One of the books that has had a profound influence on me and continues to inspire me to live my life is a novel by Hermann Hesse called Siddhartha. The novel primarily “deals with the spiritual journey of self-discovery of a man named Siddhartha during the time of the Gautama Buddha.”
Even though it’s a work of fiction, I found the ideas discussed in the novel to be directly applicable to one’s life. Before I read Siddhartha, I was living under the influence of existentialism. It may sound rather cocky but I had independently formulated some of the core ideas of existentialism even before knowing what the term meant or being aware of writers such as Sartre and Camus. In particular, my views were somewhat similar to absurdism, that our life and the world is inherently meaningless save for the meaning we chose to give. I felt giving any meaning to the world and life was pointless. I spent sometime thinking of some intellectual argument to counter this belief but was having a hard time. This belief ultimately impacted my behavior and attitude. I was drawn into a strange isolation and had little to no desire to do anything in and of my life.
Siddhartha changed all of that. Reading Siddhartha did not have an immediate impact. As time progressed, my experiences grew. Reflecting on Siddhartha eventually allowed for a serious transformation to come about. I apologize for the spoiler, so please don’t read further if you wish to read Siddhartha.
Towards the end of the book, Siddhartha encounters his childhood friend, Govinda, who too like Siddhartha was seeking enlightenment. After a long discussion, Siddhartha asks Govinda to kiss his forehead. As Govinda does it reluctantly, he is overcome by a powerful vision in which he sees a thousand different things.
The vision experienced by Govinda made me think about life itself. I had this sudden realization that the meaning of life can only be understood as a unity of experiences. I realized a fundamental problem with the version of absurdist position I had in my mind. Basically, any discussion about the meaning of life will be based on a limited set of experiences. Given our experiences are limited but constantly increasing, the definite conclusion that life has no inherent meaning does not sound completely accurate. As our experience grow and as we are able to organically integrate our experiences, our understanding of the meaning of life will, in all probability, evolve. Therefore, the apparent absurdity of the world and our life is only a function of our limited knowledge and experience. It’s still fairly possible that life may have no meaning at all. However, if life has a definite, objective meaning, it can only be uncovered by striving to increase our repertoire of life-affirming experiences and trying to holistically unite them.
Siddhartha’s life was like that. He experienced different aspects of life. From being a student to being an ascetic; a lover, a father, a businessman who ended up being a hedonist only to become a sage at a later stage. It was only through experiencing life in all its richness was he able to reach his own sense of enlightenment.
I felt that one can potentially choose any path in life, in any order, to achieve enlightenment. The word enlightenment for me, basically, translates as finding the meaning of life. The meaning of life may change from person to person but this Siddharthic approach offered a real possibility to my mind of finding a meaning that might well be universal. That is, seeing life as one and continuous; as an integrated whole that is constantly growing and evolving.
However, more importantly, reflecting on Siddhartha helped me get out of the existentialist rut I was stuck in. It gave my live a whole new perspective and provided impetus to take action.
Now that I am 30 years old, married man with a child, I often reflect back on my University life. Hanging out with female friends on Valentine’s Day, playing cards in our spare time, having alcoholic drinks with my friend on his rooftop or just basking in the mild winter sun in my hometown are all unique experiences of life. In isolation, they may not represent anything significant about human life. But in moments of deep introspection, they coalesce together to form an organic unity of sorts and offer a glimpse of the ineffable we yearn for. It’s like a Govinda-experience.
But it’s also like being hit by a wave of nostalgia; a variation on the Proustian ‘episode of the madeleine’ that not only makes us vividly relive the memory but, in a Deleuzian sense, teaches us to use ‘signs’ to communicate and understand reality.
This is the philosophical aspect of trying to experience life in all its possible richness. The spiritual aspect is to achieve some level of sensibility and satisfaction in an otherwise tumultuous and transitory life.
Of course, fundamentalist Muslims will clamp down on any experience that even slightly deviates from the puritanical interpretation of Islam. I strongly disagree with Islam on that front and have blogged about it in numerous posts such as ‘Be drunk’ and ‘Allergic to Halal’.
Reflecting on my experiences, beliefs and values along with the state of affairs in Pakistan, I think it’s not a safe place for a free-thinking, free-spirit such as myself. Time and again, I hear news of people being killed, who questioned (Sabeen) or challenged (QB) the prevalent norms. Much as I wish for the situation to improve, I don’t see it happening. According to the 2016 Annual Report of United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), “more people are on a death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy in Pakistan than in any other country in the world.”
Furthermore, USCIRF finds that Pakistan meets the IRFA’s (International Religious Freedom Act of 1998) standard for “countries of particular concern” (CPC).
I pray to myself that the God within all of us sees this madness and tries to put an end to it. Amen!