And the river sang. …

Eleven years ago, on the 31 August, death came silently taking away my father. More than a decade later, I still feel the events of that day with a stark loneliness that is hard to describe.

TPhotograph©Chulie de Silva

Photograph©Chulie de Silva

That morning at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa there were no need for words. I sat holding his thin hands, stroking his head. I was the parent, he the baby. Our faithful mongrel Lassie was under the bed with her head on my feet.  My father’s face was thin and gaunt with a prickly growth of a faded beard. His breathing was laboured with a rasping sound. Tears were building under his eyelids and I felt he could hear my mother and sister-in-law chanting pirith at the foot of the bed. He had no words for us. A thousand images streamed through my mind and I kept them all to good thoughts of what he did not only for me but many others too. I watched him, recording to memory every breath he took. Then there was the this deep filling of the lungs, I waited for the breath to be let out. But none came. This was his last breath. Lassie raised her head and licked my feet.

From the Exhibition "My City of Unheard Prayers" by Sayed Asif Mahmud

From the Exhibition “My City of Unheard Prayers” by Sayed Asif Mahmud

Partings are poignant, never easy. Like Herman Hesse’s Siddartha my wound still smarted.

Many years ago, Thatha had introduced me to Hesse and his book Siddhartha. He himself was probably told about it when he was a dayaka  at the Polgasduwa Hermitage where there were German Buddhist priests.

Siddartha of Hesse is not Lord Buddha but a handsome Brahmin son who lived in the same era as Buddha. In Hesse’s story Siddhartha does meet Buddha and although very impressed by the revered teacher, he takes a decision not to follow Buddha.  A rare occurrence no dobt but notes to the novel say ‘it is in keeping with Neitzsche’s statement in Also sprach Zaruthuustra (Thus Spake Zrathushtra0 that … one repays a teacher badly if one always wants to remain nothing but a pupil’.

A damaged and fading frescoe of Buddhist Priests pay homage to Lord Buddha. Telwatte Purana Thotagamuva Rajamaha Viharaya. Telwatte. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

A damaged and fading frescoe of Buddhist Priests paying homage to Lord Buddha. Telwatte Purana Thotagamuva Rajamaha Viharaya. Telwatte. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The story is about the conflict between the discipline and the heart, the desire to ‘go it alone‘, and the courage to listen to one’s own inner voice.  Siddharha’s search for spiritual knowledge tests the friendship between Siddartha and his friend Govinda, who “loved him more than anyone else.” In a very interesting dialogue in the last chapter of the book he tells Govinda “I learned through my body and soul that it was necessary for me to sin, that I needed lust — a reference to his long relationship with Kamala the beautiful courtesan.

Siddhatha’s wounds are self-inflicted, as in the case of many of us.

Yesterday, I turned to the balm of its beautiful  prose and the subtle distillation of wisdom in this novel. It’s hard to say which part of the story that traces Siiddhartha’s quest for spiritual fulfillment I like best. However, the images of a quietly flowing Hikkaduwa river and this book has been uppermost in my mind. Thus, it seems appropriate to quote here the passages of Siddhartha as he learns from the river and the wise old ferryman Vasudeva, following the death of Kamala and the parting from his son.

One day , when the wound was smarting terribly Siddhartha rowed across the river, consumed by longing, and got out of the boat with the purpose of going to the town to seek his son.The river flowed softly and quietly, it was the dry season, but its voice rang out strangely.  It was laughing, it was distinctly laughing!. The river was laughing clearly and merrily at the old ferryman.

The river flowed softly and gently. ... Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The river flowed softly and gently. … Photograph© Chulie de Silva

“Siddhartha stood still; he bent over the water, in order to hear better. , He saw his face reflected in the quietly moving water, and in this reflected face there was something in this reflection, that reminded him of something he had forgotten, and when he reflected on it, he remembered. His face resembled that of another person, whom he had once known and loved and feared. It resembled the face of his father, the Brahmin. He remembered how once, as a youth, he had compelled his father to let him go to join the ascetics, how he had taken leave of him how he had gone and never returned.”

This leads him to question his own behaviour and to the realisation that his father must have suffered by his departure as much as he was suffering now because of his son.

Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Desolate and depressed Siddhartha seeks Vasudeva to talk and confess to this wise guru. Vasudeva, a true sage who speaks only when necessary leads him to a seat on the river bank.

“You have heard it laugh,” he said, “but you have not heard everything. Let us listen; you will hear more.”

They listened. The many-voiced song of the river echoed softly. Siddhartha looked into the river and saw many pictures flowing in the water. He saw his father, lonely, mourning his son; he saw himself, lonely also with the bonds of longing for his faraway son; he saw his son, also lonely, the boy eagerly advancing along the burning path of life’s desires, each one concentrating on his goal, each one obsessed by his goal, each one suffering. The river’s voice was sorrowful. It sang with yearning and sadness, flowing towards its goal.

“‘Do you hear?’asked Vasudeva’s mute glance. Siddhartha nodded. ‘Listen better!’ whispered Vasudeva.

The river's voice was full of longing.... Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The river’s voice was full of longing…. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

“Siddhartha tried to listen better. The picture of his father, his own picture, and the picture of his son all flowed into each other. Kamala’s picture also appeared and flowed on, and the picture of Govinda and others emerged and passed on. They all became a part of the river. It was the goal of all of them, yearning, desiring, suffering; and the river’s voice was full of longing, full of smarting woe, full of insatiable desire. The river flowed on towards its goal. Siddhartha saw the river hasten, made up of himself and his relatives and all the people he had ever seen. …”

The many voiced songs of the river echoed softly. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The many voiced songs of the river echoed softly. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

“. … He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything. He felt now he had now completely learned the art of listening. … He could no longer distinguish the different voices – the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish from the manly voice; the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of the indignation and groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.”

“When Siddhartha listened attentively to the river, to this song of a thousand voices, when he did not listen to the sorrow or laughter, when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om perfection.”

… His wound was healing, his pain was dispersing; his self had emerged into unity.”

‘From that hour Siddhartha ceased to fight against his destiny. …”

Vasudeva seeing the serenity of knowledge reflected in the eyes of Siddhartha, says that he has waited for this hour to come, and bids farewell to the hut, the river and Siddhartha and retreats into the forest.

Life is but another threshold for a monk, waiting to be crossed over. Photo©Nirvair Singh Rai

Life is but another threshold for a monk, waiting to be crossed over. Photo©Nirvair Singh Rai

 Note:  Extracts are from a copy I have of “Siddartha” by Herman Hesse, translated from German by Hilda Rosner.

The full text of the book is available at The Project Gutenberg EBook of Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse. Translator: Gunther Olesch, Anke Dreher, Amy Coulter, Stefan Langer and Semyon Chaichenets Release Date: April 6, 2008 [EBook #2500] Last updated: January 23, 2013.

Thanks to my two friends from Drik, Dhaka days Sayed Asif Mahmud and Nirvair Singh Rai for the use of the two photos.

4 thoughts on “And the river sang. …

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