Individual and Religion (Quest for Self-III)
(In this chapter, Divas contends that spirituality and religious dogmatism are two different and often contradictory approaches to life.)
All religions preach for the individual’s personal endeavor to free his self from life’s miseries, and still every religion binds the individual in its faith. All religions have their respective gods judging every human activity, and every person will either deserve the heaven or the hell depending upon their conduct in relation to the religion of their faith. The fatal consequences of religious and ethnic conflicts in the increasingly multicultural world have encouraged people to search for an individual spirituality free from religious fanaticism. It has been felt necessary to differentiate between the organized religions and spirituality. Spirituality is increasingly being seen as compassion, tolerance and understanding and contrasted with religious collectivism.
Hesse himself was born and brought up as a Pietistic Protestant. However, he does not associate the term Protestant to any particular variety of Christian faith, but as an individual’s resistance against institutionalized religious dogmas. In an autobiography written in 1925, Hesse recalls how the religions were used to perpetuate the war, “even so-called spiritual people could find nothing better to do than preach hatred, spread lies, and praise the great misfortune” (Michels 13). The hazards of religions’ control over the individual are also being felt in the 21st century world affairs in the form of religious extremism. Eric Hill justifies the reason behind adapting the dramatic version of Hesse’s Siddhartha at the Berkshire Theater Festival in 2004 as to protect the humankind from those who cling to, “gods and guns as a way of protecting religion from threats real and perceived”. Thus, the hazards of extremism in the name of religions have made the thinkers to refute that spirituality is necessarily a religious domain. Even Hesse’s contemporary and Austrian born philosopher cum scientist Rudolf Steiner founded a spiritual movement he named “anthroposophy” which was a philosophic and spiritual doctrine centered not on the gods but on the human beings.
However, as early as in the 6th century BC, Buddha had refuted the prevailing religious view that belief in some form of superior deity or the god was necessary for one’s enlightenment. He also rendered unnecessary all the rituals promoted by the then prevailing religion, Hinduism. Buddha rejected all prevailing doctrines and claimed that depending upon God’s mercy puts hindrance to an individual’s efforts on earning his own salvation. He also prohibited all philosophical discussions regarding the existence of god, afterlife, or Atman and insisted that the individual should discipline his mind through right conduct, right speech and right effort. Replying to a query by his disciple, Buddha once put forward his logic, “I haven’t taught the world is eternal or not, that it is finite or not, that the breath and the body are identical or not nor that a person after death will pass to future existence, or not, or both, or neither. . . Simply because these issues are pointless, unprofitable and a waste of time” (Kanekar 280).
Thus, Buddhism is also sometimes described not as a religion but as a spiritual method focusing on the individual’s quest for personal self. Hesse appreciates Buddha’s way in his lecture on Siddhartha, “Buddha’s way to salvation has often been criticized and doubted, because it is thought to be wholly grounded in cognition. True, but it’s not just intellectual cognition, not just learning and knowing, but spiritual experience that can be earned only through strict discipline in a selfless life” (qtd. in Freedman 233). However, the irony with Buddhism is that Buddha himself is worshipped as a God by most of his followers with no less ritualistic and no less dogmatic than what Buddha had accused of Hinduism. Hindus, too, worship the Buddha as one of their eight avatars.
Such tendency of deification of the individual achievement and humanization of the supernatural God exists even during the post-modern era when religions have been on their defensive side. The God theory has not lost its charm even while humanizing the God as, “His qualities are human virtues, raised to the nth degree. His interest in man remains even when, as in modern Barthian theology, he is described as the ‘wholly other’” (Niebuhr 34).
After the European Enlightenment period, perhaps Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was the first philosopher who contemplated upon discovering one’s true self without necessarily believing in any religious system or the Gods. Schopenhauer thought life for the individual as an unavoidable suffering. For Schopenhauer, all the experienced activity of the self is will and the ultimate reality is one universal will. In his discussion of the nature and scope of subjective element of aesthetic pleasure, Schopenhauer hopes for, “the deliverance of knowledge from the service of the will, the forgetting of self as an individual, and the raising of the consciousness to the pure will-less, timeless, subject of knowledge, independent of all relations” (498). Thus, Schopenhauer advocates for the anguished individual to seek for deliverance from life’s sufferings through artistic, moral and ascetic forms of awareness. Schopenhauer’s idea that the world is not factual but mere projections of our mind not only echo with Hindu and Buddhist vision of life, but as Baumann claims even his salvation philosophy “ . . . corresponds to the traditional ‘Tat tvam asi’ of the Upanishads and the Buddhist idea of salvation by overcoming ‘Thirst’ and egocentricity”.
Schopenhauer influenced many literary and philosophical figures including Nietzsche and Hesse. Hesse even sets the story of Siddhartha in Buddha’s time and makes Siddhartha the Brahmin boy hold a discussion with the Buddha. Hence, Siddhartha has also been considered as a mythical narrative based on Buddha’s early life. However, contrary to popular misconception, Siddhartha is not Buddha’s biographical story. Hesse’s Siddhartha who is awed by Buddha’s persona and yet denies taking refuge in Buddha’s Dhamma has a correlation with Hesse’s own initial admiration of the Buddha and later disenchantment with Buddhism’s too rationalistic generalization. While writing Siddhartha, Hesse seems to be influenced not only by Hindu and Buddhist views on life, but also by the religious philosophies of ancient China, such as Taoism. Hesse’s biographer Mark Boulby claims that Siddhartha is an amalgam of Vedanta and Tao philosophies with, the Indian-Hindu “letting oneself fall into life (tyaga)” and the Chinese-Taoistic “enlightened passiveness (wuwei)” (143).
In his autobiography for the Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, Hesse discloses the reason why he could not accept the religion of Christian Pietism he was born into was because of its aim of, “subduing and breaking the individual personality” (Gale 349). And yet, his opposition to the institutionalized religions’ suppression of the individual self seems to contradict with his observation in a 1930 essay, “I myself consider the religious impulse as the decisive characteristic of my life and my work” (qtd. in Ziolkowski 106). The contradiction can be understood if one appreciates that Hesse’s “religious impulse” suggests an approach of consciously choosing one’s own way of life. If any religion that Hesse believed in it was humanism, as Zipes writes in his evaluation of the influence of fairy tales in Hesse’s works, “If there ever was a creed that he [Hesse] devoutly followed, it was the German romantic Novalis’s notion that ‘Mensch werden ist eine Kunst’- to become a human being is art” (241).
Thus, Hesse attempts to establish the significance of the individual’s personal quest for self through the interaction with diverse religions. Hesse proposes his own version of spirituality that dissolves the dichotomy of opposite pairs both within the individual and outside in the world, “For me, although brought up a Protestant Christian but then later educated in India and China, there do not exist all these twofold divisions of world and men into opposite pairs. For me, the first dogma is the unity behind and above the opposites” (qtd. in Herzog). Hesse’s interest in finding unity behind opposites can also be seen in Siddhartha, in which the protagonist appreciates religion as a method for self-realization and yet refuses to accept any religious doctrine insisting upon finding the unity behind all opposites through his own search for self.