Friday, October 14, 2011

Siddhartha - Hermann Hesse

This is a book that appears to be about Gautama Buddha or based on Buddha’s life. But it is not. The only thing in this story that bears any semblance to Buddha’s life is the way it begins. With a seeker. The paths traversed by the two and the ends reached have nothing in common.

Siddhartha, a seeker, leaves the comfort of his home to find.
He follows different paths thereon; paths that are divergent, even conflicting.
He becomes an ascetic and leads a life of self denial, he indulges in a beautiful courtesan, he becomes associated with a rich merchant and works for him, he plays dice...

In the end he realizes (and this redeems the story that is otherwise nothing remarkable, nothing novel) that seeking in itself is a folly, even if it is Nirvana that you are seeking.
Most of us agree that seeking money, seeking power, seeking pleasure lead to misery. And we believe that seeking Nirvana/Salvation/Deliverance must be the purpose of our lives.
But we are mistaken in believing so. Even when we seek Nirvana, we are still ‘seeking’ and seeking itself leads to misery and most of the time, leads to nowhere.
The answer to our quest lies in Being. Simply Being. And not seeking.
This idea of the author, appearing at the very end of the book, strikes you as novel. It is convincing and it is this in the end that redeems the book.


This is the trouble with most people attempting to introduce a change and novelty to mankind, to the society.
Instead of changing or replacing the one thing that is wrong, they categorically dismiss the prevailing theory and practise in their enthusiasm to embrace the new. They rush headlong towards the new and go overboard.

Champions of women’s liberation rushed headlong in their sympathy for women and created laws that were overly in favour of women with the result that too many men have become victims of false dowry cases.
Champions of the ‘Untouchables’ rushed headlong and created the reservation policy with the result that men of merit remained unemployed while offices began to be filled with incompetent rustics.
Champions of the minorities in this country rushed headlong to protect them with the result that the Hindu is a victim of pseudo-secularism today with no one to voice his cause.

This book too, I feel goes overboard at places.

The very first one being ‘Brahmin beating’.
“...He knew that he would not become an ordinary Brahmin, a lazy sacrificial official, an avaricious dealer in magic sayings, a conceited worthless orator, a wicked sly priest, or just a good stupid sheep amongst a large herd...”
A nonsensical generalization.

“Wisdom is not communicable. The wisdom which a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish. Knowledge can be communicated but not wisdom. One can find it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one can’t communicate and teach it.
I suspected this and this drove me away from teachers“
The first few lines make sense, the conclusion is where he goes overboard. There is no need to dismiss teachers and teaching. There are only a handful of people in this world who learn on their own or, learn from life. Most of them need the handholding of a teacher.

“I can love a stone, a tree or a piece of bark. These are things and one can love things. But one cannot love words. Therefore teachings are of no use to me; they have no hardness, no softness, no colours, corners, smell, taste – they have nothing but words...”
His advises you to ‘accept everything’ elsewhere and here he rejects words and teachings. Is it good, is it necessary to resent or reject something?

“I do not attach importance to thoughts either. I attach importance to things”
It would have sufficed to say that one should not be entangled in thoughts, that one should transcend thoughts; it was not necessary to say thoughts were not important.

These are a few examples. There are a few more in the book.

The popularity of the book is perhaps owing to its success with western readers. I don’t mean to be jingoistic but there isn’t anything in the book that should blow away us Indians. I felt this way when I finished reading Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist too.

Read it anyway.


...One must find the source within one’s own Self, one must possess it. Everything else was seeking – a detour, error...

...Om is the bow, the arrow is the soul,
Brahman is the arrow’s goal,
At which one aims unflinchingly...

...He travelled the way of self denial through meditation, through the emptying of the mind of all images...

...What is meditation? What is abandonment of the body? What is fasting? What is the holding of breath? It is a flight from the Self, it is a temporary escape from the torment of Self. It is a temporary palliative against the pain and folly of life. A driver of oxen drinking wine makes this same flight...

...One can learn nothing.
In the essence of everything, there is something that we cannot call learning. There is only a knowledge – that is everywhere, that is Atman, that is in me and you and in every creature, and this knowledge has no worse enemy than the man of knowledge, than learning...

...Let me warn you, you who are thirsty for knowledge, against the thicket of opinions and the conflict of words...

...Through thought alone, feelings become knowledge and are not lost, but become real and begin to mature...

...Meaning and reality are not hidden somewhere behind things, they are in them, in all of them...

...When anyone reads anything he wishes to study, he does not despise the letters and punctuation marks, and call them illusion, chance and worthless shells, but he reads them, he studies and loves them, letter by letter. To call the world of appearances, illusion is similar...

...To go through the world like a child, so awakened, so concerned with the immediate, without any distrust...

...He had never found his Self, because he wanted to trap it in the net of thoughts...

...The art of love in which, more than anything else, giving and taking become one...

...Most people are like a falling leaf that drifts and turns in the air, flutters, and falls to the ground. But a few others are like stars which travel one defined path: no wind reaches them; they have within themselves their guide and path...

...River’s secret - the water continually flowed and flowed and yet it was always there; it was always the same and yet every moment it was new...

...He learned to listen – with a still heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinions...

...A secret from the river – there is no such thing as time – the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future...

...The river has very many voices – voice of a king, of a warrior, of a bull, of a nightbird, of a pregnant woman and sighing man, more...

...The voice of river was the voice of life, of being, of perpetual becoming...

...Gentleness is stronger than severity, water is stronger than rock, love is stronger than force...

...When he answered his rudeness with a smile, every insult with friendliness, every naughtiness with kindness, that was the most hateful cunning of the old fox...

...All the simple, foolish, but tremendously strong, vital passionate urges and desires no longer seemed trivial to Siddhratha. For their sake, he saw people live and do great things, travel, conduct wars, suffer and endure immensely...

...the goal of seeking – a preparation of the soul, a capacity, a secret art of thinking, feeling and breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of life...

...Disclosing his wound to his listener was the same as bathing it in the river, until it became cool and one with the river...

...When Siddhartha listened to this song of thousand voices; when he did not listen to the sorrow or laughter, when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his Self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om – perfection...

...perhaps you seek too much and as a result of your seeking you cannot find...

...When someone is seeking, he only sees the thing that he is seeking; he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means to have a goal but finding means to be free to be receptive to have no goal. In striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose...

...When Buddha taught about the world, he divided it into Sansara and nirvana, illusions and truth, suffering and salvation. The world is never one sided. Never is a man wholly Sansara or wholly Nirvana, never wholly saint or wholly sinner. This seems so because we suffer the illusion that time is real. Time is not real. If time isn’t real then the dividing line that seems to lie between this world and eternity suffering and bliss, good and evil is also an illusion.
I am a sinner and someday sinner will be Brahma again, someday attain Nirvana, someday become a Buddha. This someday is an illusion. The sinner is not on the way to a Buddha like state; he is not evolving, although our thinking cannot conceive things otherwise. No, the potential Buddha already exists in the sinner; his future is already there. The potential hidden Buddha must be recognized in him. The world is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. It is perfect at every moment; every sin already carries grace within it, all small children are potential old men, all sucklings have death within them and all dying people – eternal life...

...therefore everything that exists is good – death life, sin, holiness, wisdom and folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me...

‘...this is a stone, and after sometime it will become soil and from the soil it will become plant, animal or man. Previously, I would have said, ‘this is just a stone; it has no value, it belongs to the world of Maya, but perhaps because within the cycle of change it can also become man and spirit, it is also of importance.’ But now I think. ‘this stone is stone; it is also animal, god and Buddha. I do not respect and love it because it was one thing and will become something else, but because it has already long been everything and always is everything. I love it just because it is a stone. I see value and meaning in each one of its fine markings and cavities...’

...“I can love a stone, a tree or a piece of bark. These are things and one can love things. But one cannot love words. Therefore teachings are of no use to me; they have no hardness, no softness, no colours, corners, smell, taste – they have nothing but words...I do not attach importance to thoughts either. I attach importance to things”
‘What you call a thing, is it not Maya?’
‘If it is illusion, then I also am illusion, and so they are always of the same nature as myself‘...

...Love is the most important thing in the world. It may be important to great thinkers to examine the world, to explain and despise it. But it is only important to love the world...

...I distrust words for their contradiction is also an illusion...

Friday, October 07, 2011

Not Bribing Is Not Enough

The bus stopped before a closed gate guarded by an old man in Khaki. Beyond the gate, the road narrowed, retreating, as if to return the green flanking its sides, their rightful territory. We could not wait to enter. There was the pregnant silence that falls upon the proximity of any deep water body.
But the board fastened to the gate clearly said the entry was restricted, that public vehicles were not allowed. This was perhaps because the area was sensitive; there was a dam ahead built across the sea-like Bhadra river.

One of the boys got down and spoke to the guard – requesting him to open the gate and let the bus in. The guard obviously refused, pointing to the board. The alternative was for everybody in the bus to get down and walk to our destination – the dam.

After some more persuasion, the boy came back to announce emphatically that the guard had asked for 20 rupees!
‘He is asking for bribery and we shall not pay him. We have to fight corruption’.
All of them in the bus (with the exception of a few including yours truly) agreed that they had to fight corruption and would not pay him 20 rupees. No way!
This was the same crowd that had participated in some procession to demonstrate support for Anna Hazare a few days ago.

Since most of them haven’t learnt a line of Kannada though they have lived here for years, I was called to negotiate with the guard who spoke only Kannada.

I digress briefly here - on the subject of people from other states not caring to learn the local language, it may be noted that there is no uniformity in the scruples of people. They are scrupulous when it comes to fighting corruption by refusing to pay 20 rupees to an underpaid old guard, but feel no obligation (scruples) to learn the language of the soil off which they live. Another instance of how we make fragments of the ‘Whole’ for our convenience – about which I have written before.

So back to my story, I jumped down and hurried to the guard, having already worked in my mind what I was going to do. The boys around me suggested that I make a case out of the aunties in the bus who would not be able to walk all the way.
I did. Secretly willing him to shake his head.
He shook his head.
And then I asked if he wanted some money. How much did he want?
‘How can I ask?... As much as you please... something for coffee...’
The boys around stood gaping at us. I was sure they were not following a word.
‘Do one thing. Open the gate now. When the bus returns I will hand 20 rupees to the bus driver. He will extend his hand out. Collect it from him’.
He nodded.
There was a cheer from everyone as we jumped backed into the bus.
‘He has agreed. Sowmya spoke to him in Kannada. We are not paying anything.’
I, the negotiator became the saviour and everyone’s favourite that day, as the bus rolled on and the Bhadra river stretching all the way to the horizon received us in all its grey-blue calm.

So why did I do what I did?

Before that, what is corruption?
The answer to that is easy. Sure, bribery (among many other forms...) is corruption.
But what is not corruption? When are you ‘clean’? The answer to that is not so straightforward.
You may not pay the guard the bribe he asked for, but if you negotiate with him to get the bus inside, you are still corrupt. Because you are breaking the rule. A rule that was made for security reasons.
Whether you break the rule by paying a bribe or by appealing to his sympathy or a soft corner of his heart, you are still breaking the rule.
You are clean only when you learn of a rule and follow it without questioning.
The minute you attempt to negotiate around it, either by the use of polite words or the use of money or influence, you become corrupt.

That day, when people felt triumphant about ‘finding a solution without paying a bribe’, this narrow and limited view of corruption that most people seem to have, became stark.

So when the accounts closed for that day, were we deemed corrupt? If yes, then what made us corrupt?
May be yes. May be we were corrupt but not so much because we paid the guard a bribe of 20 rupees, as much because we violated a rule and compromised security.

As for the act of paying the guard the amount of 20 rupees, this calls for some analysis to put matters in perspective.
All that is legally incorrect need not be morally incorrect too.
A line comes to my mind – something about ‘the amount of crime in a sin and the amount of sin in a crime’. I will add to this by saying further that, a crime itself should not be the basis of judgment but the mount of sin a crime should be the basis of judgment.

It is said that Indira Gandhi started corruption in the country. During her regime, income tax of up to 90% was levied on people. People had no other way to make ends meet than by making black money.
Those people could be called criminals but what was the amount of sin in their crime? Not much.

Coming to my story, how much does a security guard working for the government earn in a month? 2000 Rupees?
How much did we, employees of a software company, earn a month? Anything between 30000 to 40000 Rupees? And that wasn’t enough for some of them - they had resigned for more money; there were no other compelling reasons - a few lakhs of rupees more every year.
So who was the greedier of the two? He who wanted 20 rupees for coffee/chai or he who wanted ten thousand more month on month for buying car, gold, designer clothes, movie tickets in an air conditioned multiplex?
Should we embark on the subject of most of these commodities having gone beyond the reach of that guard because of us who consumed recklessly causing prices to increase?

Being in our position, saturated as pythons, it was easy enough for us to oppose bribery and fight corruption, but to the guard, window shopping through most of his life, honesty should be humongous effort. In the larger context, the true measure of each one’s performance is how much each one has to stretch in this world relative to others.

So what should we have done that day to feel proud of ourselves?
We should have paid him not 20 but 200 rupees but stopped the bus outside the restricted area in respect for the rule and walked to our destination.

Sounds silly?