Hermann Hesse’s classic novel Siddhartha is a tale of death and rebirth. Not literally, but figuratively. The title character repeatedly dies to one way of life and is reborn in another. Siddhartha begins the story as the most promising student among the Brahmins, the caste into which he was born. Dissatisfied with their teachings and sensing that none of the Brahmins has achieved enlightenment, Siddhartha decides to leave his father’s house to join a group of wandering ascetics, the Samanas. Siddhartha’s father realises that he could forbid the boy to go, but he understands that keeping his son at home would only result in resentment.
So, in a wise and judicious bit of parenting, the father tells the son to return home if he finds what he is seeking among the Samanas so that he can teach it to him. The father adds that if Siddhartha does not find what he is looking for among the Samanas he should also return home and they will make the appropriate sacrifices to set things right. Alas, Siddhartha never returns home.
Siddhartha is reborn as a Samana and quickly masters their practices of self-deprivation and meditation, but he finds only temporary escape from himself. Siddhartha and his friend Govinda take leave of the Samanas and seek the Buddha, who offers a different path to enlightenment. Govinda is reborn as a follower of the Buddha, but Siddhartha has become skeptical of all teachers and teachings. Thus, he leaves his friend behind and wanders aimlessly for a time before crossing a river with the aid of a ferryman.
On the other side he beholds Kamala, a beautiful courtesan, and is reborn in his desire to learn lovemaking from her. As always, he proves an apt pupil. To afford his new lifestyle, Siddhartha becomes a merchant, and soon he is rich and successful. As the years pass, though, he grows tired of the excess and indulgence, and he longs for the kind of serenity he beheld in the Buddha. Siddhartha had once remarked that the brief escape from himself through self-deprivation taught by the Samanas could likewise be found by throwing dice and patronising prostitutes. Much as he had become sick of life with the Samanas, he is now sick of his life with Kamala. The escape from himself, from his ego, is only ever temporary. He has been caught in a cycle of suffering akin to the wheel of rebirth.
Returning to the river and nearly drowning himself, Siddhartha awakens after a deep sleep and decides to seek the ferryman who once guided him across. Much like the Buddha, the ferryman’s serenity indicates his enlightenment. Unlike anyone else Siddhartha has met, though, the ferryman has no teachings to offer. Instead he simply listens to the river; in the sound of the river he hears the harmony of all things converging to produce the sacred syllable, om. Indeed, Siddhartha is reborn as the ferryman’s apprentice, but one more challenge awaits. There is a brief reunion with Kamala near the river, but she dies, leaving Siddhartha with a son he didn’t know he had.
Finally, Siddhartha experiences love with all the pain and heartache that love inevitably involves. His son wants nothing to do with him and certainly wants no part of his simple life of self-denial by the river. On one level Siddhartha knows that the boy would be happier back in the town where he was raised, among familiar people and in comfortable circumstances. But he sees his own headstrong nature in the boy, and he can foresee the mistakes the boy will make and the suffering he will endure. As a loving parent, he wants to save his son from this fate.
Siddhartha regretted none of his own past mistakes, because they were all part of the journey of continual rebirth that led him to his destination. Nonetheless he could not resist the temptation to protect his son from making his own mistakes, learning his own lessons, and walking his own path of self-discovery. Sensing that he would never be free if he stayed with his father, the son (little Siddhartha) flees. Unable to find his son, Siddhartha mourns the loss. The boy, though, did what needed to be done.
In the midst of his grief one day, Siddhartha catches sight of his reflection in the river. The face staring back at him is not his own, however, but his father’s. Yes, Siddhartha has aged such that he now looks like his father, but more importantly he now understands his father in a way he never did before. Siddhartha’s father loved him, but he let him go, let him find his own way, walk his own path. Siddhartha only now understands the depth of parental love, and he surely regrets the sorrow his father must have felt in never knowing what became of his son.
We readers are left to wonder what happens to Siddhartha’s own son. Siddhartha himself remains by the river, reaches enlightenment under the guidance of the ferryman, and is even reunited with his old friend Govinda. But there is not a word more about the son. I have taught the novel many times over the years, and I always ask students what they imagine happens to the son. Details vary, but most students imagine that much suffering awaits him. Prodded by my own parental concerns and mourning the loss of my own father, I have written a sequel to Hesse’s classic. It’s titled Little Siddhartha, and it traces the life trajectory of Siddhartha’s son. But aside from the story I tell in the sequel, I’ve been moved to consider the art of parenting.
Siddhartha’s father was wise in letting him go to join the Samanas, and he seemed to have a fool proof plan, telling his son to return whether he succeeds or fails. Of course, even the best laid plans can go awry. When Siddhartha did not return home, his father may have imagined that something terrible happened to his son. The truth is, though, that Siddhartha was ultimately fine, in fact enlightened. And we really can’t blame Siddhartha for not returning home at any point. His quest was not complete when he failed to find what he was looking for among the Samanas. Nor was it complete at any other point along his winding path until the end of the story when he reached enlightenment. Still, during his many years of wandering, he could have sent letters home to at least assure his parents that he was alive. But the story would be less poignant if he had. For dramatic purposes it is better that he fails to give thought to his father until he sees his father’s face in his own reflection.
My father died 10 years ago when my children were quite young, 5 and 3. I often imagine how delighted my father would have been to see them as they have grown and changed. But more importantly, when my children have difficulties or make mistakes, I think of how my father must have felt when I had tough times or made bad decisions. I feel like I can only understand my father fully now that I am a father myself, and the sad part is that my father is no longer here for me to tell him that.
Hesse’s Siddhartha has spoken to me since I first read it in high school, and I have re-read it many times since then. Unsurprisingly, as an adolescent and young adult I found inspiration in Siddhartha’s boldness and willingness to shun conformity. Siddhartha’s ultimate enlightenment eludes me, of course. Maybe when I am an old man I will see the unity of all things and hear the sounds of nature converge in the syllable om. I sometimes imagine that is what it will be like on my deathbed. But for now, in middle age, I am stuck in the cycle of suffering.
I would not trade parenthood for enlightened bliss, however. I suffer with and through my children, as all parents do. Thanks to Siddhartha, though, I see parenthood as a process of letting go. The image that stays with me is teaching my children to ride a bike. For hours I held on to the back of the bike as they pedalled. As their confidence grew, I would let go of the bike without telling them. They would continue to pedal on their own for a short distance before falling, sometimes scraping a knee. Then we would do it again, and I would promise to hold on. After a few more surprise releases and unhappy falls, they would be riding on their own. I had given them the instruments of their own liberation, and they could now ride around the neighbourhood. Of course, that only increased my own anxiety, but that is what parenting is about: holding on and then letting go.
In the story, Siddhartha wanted to save his son from making the same mistakes he had. All parents want to keep their children safe, and where possible we smooth the roads in front of them. But sometimes we inadvertently harm our children this way. Our children need to make their own mistakes. One of the surprises of parenthood for me is that my children don’t always repeat my mistakes; they make their own. Siddhartha wanted to turn his son into a mini-me, saving him from suffering, and taking him straight to enlightenment. Based on my own experience, I don’t think that would have suited either of them.
My son and daughter are unique individuals. Sometimes to my chagrin, they have no interest in the things I was passionate about at their age and that I am still passionate about. This means that they are not tempted or troubled in the same ways that I was and that I am. Instead, they are tempted and troubled in ways that are alien to me, at least until I think about my father. After all, I was a strange son, who had interests and troubles that were foreign to him. How I wish my father were here to guide me now. He could tell me a lot about how to handle such situations. Even though I can’t ask him, I can remember him. He wasn’t a perfect father, but he let me walk my own path. I didn’t realise it at the time, but he exercised great restraint in not telling me how foolish some of my pursuits were. He supported me as I wandered and found my way; he helped to pick me up when I fell; and he never said, “I told you so.” Ultimately, he was proud of the unique individual I became, and he was supremely proud to be a grandfather.
Siddhartha teaches another powerful lesson, one that I share with my children: it is good to change. Not all children rush headlong toward the next stage of life. Some cling to what is familiar and comfortable. Despite being bold in some ways, I was that kind of child and adolescent. My father had grown up much more quickly on the streets of Brooklyn in the 1940s and 1950s. My sheltered suburban existence combined with maternal dependence worried him. I must have seemed years behind the developmental curve to him when it came to things like getting a job and finding a girlfriend. But he kept his mockery good natured, and he probably thought I was better off going slowly, as long as I caught up eventually.
I have not figuratively died and been reborn as many times as Siddhartha, but I have been able to re-create myself a few times. This is what I want for my children, the freedom and boldness to change while discovering who they are. Once again, I occupy my father’s perspective, as my children seem slow and sheltered. I want them to know that it is good to cross thresholds and experience rites of passage. Change is natural, and the past is not devalued by moving forward. You can always come home again, to your parents and to who you were and still are. Love sustains us; love supports us. Love lets go, and love never forgets.