Siddhartha and Epic of Gilgamesh, Essay Example
There are amazing similarities between the stories of Siddhartha when compared with the classical work The Epic of Gilgamesh. While Gilgamesh is a rougher character than Siddhartha, they are both princes and sons of kings. They both take journeys with people that are ascetic and they also both come to realizations that change their lives. Siddhartha is Brahmin, the highest caste of those in India. He is very religious and does all the practices that he can to try and find inner peace but is not able to. His is highly disciplined and highly esteemed as a Brahmin, but he is not happy and makes a decision to find out why there is suffering and how to resolve his angst pursuing a spiritual quest and becoming as ascetic. He leaves his royal heritage and follows wandering ascetics who are in pursuit of enlightenment.(Hesse, pgs 4-9).
Gilgamesh is a great King who is also two thirds human and one part god. He is King of Uruk and he creates a magnificent city with great temples and architecture. He a cruel ruler and the city end up being built on the sweat and through the pain of his subjects. He has no discretion or morals sexually and he rapes the women of the city with no exception for even the wives of his own military officers.(Gilgamesh, p. 4) The gods hear the agonies inflicted on the workers by Gilgamesh and they create a being as impressive as Gilgamesh named Enkidu who becomes Gilgamesh’s closest friend and he is heartbroken when Enkidu dies as a result of an illness inflicted on him by the gods.(Gilgamesh, p. 12) Enkidu, who lives in the wild and is not different in many ways than the ascetic that Siddhartha comes across. Siddhartha meets wandering ascetics who are on the path to enlightenment and decides this must be the way to find the answers to why there is suffering. The ascetics do not eat; they engage in spiritual practice day and night and meditate for hours and days at a time. They live outside of humanity. (Hesse, pgs 31).
Enkidu is similar to the ascetics in that he also lives in the wild. He is nourished from the milk of animals and is bound to nature. A prostitute is sent to teach him the ways of humankind and once he lays with her the animals reject him, however; he retains his nature and he stops Gilgamsh from violating a woman in her bridal chambers.(Gilgamesh, p. 24) There is a physical conflict between the wild man and the King which resolves in their being friends and then set off on journeys together. While Gilgamesh spurns the goddess Ishtar, which leads to his friend’s eventual death, Siddhartha is working on his meditation and studying with Govinda who is the teacher and leader of the ascetics. After being with the ascetics for a long while he realizes he is not attaining enlightenment. He seeks another teacher, Gautama who teaches him the ways of the Buddha and Siddhartha takes to the teachings and is very happy for a while. While he is studying with Gautama he realizes, once again he is not finding enlightenment. (Hesse, pgs 33-42).
Gilgamesh’s experience begins to reflect that of Siddhartha’s as he is so deeply grieved over the loss of his friend that he throws away his royal garments and wears animal skins and makes a pilgrimage to Utnapishtim, a character whose story is almost identical to that of Noah. Utnapishtim has been given eternal life by the gods and Gilgamesh is seeking to find out how he, too can have eternal life.(Gilgamesh, p. 32) This is much the same quest that Siddhartha is on and both seek teachers who can lead them to this goal.
Siddhartha becomes disenchanted with the ascetic life and ends up becoming successful in business. He finds that this does not edify him spiritually and makes a journey to a river to drown himself. He then falls asleep and Govinda passes by and catches him asleep. Not recognizing the business man he watches him through the night to protect him. When Siddhartha awakes Govinda speaks with him he chooses to sit by the river to consider his life. He ends up learning from the river where he stays lessons that help him begin to catch glimpses of enlightenment. (Hesse, pgs 55-60).
Both Gilgamesh and Siddhartha are redirected in their goals by snakes at some point in their journey. Siddhartha is protected by Govinda in his sleep from snakes and this leads to him staying at the river where he finally finds contentment. Gilgamesh is promised that a sacred plant will provide him eternal life but it is stolen by a serpent. (Gilgamesh, p.4 4)
The concept of these two characters as heroes on a transformational journey is the story of all humans. In this sense Campbell is correct about myth and the collective unconscious. As the two cultures in these stories are both ancient there are major differences in them. The Siddhartha story takes place in India after Buddhism has been established placing it after 400 ACE. This culture is dominated by many ideas that are passed down from Vedanta philosophy and the idea of there being a collective unity where all things are part of the universal One. Gilgamesh is more ancient and the concept of gods that are involved in the lives of people is highly prevalent in this text with Gilgamesh being part god himself.
To further validate Campbell’s theory of the collective unconscious (he is taking from Jung) in both of the cultural perspectives there is the sense that divinity is within a human, as is the case with Gilgamesh in a more overt manner, and as Siddhartha comes to learn by the end of the text.
The river is commonly used as a way of understanding the mind, soul and ever evolving nature of the soul in India and in high Vedanta which reflects the cultural context of the story. Vedanta teaches that we are the Divine reality in a temporary state of forgetfulness and this is reflected in Siddhartha. How he deals with discovering this truth of his cultural heritage is his journey and is quite a common story in India even today.
Gilgamesh has duties to the gods but he is also quite intent on his own immortality and the epic does not speak to sacrifices or ritual as much as the interaction between the character and the gods. When he spurns Ishtar there are consequences, and that results in the death of his beloved friend. This differs from many Greco-Roman notions of sacrificing to gods, although in that culture there was a lot of interaction and mating that went on between their gods and the people.
Nature is sacred in both texts. The river is where Siddhartha finds his answers and it is in forests that Gilgamesh also comes to learn a deeper reality. His friend, Ekidu is also close to nature and animals and this is seen as a sacred aspect of his nature that sets him apart from others.
There is no question that the myths of and within these stories tell us about who we are and teach us great lessons. They coalesce in so many areas despite the difference in culture that this makes a strong case for the collective unconscious discovering itself through the journey of the heroes and the journey that all human beings must make to find out who they are. Ultimately these two figures find the divinity within themselves in one form or another. This may be the ultimate reality that lies within the collective unconscious and why mythology is so powerful. Initiation, separation and return occurs in both these stories and is common in Native indigenous ritual and storytelling as well. These powerful archetypes have much to teach us on a deeper level and successful do so through the journeys of the two heroes in the text read for this study. In understanding the spiritual journeys of those before us in text such as these we come to better understandings of ourselves and mankind as a whole.
Gilgamesh. Penguin Classics (April 29, 2003).
Hesse, H. Siddhartha. Simon & Brown (June 22, 2012)
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