Siddhartha by the River

I have been biking to the piers at Sunset Park to read Siddhartha while facing the upper bay of the Hudson River’s estuary.

I knew that Siddhartha’s encounter with the river would be the tale’s most moving chapter for me. I wanted to prepare for it by contemplating, as I read, the ebb and flow of the tides and the powerful current of the Hudson towards the Atlantic Ocean.

When Siddhartha first crosses the river with the help of a ferryman, this wise, simple man tells him: “Yes this is a very beautiful river. I love it more than anything else. I often listen to it. I often look into its eyes. I have always learned from it. One can learn a lot from a river.” And bidding the young seeker of wisdom farewell, the ferryman adds: “I have learned that too from the river: everything comes again! You too, samana, will come again.”

Siddhartha does return to the river, decades later. After having experienced sensual pleasure, wealth, and power, he feels a void where his heart should be, as if his core were a nest without a songbird.

I too have returned! In my case, to read Siddhartha. It has been four years since I first read Herman Hesse’s book of wisdom, during a stormy fall in New York City. Then, three years ago we lost my copy in Dubai. But that gave us the possibility to find a new one in a lovely bookshop in Delhi. That copy is safeguarded in a good home, just as its words are cherished in the reader’s loving heart.

Now I have a new copy here with me, in Brooklyn. I have been pondering its wisdom as if drinking from a fresh spring. Reading it again has been like encountering a good, old friend for conversation, companionship, and the comfort of quiet togetherness.

Meeting Siddhartha by the river has moved me again. After years of sensuality without love, Siddhartha returns to the riverbank spent, wishing to die. Entering the waters to drown, he hears the distant murmur of the sacred “om” and wishes to live again. He finds that “the bird, the cheerful source and voice in him, [was] alive,” and a songbird again nests in his heart. He finds his life-source, his zest, just like I found my soul in a singing cardinal last week.

Siddhartha “now loved everything and everyone, he was full of cheerful love for anything he saw. And it seemed to him now that he had been so ill earlier because he had been able to love nothing and no one.”

Siddhartha stays by the river, becoming the ferryman’s apprentice. From the river he learns to listen, to regard only the present in which everything is since time does not exist, and that all voices, all experiences, all joys and sorrows, merge into one, into Union.

Most importantly, he learns to love. In the autumn of his life, Siddhartha meets Govinda, the friend from his youth who asks the sage by the river whether he has a teaching. Siddhartha tells him:

“Love, O Govinda, seems paramount to me. Seeing through the world, explaining it, despising it, may be crucial to great thinkers. But all I care about is to be able to love the world, not to despise it, not to hate it or myself, to be able to view it and myself and all beings with love and admiration and awe.”

As I read the final page and close the book, to go on flowing along the river of my life, may these words remain close to my heart.

Hudson River’s Upper Bay, with a view to the Verrazzano-Narrow’s bridge. (Photo: LPC) [Cover: Bush Terminal Pier Park. Photo: Topiary Expert.]

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