The Perfect Smile and its Significance in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha

February 1, 2019 by Essay Writer

Symbolism is used commonly as a tool to express theme in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. The novel details the titular character’s search for enlightenment through experience and wisdom. It is when Siddhartha sees the smile of the Buddha that he recognizes enlightenment in someone for the first time. The smile becomes a motif of the book, seen again and again. This symbol of inner peace, wisdom, and happiness reflects Hesse’s theme of enlightenment and Siddhartha’s progress towards enlightenment.

The smile seen in Siddhartha’s journey reflects the inner peace of its wearer. Siddartha does not leave his home until his restlessness grows unbearable; when “his soul [is] not at peace” (Hesse 5). His hunger for inner peace does not stop with the Samanas, so he moves on again. When Siddhartha sees the Buddha for the first time, he is able to pick him out of the crowd by the fact that “his peaceful countenance [is] neither happy nor sad. He [seems] to be smiling gently inwardly” (Hesse 27). Siddhartha feels an outpouring of love for the Buddha, because the Buddha has the inner peace that Siddhartha has been seeking. Although Siddhartha cannot learn from the Buddha’s words, he takes note in the peaceful acceptance the Buddha displays in his smile. Later in the novel, when the majority of Siddhartha’s journey is over, his friend Kamala asks him, “‘Have you found peace?’” (Hesse 113). He answers simply with a smile. The idea of this smile continues with Siddhartha on his journey because to be able to smile in a truly peaceful, gentle, and accepting way is to be enlightened.

While Siddhartha’s journey towards enlightenment is one for peace, it is also centered around the idea of wisdom, symbolized by the perfect smile. Siddhartha learns quickly that “knowledge has no worse enemy than the man of knowledge, than learning”(Hesse 19). What he means by this statement is that true knowledge, the spiritual kind of knowledge, cannot be passed down by learning. This belief is why, when Siddhartha meets the Buddha, he describes the Buddha as having a “secret smile” (Hesse 27). The Buddha cannot pass enlightenment down to his followers; he cannot truly describe the feeling of enlightenment or the progress to that goal. Still, his smile is a symbol reflecting the fact that he has unlocked this wisdom. Siddhartha later finds that wisdom can only be found through experience.

When his oldest companion Govinda returns to him, he sees that Siddhartha is enlightened and asks Siddhartha if there is any doctrine or belief which he holds. Siddhartha tries in vain to express the meaning of enlightenment in words, but it simply cannot be done. When Govinda kisses him on the forehead, however, he has a vision. Govinda sees many forms and visions “and over all of them there [is]… Siddhartha’s smiling face… this smile of unity over all forms… this smile [is] exactly the same as the… wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha” (Hesse 151). It is this smile that is directly reflective of the knowledge and wisdom that Siddhartha has unlocked in his travels. Through seeing this smile, Govinda is able to open the door to his own enlightenment. In modern vocabulary and literature, a smile marks happiness. Happiness is exactly what Siddhartha lacks during his journey, displaying the fact that he is not yet enlightened. Throughout the novel , the reader can notice that it is happiness and lack of happiness that moves the story forward. Siddhartha in the exposition seemingly has everything, and yet “Siddhartha himself [is] not happy”(Hesse 5). This unhappiness and distress, caused by the lack of enlightenment, is what sparks the beginning of his journey. Finding happiness and love is what ends it. Towards the middle of his journey, when Siddhartha is emotionally trapped in riches, he enters a deep depression. This depression and disappointment in himself causes him to leave the town, and he finds the river. Here he meets Vasudeva, the man who will eventually lead him to enlightenment and happiness. From Vasudeva, a smiling ferryman, he learns how to listen, and “this discovery [makes] him very happy” (Hesse 107). When Vasudeva leaves him, they are both smiling, happy, and enlightened.

The ideas of peace, wisdom, and happiness are all reflected in a smile. The smile, described as perfect, secret, and wise, truly illustrates the theme of enlightenment in Siddhartha’s life. Siddhartha’s journey is one of multiple goals ultimately leading up to enlightenment. His path is illuminated through several ideas, displayed through the use of symbols. These symbols and what they represent can be applied to other stories and even to daily life.

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