opposite of every truth is also just as true! It is like this: A truth can be expressed and cloaked in words only if it is one-sided. Everything that can be thought in thoughts and expressed in words is one-sided, only a half. All such thoughts lack wholeness, fullness, unity. When the venerable Gotama [Buddha] taught and spoke of the world, he had to divide it into samsara and nirvana, deception and truth, suffering and liberation. There is no other possibility, no other way for those who would teach. But the world itself, existence around us and within us, is never one-sided. Never is a person or an act wholly samsara or wholly nirvana; never is a person entirely holy or sinful. That only appears to be the case because we are in the grips of the illusion that time is real. Time is not real, Govinda, I have experienced this many, many times. And if time is not real, then the gap that seems to exist between the world and eternity, between suffering and bliss, between good and evil, is also an illusion.”

“How so?” asked Govinda uneasily.

“Listen well, friend, listen well! The sinner that I am and you are is indeed a sinner, but in time he will again be Brahman [the supreme being], in time he will attain nirvana, be a buddha. But see here, this ‘in time’ is an illusion, only a metaphor. The sinner is not on the path to buddhahood, he is not caught up in a process, even though our intellect knows no other way of representing things. No, the future buddha is present here and now within the sinner, his future is entirely there already. You must venerate the developing, potential, hidden buddha in him, in yourself, in everyone. The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect or confined at a point somewhere along a gradual pathway toward perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment. Every sin already contains grace within it, all little children already have an old person in them, every infant has death within it, and all dying people have within them eternal life. It is not possible for any person to see in another how far along the way he is. In the bandit and dice player a buddha is waiting; in the Brahmin [priest] a bandit. In the depths of meditation lies the possibility of cutting through time, of seeing the simultaneity of all past, present, and future life, and that within that, everything is good, all is perfect, all is Brahman. Thus I see whatever is as good. I see that life and death, sin and holiness, intelligence and foolishness must be as they are. It all only requires my consent, my willingness, my loving acceptance, and it will be good for me, can never harm me. I have experienced in my own mind and body that I was very much in need of sin; I needed sensual pleasure, striving for possessions, vanity, and extreme debasement and despair in order to learn to give up resisting, in order to learn to love the world, in order to cease comparing it to some imagined world that I wished for, some form of perfection I had thought up, and let it be as it is and love it and be glad to be part of it.

“These, Govinda, are some of the ideas that have come to my mind.”

Siddhartha bent over, picked up a stone off the ground, and weighed it in his hand.

“This,” he said playfully, “is a stone, and after a certain length of time, it will perhaps be earth, and from the earth a plant will come, or an animal or a person. Formerly I would have said: ‘This is just a stone, it is worthless, part of the world of Maya [illusion]. But in the cycle of transformations it can also become human and spirit, and so I attribute value to it.’ That is perhaps how I used to think. But today I think: ‘This stone is a stone, it is also a beast, it is also God, it is also Buddha.’ I do not venerate and love it because someday it may become this or that but because it long since is and ever will be everything — and just on this account: that it is a stone, that it appears to me here and now as a stone — just because of that I love it and see value and meaning in its veins and pits, in its yellow, in its gray, in its hardness, in the sound it makes when I give it a knock, in the dryness or moistness of its surface. There are stones that feel like oil or soap, others that feel like leaves, others that feel like sand, and each one is unique and prays the Om in its own way. Each one is Brahman, but at the same time and just as much, it is a stone, oily or soapy — and just that is what pleases me and seems wonderful to me, worthy of veneration.

“But let me say no more. Words do no justice to the hidden meaning. Everything immediately becomes slightly different when it is expressed in words, a little bit distorted, a little foolish. And that too is good and pleases me very much. It is perfectly fine with me that what for one man is precious wisdom for another sounds like foolery.”

Govinda listened to him without speaking. Then after a pause he asked hesitantly, “Why did you tell me that thing about the stone?”

“There was no particular purpose. Or perhaps I meant by it that I love the stone and the river and all these things that we look at and from which we can learn. I can love a stone, Govinda, and also a tree, or a piece of bark. Those are things, and a person can love things. But words I cannot love. That is why teachings are nothing for me. They have no hardness, no softness, no colors, no edges, no odor, no taste. They have nothing but words. Perhaps this is what prevents you from finding contentment — perhaps it is all the words. For liberation and virtue and samsara and nirvana are mere words, Govinda. There is no thing that is nirvana. There is only the word nirvana.”

Govinda said: “Nirvana is not only a word, friend, it is an idea.”

Siddhartha continued: “An idea it may be. But I must confess to you, my friend, I do not make a great distinction between ideas and words. Frankly, I do not have a high opinion of ideas either. I place more value on things. Here on this ferryboat, for example, I had a predecessor who was also my teacher, a holy man who for many a long year simply believed in the river and nothing else. He noticed that the voice of the river spoke to him. He learned from it. That voice brought him up and taught him. For him the river was a god. For many years he did not know that every wind, cloud, bird, or beetle is equally divine and knows and can teach just as much as the venerable river. But by the time this sainted man went off into the forest, he knew everything, knew more than you and I — without a teacher, without books, just because he believed in the river.”

Govinda said: “But is that which you call ‘thing’ something real, part of the essential nature of reality? Is it not only the deception of Maya, only image and appearance? Your stone, your tree, your river — are they truly realities?”

“This does not matter much to me either,” said Siddhartha. “Let things be mere appearances or not — if so, I too am a mere appearance, and then they are still my fellows and peers. That is what makes them so dear and worthy of veneration: They are my equals. That is why I can love them. And here now is a teaching you will find laughable: Love, for me, Govinda, is clearly the main thing. Let seeing through the world, explaining it, looking down on it, be the business of great thinkers. The only thing of importance to me is being able to love the world, without looking down on it, without hating it and myself — being able to regard it and myself and all beings with love, admiration, and reverence.”

“This I understand,” said Govinda. “But this is just what the Exalted One [Buddha] recognized as a deception. He advocated goodwill, consideration, compassion, and tolerance, but not love. He forbade us to bind our hearts to anything earthly through love.”

“I know,” said Siddhartha, his smile glowing like gold. “I know, Govinda. And with that we are smack in the middle of the jungle of opinions, disputing over words. For I cannot deny that my words about love contradict, or seemingly contradict, Gotama’s words. That is just the reason I so mistrust words, for I know this contradiction is an illusion. I know that I am in agreement with Gotama. How is it possible that he would not know love? He saw the transitoriness and emptiness of human existence, and yet he so loved human beings that he spent the whole of his long life working hard to help them and teach them. In the case of your great teacher, too, the thing is preferable to the words, his actions and his life more important than his words, the gestures of his hand more important than his views. It is not in his speech and thought that I see his greatness, but only in his action, his life.”

The two old men were silent for a long time. Then Govinda said, as he bowed his farewell: “Thank you, Siddhartha, for having told me something of your ideas. They are in part curious ideas; not all of them were immediately comprehensible for me. But be that as it may, I thank you and wish you days of peace.”

(But secretly he thought to himself: This Siddhartha is a strange man, the ideas he expresses are strange, his teaching is so much foolishness. The pure teaching of the Exalted One is different — clearer, purer, more understandable. There is nothing in it that is bizarre, foolish, or preposterous. But Siddhartha’s hands and feet, his eyes, his forehead, his breathing, his smile, his greeting, and his gait strike me entirely differently than his ideas. Never since our exalted Gotama entered nirvana have I encountered anyone of whom I felt: This is a saint! Only he, Siddhartha, has impressed me this way. Though his teaching is strange, though his words sound foolish, his gaze and his hand, his skin and his hair, everything about him radiates purity, calm, cheerfulness, moderation, and holiness. I have not seen anyone else like this since the death of our venerable teacher.)

As Govinda was thinking these thoughts, with conflicting impressions in his heart, he was drawn by love to bow to Siddhartha once again. Low he bowed before the man calmly sitting there.

“Siddhartha,” he said, “we have become old men. It is unlikely that we will see each other in this body again. I see, my beloved friend, that you have found peace. I confess that I have not done so. Tell me a little more, revered one, give me something to take that I can grasp, that I can understand! Give me something to take with me on my way. My way is often onerous, Siddhartha, often grim.”

Siddhartha remained silent and looked at him with his unchanging, quiet smile. Govinda looked into his face fixedly, with fear and longing. Suffering and perpetual seeking were written in his face, and perpetual failure to find.

Siddhartha saw this and smiled.

“Bend down to me!” he whispered softly in Govinda’s ear. “Bend down to me! Closer! All the way! Kiss me on the forehead, Govinda!”

While Govinda, stunned but nevertheless magnetized by great love and anticipation, obeyed his words, bent over him, and touched his lips to his forehead, a marvelous thing happened to him. While his thoughts were still dwelling on Siddhartha’s strange words, while he was still vainly and with some resistance attempting to think away time, mentally to represent nirvana and samsara as one, while indeed a certain disregard for his friend’s words warred in him with inconceivable love and respect, the following thing happened to him:

He ceased to see his friend Siddhartha’s face. In its stead he saw other faces, many, a long series, a flowing river of faces, hundreds, thousands, which all came and went, and yet all seemed to be there at once, which all constantly changed and became new ones, and yet were all Siddhartha. He saw the face of a fish, a carp, with its maw opened in limitless pain, a dying fish with bursting eyes. He saw the face of a newborn child, red and covered with wrinkles, distorted by crying. He saw the face of a murderer, saw him stick a knife into a person’s body. In the same instant, he saw this criminal kneeling in chains and his head being cut off by an executioner with a sword. He saw the bodies of men and women naked in the postures and battles of ravenous lovemaking. He saw corpses stretched out — still, cold, vacant. He saw animal heads, heads of boars, crocodiles, elephants, bulls, and birds. He saw gods — Krishna and Agni. He saw all these forms and faces in a thousand relationships to one another, each helping the others, hating them, destroying them, giving birth to them again. Each was a death urge, a passionate and painful confession of impermanence, yet none died; each only transformed, was continually born anew, continually became a new face, yet without any time gap between one face and the other. And all these forms and faces rested, flowed, were begotten, floated onward, and flowed into one another. And over everything something thin, inessential yet existing, was continuously drawn, like thin glass or ice, like a transparent skin, a sheath or mold or mask of water. The mask was smiling, and the mask was Siddhartha’s smiling face, which he, Govinda, was touching with his lips in this self-same instant. Thus Govinda saw the smile of the mask, the smile of unity over the flowing forms, the smile of simultaneity over the myriad births and deaths. This smile of Siddhartha’s was exactly the same, resembled exactly the still, refined, impenetrable, perhaps-kind-perhaps-disdainful, wise, thousandfold smile of Gotama the Buddha, just as he himself, awestruck, had seen it a hundred times. So Govinda knew, this is the way the Perfect Ones smile.

No longer knowing if time existed, whether this vision had lasted a second or a hundred years, no longer knowing whether such a thing as a Siddhartha or a Gotama or an I-and-you existed, as though wounded at the quick by a divine arrow whose wound tasted sweet, befuddled and unstrung deep in his inmost being, Govinda remained bent over Siddhartha’s still face — which he had just finished kissing, which had just been the scene of all form, all becoming, all being — for a little while longer. That countenance was unchanged, its surface having reclosed over the depths of thousandfold multiplicity. Siddhartha smiled quietly, smiled mildly and gently, perhaps with kindness, perhaps quite disdainfully, precisely as the Exalted One had smiled.

Govinda bowed low. Tears of which he was unaware ran down his aged face. A feeling of most profound love and most humble veneration burned like a fire in his heart. He bowed low, down to the ground, before the motionless, sitting figure whose smile reminded him of everything he had ever loved in his life, of everything in his life that had ever been worthy and sacred for him.