Twelfth graders often groan at the start of “Siddhartha.” Written 100 years ago by Herman Hesse, the eponymous novel follows a young man — Siddhartha — from youth to old age as he searches for spiritual enlightenment.
The Common Core education standards place a heavy emphasis on students grappling with complex texts, and “Siddhartha” is loaded with complexity. I read it myself in high school — and it went right over my head.
Because the novel takes place in ancient India, the characters’ customs, religious beliefs and ways of life are usually unfamiliar to my Baltimore students. Hesse’s style also tends toward the ornate.
So why ask students who’ve grown up in sometimes-battered Baltimore neighborhoods to read an imposing, century-old novel written by a German author set long ago on the other side of the world?
In part, the answer is found in the words of literary critic Mark Schorer: “Learning to read novels, we slowly learn to read ourselves.”
This is one of “Siddhartha’s” virtues: The book coaxes us to look inward.
From the opening pages, we learn that Siddhartha is a high-caste Brahmin — the most respected group in Indian society. Just from the luck of birth, Siddhartha’s got it good: money, privilege, looks, education.
But he’s plagued with “restless thoughts” and “restlessness of the soul.”
Siddhartha isn’t chasing money or status. And he doesn’t want power over others. He’s after something bigger: nirvana and the freedom from suffering it promises.
As the novel unfolds, students begin to identify with Siddhartha’s aspirations. “He kind of opens your eyes because he really questions himself about how he’s living,” a senior named Jazmen said.
Early in his quest, Siddhartha leaves home and joins a group of wandering ascetics. As an ascetic, Siddhartha fasts for weeks at a time, refuses shelter, shuts down his sexual desires and lets his shoulders blister and ooze under the Indian sun while seeking ever deeper states of meditation.
Buddhism holds that the root of all suffering is desire. By letting go of his desires, Siddhartha hopes to find nirvana.
Students have lively debates when they test this idea against their own experiences and tease out the ways our desires — for status, for approval, for comforts, for shoring up our egos — sometimes take us out of our true selves and lead us astray. One student thought Siddhartha is “a dummy” for abandoning the comforts of his privileged upbringing. Another student, Trey, a reliably perceptive reader, understood Siddhartha’s motivations: “I don’t disagree with Siddhartha’s decision. A lot of people would appreciate life more if they knew what it was like not to have anything.”
In a nearby village, Siddhartha encounters Gotoma the Buddha. Here is the ultimate spiritual guru, “the enlightened one,” a figure who has attained the nirvana Siddhartha wants. Despite his adoring followers, the Buddha is indifferent to fame. He has no vanities that need soothing. He imitates no one, he doesn’t hold himself above or apart from others.
The Buddha offers another counterpoint to our Instagram culture. One student — a young man who usually prefers music over books — summed up the Buddha’s peculiar inner peace this way: “Some people get caught up trying to be something they’re not. When you’re not worried about impressing other people, you calm down and you can gain more knowledge.”
Soon, Siddhartha sets off again — alone and lonely, but determined to learn through his own experiences.
A student who plans to join the military connected with Siddhartha’s sense of purpose. He admired how Siddhartha could change course and adapt. “Not everyone can do that. You might get some people who say they wanna change, but they just keep doing the same thing.”
Does Siddhartha find nirvana? Does he find the self-knowledge he left his mother and father to pursue all those years before?
A century after “Siddhartha’s” publication, many twelfth graders in my Baltimore classroom discover they are eager to follow Siddhartha on his journey, pulled along by this character’s longing for something deeper and more meaningful.
Adam Schwartz’s (adamschwartzwriter.org) debut collection of stories, “The Rest of the World,” won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House 2020 prize for fiction. His nonfiction has appeared in the Sewanee Review, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Forward, The Baltimore Sun, New York Daily News, Bethesda Magazine, Washington Independent Review of Books and other publications. For 23 years, he has taught high school in Baltimore.