An earnest spiritual pilgrim, Siddhartha is totally consumed by his quest for spiritual enlightenment. Though in his youth he learns the wisdom of his Brahmin heritage and masters the skills of the Samanas and the teachings of Gotama, the spiritual explanations that satisfy those around him are inadequate for Siddhartha because they do not lead to enlightenment. No matter how many others accept a particular religious explanation, Siddhartha will refuse the explanation if it rings false. Siddhartha seeks spiritual enlightenment at any cost, even when the search complicates other areas of life. Friends, lovers, and family members fall by the wayside when Siddhartha believes they are not compatible with his quest. Further, he believes no leader or philosophy is beyond questioning. Guided by a strong belief in his convictions, he argues with the head of the Samanas and even with the enlightened Gotama the Buddha himself. Siddhartha does not argue for argument’s sake, nor does he question wisdom out of a sense of pride or superiority. He finds logical flaws in the teachings put before him, and he seeks the truth.
Siddhartha possesses an incredible degree of patience, which proves to be important since his quest takes a lifetime to fulfill. He progresses through successive spiritual explorations, experiences failure numerous times, but persists until he reaches his goal. The instantaneous, magical transmission of Nirvana from Siddhartha to Govinda demonstrates that Siddhartha has found the transcendent understanding they have both sought for so long. He has finally reached his goal.
Siddhartha is the Sanskrit name of the Buddha and means “he who is on the proper road” or “he who achieves his goal.” Hesse is not attempting to directly portray the life of the Buddha himself through Siddhartha but to use Siddhartha as a means of discussing a path to enlightenment. At the same time, many striking similarities exist between Siddhartha and the actual Buddha. For example, both left promising lives in their pursuit of knowledge. In Siddhartha’s case, he leaves Kamala when he becomes disillusioned with the material world, while the Buddha left a wife and son to become an ascetic. Both studied with ascetics, and both spent many years in study by a river, finally achieving enlightenment. Siddhartha has succeeded in his own arduous quest, and at the end of the novel, he is poised to take on followers of his own.
Siddhartha’s best friend, Govinda, is also an earnest spiritual pilgrim but does not question teachings to the same extent Siddhartha does. For example, though Govinda is excited at the chance to follow Gotama, Siddhartha goes along but says he has lost his faith in teachers. When Siddhartha decides to leave Gotama’s side, Govinda instead remains stalwartly committed. Govinda does not choose his own path but follows the suggestions of others. Similarly, when the two old friends meet in the end, Govinda quickly apprentices himself to Siddhartha because Siddhartha has attained the Nirvana they both seek. The significant difference between Govinda and Siddhartha is that Govinda is primarily a follower, whereas Siddhartha is more inclined to strike out on his own path. This difference is one of the reasons Siddhartha is eventually able to achieve enlightenment through his own efforts, while Govinda needs assistance in order to achieve the same state. Siddhartha is better able to see the truth before him because of his self-reliance. Govinda needs others to point out the wisdom he should follow and is unable to see when he is following a flawed path and, ultimately, when he is nearing enlightenment.
At the beginning of their quest, when Govinda joins the Samanas, he may well have gone along simply to be with his friend. However, the severity and austere nature of their new lifestyle leaves little reason to doubt Govinda’s conviction. He may be more of a follower than Siddhartha is, but his conviction and determination to find enlightenment are still strong. He does, after all, eventually find enlightenment, just as Siddhartha does—he just arrives at it in a different way.
Vasudeva, the enlightened ferryman, is the guide who finally leads Siddhartha to enlightenment. Siddhartha first meets Vasudeva after leaving Gotama and Govinda and immediately notices Vasudeva’s serenity. Although Vasudeva lives within this world, his presence seems to transcend it, and all who meet him feel his divine, enlightened energy. He does not boast about his power or wisdom but simply credits all knowledge he has to the river. His primary action, other than ferrying passengers across the river, seems to be listening to whatever wisdom the river imparts to him. He is such a powerful figure that when a desperate, suicidal Siddhartha, convinced he’ll never reach enlightenment, encounters Vasudeva a second time, he asks to become Vasudeva’s apprentice. In a way, Siddhartha relies on Vasudeva to save his life.
Vasudeva does not teach Siddhartha a complicated philosophical belief system, only that he should learn from the river and allow it to explain its wisdom. Throughout Siddhartha’s spiritual progression, Vasudeva keeps him moving in the right direction by prompting him to listen to the river whenever he has questions or doubts. In a bittersweet ending to their time together, Siddhartha’s achievement of Nirvana coincides with the end of Vasudeva’s time on the river and on earth. Vasudeva, who has literally and figuratively ferried Siddhartha to enlightenment, can now leave the earth, with Siddhartha taking over as ferryman. Vasudeva will live on in Siddhartha’s own enlightenment and teachings.
Vasudeva is a name for Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, one of the powerful gods in a Hindu trinity, and means “he who lives in all thoughts, and who lives in all people.” He is the most godlike figure within the book, yet he acts with surprising humility.
Siddhartha dreamed the bird died in the cage, which symbolizes what will happen to him if he continues his path of samsara. When he leaves, a real bird is released by Kamala. Therefore, the bird represents Siddhartha leaving the prison of samsara and chosing a life outside of the cage, rather than a life of pleasure and comfort inside the cage.
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