Siddhartha tells the story of a young boy in India, who everyone expects to become a Brahmin. He is praised and loved by the townspeople. Despite all his privilege, Siddhartha is unhappy; he yearns to experience enlightenment. One day, a group of samanas wanders into town. They believe that asceticism will lead to enlightenment. Siddhartha decides to follow them. Against his father’s will, he and his best friend, Govinda, go on a quest with the samanas. Siddhartha succeeds in renouncing worldly pleasures, but he realizes that the other samanas have failed to reach enlightenment. Govinda and Siddhartha decide to search for Gotama, the enlightened one. This is when the two friends split up; Govinda chooses to search for the meaning of life with the followers of Gotama, while Siddhartha pursues enlightenment without a teacher. Siddhartha travels to the city and embraces all the pleasures that he formerly denounced. He learns about love from a beautiful courtesan, Kamala. Siddhartha becomes rich as a businessman.
Realizing the material world has not brought him enlightenment, Siddhartha escapes to a river and meets a ferryman, Vasudeva. Years later, Kamala and her son, go on a pilgrimage to visit Gotama, who is dying. A snake bites Kamala. Siddhartha and Vasudeva try to save her, but she dies. Siddhartha realizes he is the father of the boy. He struggles to form a bond with his son, who rejects Siddhartha’s love and kindness. The boy runs and away, and Siddhartha remembers the pain he caused his father when he left home years ago. Siddhartha studies the river for many years and learns its many secrets. He has a revelation: Just as the water of the river flows into the ocean and is returned by rain, all forms of life are interconnected in a cycle without beginning or end. He reaches enlightenment. Govinda returns to the river seeking enlightenment. Govinda asks Siddhartha to teach him, but Siddhartha only tells Govinda to kiss him on the forehead. Govinda sees visions of unity and the two old men finally reached their lifelong goal.
POSSIBLE SUPPLEMENTAL TEXTS
“Little Buddha” – This film was released in 1994 and stars Keanu Reeves, Bridget Fonda, Chris Isaak, and Alex Wiesendanger. The story begins with two monks from Nepal, who travel to Seattle because they believe a ten-year-old boy may be the reincarnation of Buddha. The boy’s family is doubtful when the monks ask to bring the boy with them to Bhutan. The boy’s father has a religious awakening after his friend commits suicide and decides to go with his son to Bhutan with the monks. In Bhutan, the Lama Norbu tells the story of Siddhartha through a children’s book. Siddhartha is about to reach enlightenment, but a jealous demon plots ways to distract him. The demon tries to break Siddhartha’s determination by threatening him and bringing temptation his way. Siddhartha is able to defeat his demons through patience and tolerance, finally reaching enlightenment.
“Siddhartha” – This is the 1972 film adaptation of the book. It was directed by Conrad Rooks and shot in Northern India.
“500 Days of Summer” – This critically acclaimed film tells the story of a man’s relationship with his co-worker at a greeting card company. The movie chronicles 500 days of the two dating, Tom falling in love, and eventually breaking up because Summer does not believe in true love. After 290 days together, the couple breaks up. Tom is thrown into a depression that he can’t seem to get over; he hates his job and his life. Months later, the two meet again, and Tom is heart broken once again, when he finds out that Summer is engaged to another man. On day 488, the two see each other at Tom’s favorite spot in the city. Summer tries to explain her actions and why she did not love him; Tom does not understand, but he wishes her well. On day 500, Tom meets a new woman at a job interview, whose name is “Autumn” and he is finally able to move on with his life. I think it would be interesting to compare the characters in “500 Days of Summer” to Siddhartha and Kamala’s relationship. Summer, like Siddhartha, does not believe in love when we first meet her. She indulges in pleasures, but does not get attached to Tom because she does not see a future with him. In Buddhism, the concept of samsara is a cycle of rebirth and suffering; one must break the cycle in order to reach nirvana (the liberation from suffering). We can analyze how Tom is stuck in samsara, and it takes him 500 days to end his suffering. Summer, on the other had, was able to recognize their cycle of suffering, and free herself from it.
“The Story of the River” a poem by Thich Nhat Hanh – The river in Siddhartha is a symbol of life. The river teaches Siddhartha that as water continuously flows, so does the cycle of living things. “The Story of the River” is a poem that can be found in the book, Call Me By My True Names: the collected poems of Thich Nhat Hanh. The writer is a revered Buddhist monk, who writes about Buddhist ideals of life and peace. The poem uses a river as a symbol, which can be used to further delve into understanding the significance of the river in Siddhartha.
“The Peace of the Wild Things” a poem by Wendell Berry – This poem also uses water as a symbol and explores the theme of finding peace in nature. Unlike humans, other living beings in the wild do not suffer or think about grief. Siddhartha also wants to free himself from suffering. This poem can be used for strong analysis.
Journey to the East written by Hermann Hesse – This novel, by the same author, was published in 1932, ten years after Siddhartha. The story is told from the perspective of a man named “H.H.” He is a member of a religious group called “The League,” which also includes Vasudeva, the ferryman in Siddhartha. This group goes on a journey to the east in order to find the “Ultimate Truth.” Like Siddhartha, the two books play with the theme of transformation through despair. Siddhartha viewed other people who were not in a search for enlightenment as “children.” Similarly, the president of the League says, "Children live on one side of despair, the awakened on the other side" (106).
The Alchemist writtenby Paulo Coelho – Similar to Siddhartha, The Alchemist details the journey of a young boy, Santiago. Instead of searching for enlightenment, Santiago is on a quest for his “Personal Legend,” or one’s destiny. He travels away from home, and like Siddhartha, Santiago encounters love, opportunity, and disaster on his journey. He meets different people along the way who teach him different lessons about life. The journey he takes to Egypt unknowingly also becomes a spiritual journey. It would be interesting to compare and contrast the lives of Siddhartha and Santiago, and explore the theme of finding oneself.
Eat, Pray, Love written by Elizabeth Gilbert – This book is divided into three sections, exploring “One woman’s search for everything across Italy, India, and Indonesia.” A teacher could use this book to show a perspective of a woman who is searching to discover herself through spirituality. I would suggest focusing on the second section of the book, “Pray,” which narrates the woman’s journey in India. The film adaptation of the book was recently released in the summer of 2010, and could also be used.
The Lyrical Novel: Studies in Hermann Hesse, André Gide, and Virginia Woolf written by Ralph Freedman – Professor Ralph Freedman, of Princeton University, critically explores the works of Hermann Hesse. The book features three essays on lyrical novels. One the essays focus on Hermann Hesse, and his use of a hero who is a wanderer through space and time in his writings. This book can be helpful in comparing Hermann Hesse’s other works to Siddhartha, and locating similar themes.
http://www.barrsenglishclass.com/sidd.html This website has a unit on Siddhartha, with possible vocabulary and discussion questions for each chapter.
http://www.utexas.edu/cola/insts/southasia/_files/pdf/outreach/Javitch.pdf The lesson plans provided on this website were written by a Fulbright Scholar who studied in Sri Lanka. It also includes pre-reading vocabulary, very deep discussion questions, activities, and further readings. The first lesson plan connects the writer’s experiences in Sri Lanka to the issue of poverty.
This is the website of Hermann Hesse. It includes a biography and timeline of the author.
http://www.pbs.org/edens/thailand/buddhism.htm This website gives an introduction of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, The Four Noble Truths, karma, and the cycle of rebirth. Understanding Buddhism will be useful in better understanding Siddhartha’s journey to enlightenment.
http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/siddhartha.html This website is a condensed story of the Siddhartha and his journey in becoming the Buddha. It explores the history of the beginning of Buddhism.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xV8xgWlZy0 Here is a clip of Siddhartha’s awakening in the movie, “Little Buddha,” showing him tempted by Mara’s daughters. There are also other links to the rest of the movie.
One activity that would be useful in allowing students to explore Siddhartha’s human struggles would be to write a postcard to some of the novel’s other characters. During the different stages of Siddhartha’s journey to enlightenment, he chooses to leave behind important/influential people in his life (i.e. his father, the samanas, Govinda, Kamala, and he decides to let his son go). Siddhartha chooses to not be bound by human relationships, and leaves these people when he realizes that his pursuit of enlightenment is leading him into another path away from them. With each person (or group of people, like the samanas, who is lived with in the forest), he was able to realize that he needed to take himself out of the relationship cycle in order to reach Nirvana. Students will write a letter from Siddhartha’s perspective, to a chosen character, explaining why he had to leave. The letter will be two paragraph’s long and should illustrate Siddhartha’s intentions and also update the person on what he has been up to since he moved away. For example, if the student chooses to write to Govinda, s/he would tell Govinda why he had to go on a separate path and also tell him what his life has been like while he is living in the city. On the front of the postcard, students will draw a symbol to represent where he is geographically and/or spiritually. These postcards will represent the different stages of Siddhartha’s life.
This activity will allow students to analyze the characters’ relationships in the story and how they affect Siddhartha’s transformation. This will also allow students to reflect on how one day they might have to leave relationships behind that hinder their own personal and spiritual growth. This is important for teenagers to think about, because many young people are afraid to break out of their group of friends or significant others who they do not share a positive relationship, in fear of being alone.
ASSESSMENT “A Soundtrack for Siddhartha’s Journey”
During road trips or adventures, people tend to have a musical play list to commemorate their journey. A summative assessment that could be used to have students further analyze Siddhartha, could be for them to create a soundtrack to represent Siddhartha’s transformation from a boy to a man and the struggles he encounters on his quest to enlightenment.
Students will make a ten song mixed CD for Siddhartha, if he were around today. For each song, they will explain why they included each of the ten songs on the play list. Each song will have a paragraph of an in-depth description as to why the student chose the song, using evidence from the themes, symbols, motifs, quotes, or situations that Siddhartha explored in the novel.
Requirements for assignment: 10 songs with the artist and song title listed on the CD fold, one paragraph explanation for each, use of lyrics to explain rationale, and an artistic cover for the soundtrack. I will provide each student with a blank CD to copy his or her soundtrack onto. For students who do not have computers or CD burners at home, we will have some in class workdays where they can use school computers to copy their CDs, but they must have a the list of songs prepared.
Possible themes, symbols, and motifs students may explore in music are: