I think I first read Siddhartha, the little classic novel by Hermann Hesse, in college, in the early seventies. I read it again in 1998. Then again this week. It's the story of a well born boy in India who is handsome, highly intelligent, well liked, and by all appearances effortlessly successful in everything he does. But he's not happy inside. Despite what seems to be an easy path of Brahmin life, through study and eventually a sort of priestly vocation, Siddhartha decides to renounce all his privileges and go into the forest as a Samana, or beggar. The idea is to minimize the physical in order to get in touch with the spiritual and find both meaning and happiness. His best friend Govinda joins him. They go in search of spiritual teachings that will bring them meaning, purpose and fulfillment, and continue on this path for three years. But they don't find what they're looking for.
And then they hear of a great teacher, the Buddha, who has broken free of all illusion and has attained the goal of true wisdom and happiness. They go to meet him. He shows inner peace in everything he does. His words are attractive. Govinda wants to become one of his followers. Siddhartha can't. He is immensely impressed with the Buddha but senses somehow that what he needs is not more teaching, or more words, from anyone, but a different path, one that's distinctively his.
The childhood friends part company. Siddhartha moves on, and comes to a town where he sees Kamala, a stunningly beautiful young woman and richly attired courtesan who, as a profession, teaches the art of love. He ardently wants to be her student. But she's unwilling to practice her art with a dirty, ragged beggar. She will see him only if he wears beautiful clothes and shoes, and is bathed and perfumed, with his hair fixed in the way of the wealthy. He then quickly attains these things as effortlessly as he's gained anything in the world that he's ever set as a goal - other than, of course, enlightenment, which alone seems to have eluded him. And he becomes Kamala's best student ever. He learns to play at love as an artist. And in order to continue with her, he learns also to play at business, as another art, or nearly a sport. He flourishes in all outward ways. But he's still not happy at his core. He grows to love Kamala but to hate what he's become in order to win her.
One day, Siddhartha leaves again for the forest. But this time, he's so distraught over what he's become in his pursuit of wealth and worldly pleasure that he feels suicidal. He meets a ferryman at a wide river and, to his great surprise, this man becomes the person who leads him to the enlightenment he has always sought, but who does so more with actions than with words. The ferryman isn't a teacher or preacher so much as a listener. And because of this he shows Siddhartha how to listen - at first to the river, and then to any living thing, and to hear and see and find within the nature and people around him the universal pattern and unity of all things that has otherwise eluded him.
In the Bhagavad Gita, a charioteer is the source of wisdom and enlightenment. In The Legend of Bagger Vance, it's a golf caddy. In this story, it's a river ferryman. All are servants. All are people who help others to move toward their goals. And in all three stories, the simple servant is the source of enlightenment. Because a good servant listens, he can then speak in such a way as to direct the seeker toward his goal. And that's a lesson worth pondering for those among us who want to help others accomplish the right things in their lives.
Siddhartha is a book you can read multiple times, a short tale of 122 pages in the old edition I own. And it's provocative. You won't agree with everything in it, but it can stimulate your own thoughts about life and love, work and wealth, meaning, purpose, and happiness.