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Siddhartha: Novel Summary: Part 1 - The Brahmin's Son

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Siddhartha is a young boy in India during the sixth century B.C., the time of the Buddha. He is the son of a Brahmin, a member of the priestly cast. Siddhartha is admired by all his family and friends, including Govinda, and he is expected to become a Brahmin priest. However, in spite of the fact that Siddhartha is much loved and has the gift of making others happy, he is not himself happy. On the contrary, he is restless and discontent. He senses that neither his father nor the other Brahmins who are in charge of his education really know the way to enlightenment, which Siddhartha believes to be the only knowledge worth having. The men have profound theoretical knowledge about enlightenment, but Siddhartha questions whether they really experience this exalted state. He thinks they are all still spiritual seekers, just as he is.
One day Siddhartha sees three wandering ascetics, known as Samanas, as they pass through the town. They are thin and almost naked. Siddhartha tells Govinda that the following morning he will join the Samanas. Govinda is dismayed. Siddhartha respectfully asks his father for permission to leave the house and become a Samana. His father is not pleased, but eventually, when he sees how determined Siddhartha is, and realizes that his son has already left him in spirit, he gives his permission. As Siddhartha leaves town at daybreak, Govinda joins him.
In India during the sixth century B.C., the religion was known as Vedism or Brahmanism. The Vedas are a collection of hymns to the gods dating from the period 1300 B.C. to 900 B.C. Veda literally means knowledge. The Vedic gods include Agni, the god of fire, and Indra, the warrior god. During the period from the eighth to the fifth century B.C., the philosophical texts known as the Upanishads were added to the canon of Vedic scriptures.
Brahmins were the priestly caste who performed the Vedic sacrificial rituals. Siddhartha would have been expected to learn all these rituals and become a learned Brahmin, just like his father. Already as a boy he is aware of the central doctrine of the Upanishads. The Upanishads stated that the essence of each person's self, the Atman, was identical with the universal spirit, or Brahman. The goal of meditation was to realize the essential oneness of the individual and the universal soul. The word Om that Siddhartha mentions is a mantra, a word that is chanted or repeated silently in order to take the attention away from the outer world of the senses. When the mind is stilled in this way, the identity of Atman with Brahman becomes apparent; the individual consciousness is known to the same as the universal consciousness. In this chapter Siddhartha reveals that he has already been taught the technique of meditating using Om as a mantra. He has also been trained in the doctrine of the Upanishads: "Already he knew how to recognize Atman within the depth of his being, indestructible, at one with the universe" (p. 2). It is this experience that feeds Siddhartha's longing. He sees in the Brahmins only a vast parade of outer learning, but the inner core, the direct experience of enlightenment, is missing. Enlightenment dawns when the reality of the identity of Atman and Brahman, the individual and the universal, is experienced at every moment of every day.


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