Author Richard Rohr has said “Transformation is more about unlearning than learning”, a claim the title character in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha would certainly agree with. The protagonist is able to reach enlightenment not through ceaseless purity, but through sin, specifically the seven deadly sins. Siddhartha enters a world of lust, gluttony, sloth, greed, pride, wrath and envy, and only after having personally experienced them can he instead choose virtue. In Siddhartha’s own words, “I had to sin, to be able to live again” (Hesse 101). The most important and personal truths can only be learned by making mistakes and reflecting upon them.
Lust was arguably the first of the cardinal sins committed by Siddhartha. Kamala, a wealthy woman who the character fell in love with, taught him of carnal pleasures. The most valuable lesson he learned, however, was that such indulgences grant quick rushes of gratification, but distance him from his path to eternal fulfillment. One moment that leaves an impression on him, making him more aware of his sinful habits, occurs after Kamala realizes he could be leaving her, when she feels she must lay with him one last time. In their last sexual encounter, she makes love to him “[…] she wanted to squeeze the last sweet drop out of this vain, fleeting pleasure” (Hesse 84). For the first time, it becomes evident to Siddhartha “how closely lust was akin to death” (Hesse 84). Upon finally leaving his life with Kamala, Siddhartha thinks of how he spent many years without true satisfaction, only glimpses of bodily gratification (Hesse 87). By the time he reaches enlightenment, long after his adventures with Kamala, Siddhartha had ceased pursuit of earthly pleasures such as that of the body to focus on that of the soul. He exchanged the sin of lust for the virtue of chastity.
While living lavishly in the company of Kamala and Kamaswami, Siddhartha adopted their gluttony for himself. He tested luxurious food that would have previously not been within his reach. Siddartha had “learned to eat tenderly and carefully prepared food”: a variety of spices, meats, sweets, and expensive wine, (Hesse 80). He spent years in this existence before choosing to embrace temperance, a virtue he could only have truly understood having had a taste of its converse. He had learned to “love [his] stomach” and to “please [his] senses.” (Hesse 100) only to, when living with humble Vasudeva, turn again to a simple life in his journey to enlightenment. The ferryman once described them as “two old banana eaters, to whom even rice is a delicacy” (Hesse 123).
Slowly, Siddhartha abandoned his ideals of hard work for the comfort of slothfulness. What he once did himself was now the work of servants; servants prepared him baths and brought him clothes and shoes (Hesse 69). The former monk had learned to “use his power over people” (Hesse 80). Only after returning to a life without luxury does he regain his trait of diligence. After having offered to share his modest hut, an invitation gratefully accepted by Siddhartha, Vasudeva remarks “The rich and elegant Siddhartha is becoming an oarsman’s servant” (Hesse 109). During his time with the ferryman, hard work, often in the form of manual labor, was needed daily, so Siddhartha came to le to operate the boat, and when there was nothing to do at the ferry, he worked with Vasudeva in the rice-field, gathered wood, plucked the fruit off the banana-trees. He learned to build an oar, and learned to mend the boat, and to weave baskets […]” (Hesse 110).
Through Kamaswami, Siddhartha learned how to trade and amassed great wealth, which quickly became more of a strain than an asset. He became possessive of his money, and the abundance of it belonging to him never seemed enough. “He had been captured by […] that vice which he had used to despise and mock the most as the most foolish one of all vices: greed. Property, possessions, and riches also had finally captured him.” (Hesse 82). He started to gamble, rapidly becoming dependent on his vice, “and after each big loss, his mind was set on new riches” (Hesse 83). Becoming a rich man caused Siddhartha to forget what it was like to be a poor man, and therefore to lose his generosity. He “lost his kindness towards beggars, lost his disposition for giving away and loaning money to those who petitioned him” (Hesse 83). However, after the cautioning dream that led him to leave Kamala, we see his greed fading, and his virtue of charity rising again. In the last conversation he has with his lover, he declares that he one day wishes to give his pleasure-garden away to Gotama as a present (Hesse 84). Naturally, after Kamala to pursue oneness, he begins to detach himself completely from greed. Siddhartha, who once lived in a mansion, took to an unpleasant straw bed in an unassuming straw hut.
Once a humble man, Siddhartha, having become surrounded by the pride of the wealthy, became proud himself. He “acted as if he was superior to them towards the fellow-members of his caste” (Hesse 85). He thought himself foolish to have ever been a Brahman, and was pleased to be a man of worldly pleasure (Hesse 103). As with the other sins, Siddhartha’s rupture from his lavish, exhibitionistic way of life was synonymous with his rupture from pride. He began to practice humility and no longer look at those around him as inferiors: “Differently than before, he now looked upon people, less smart, less proud, but instead warmer, more curious, more involved” (Hesse 133). Siddhartha came to consider common people “his brothers”; they were “understandable”, “lovable” and even “worthy of veneration” (Hesse 133).
Despite having been a deeply tranquil man, it only took the discovery of the game of dice to make Siddhartha a wrathful one. When gambling, he had “an increasing rage and passion” and was brought an “angry joy” when high stakes were in place (Hesse 83). On account of his attachment to money, he “lost his calmness when losses occurred” and “lost his patience when he was not payed on time” (Hesse 83). It was only when he gave up his riches, and therefore his gambling, that he regained composure. Vasudeva and Siddhartha both became “masters of patience” (Hesse 125), and growing into such would only have been possible while living a true, simple existence: “This he had learned by the river, this one thing: waiting, having patience, listening attentively” (Hesse 130).
Lastly, Siddhartha allowed himself to be enveloped by envy before turning back to compassion. At first, the principal targets of his jealousy were the “childlike people”, who he envied “for the one thing that was missing from him and that they had, the importance they were able to attach to their lives, the amount of passion in their joys and fears, the fearful but sweet happiness of being constantly in love” (Hesse 81). However, unlike the other sins, his envy was not die alongside his luxurious life. Siddhartha carried it with him when he was left by his son. Seeing the fathers who accompanied their children in Siddhartha’s boat caused him to wonder “so many thousands possess this sweetest of good fortunes—why don’t I? Even bad people, even thieves and robbers have children and love them, and are being loved by them, all except for me” (Hesse 133). His longing for his departed son brought up inside him a sinful feeling. I was only when he decided to listen to the river that Siddhartha gave up his envy; he realized that the world knows no imperfection, and that all was where it needed to be.
Siddhartha’s journey to self-realization was reliant on his personal experiences with the seven cardinal sins. Only with a deep, intimate comprehension of lust, gluttony, sloth, greed, pride, wrath and envy could Hesse’s protagonist understand their corresponding virtues: chastity, temperance, diligence, sacrifice, humility, patience and satisfaction, all of which Siddhartha is devout to at the end of his journey. Siddhartha himself explains: “It is good […] to get a taste of everything for oneself, which one needs to know. That lust for the world and riches do not belong to the good things, I have already learned as a child. I have known it for a long time, but I have experienced only now. And now I know it, don’t just know it in my memory, but in my eyes, in my heart, in my stomach” (Hesse 102).