For a time Siddhartha wanders aimlessly. He sees the physical world with fresh eyes, noticing the animals that frolic around him and the beautiful plants along his path. For the first time he truly feels a part of the present and notices the world as it is, rather than ignoring it in favor of more spiritual, abstract contemplations. He spends the first night of his new life in a ferryman’s hut and dreams of Govinda. In the dream, Govinda, imitating Christ, asks, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” Then Govinda changes into a woman, and Siddhartha suckles at her breast.
The next day Siddhartha asks the ferryman to take him across the river. The ferryman tells Siddhartha he has learned much from the river, and Siddhartha finds comfort in the ferryman’s words. When they reach the other bank, Siddhartha regrets not being able to pay the ferryman, but the ferryman does not seem to mind. He prophesies that Siddhartha will return to the river in the future, and that Siddhartha will give him a gift at that time.
At the edge of a village, a young woman appears and attempts to seduce Siddhartha. Though she tempts him, his inner voice tells him to resist. However, the next woman Siddhartha sees as he enters the city offers a temptation he can’t resist. She is Kamala, a beautiful, elegant courtesan. As her sedan chair is carried past Siddhartha, she returns his smile. His first worldly goal is clear.
After a bath in the river and a haircut and shave from a friendly barber, Siddhartha returns to Kamala. She is amused that a Samana should come out of the forest and ask to be taught the art of love. Even though she is willing to exchange a kiss for a poem, he will learn no more until he can return wearing fine clothes and bearing gifts. Despite her apparent amusement, she recommends Siddhartha to her friend Kamaswami, a wealthy businessman, but insists that Siddhartha become his equal, not his servant.
The title of this chapter, “Kamala,” and those of the two chapters that follow suggest that Siddhartha will seek meaning in the world of the senses, a radical departure from his exploration of the spiritual world. The root word of Kamala, kama, signifies the Hindu god of love and desire. Siddhartha’s immersion in this world will awaken these aspects of himself, which he has long kept quiet. His transformation begins even before he meets Kamala or Kamaswami. His increased awareness of the sensory world, apparent from the beginning of this chapter, demonstrates that he is allowing the world to influence him. In the past, he trained himself to deny the senses and find the truth by ignoring the world and time, which he took to be illusory. This idea of the world as illusion, or Maya, is common to Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and suggests that the material world is a distraction from the divine, essential truth. By trying to see the world with clarity, rather than ignoring it as Maya, Siddhartha has made a clear break from his previous spiritual understanding.
Siddhartha’s dream of Govinda turning into a woman marks a transitional moment in Siddhartha’s life, as he moves away from his previous ascetic life that he shared with Govinda toward a new life of desire, which he’ll share with Kamala. Initially, this shift concerns mainly Siddhartha’s senses and imagination, but his encounter with the washerwoman at the edge of the village makes him consider if and when he will enter the world of desire. He rejects her, despite desiring her, which indicates an awareness of the difference between obeying one’s inner voice and succumbing to impulse. When Siddhartha becomes Kamala’s lover, he makes a conscious choice to enter the world of desire, and he becomes attached to it.
Siddhartha’s encounters with the two women suggest that physical desire and sex are essential aspects of the material world he must explore. When the first woman wordlessly invites Siddhartha to engage in a sexual act, Siddhartha refuses her, but his curiosity about sex remains. When he sees the beautiful courtesan Kamala, his lust finds a focal point. When Siddhartha decides to make sex his new project, he immerses himself with an intensity usually reserved for his religious apprenticeship. Although he has rejected spiritual teachers, he will accept a teacher of desire, and he consciously decides to follow her teachings. Siddhartha is not an innocent, and neither is he willing to passively accept whatever sexual experience falls into his lap. He is, to some extent, calculating and ambitious. He asks around about Kamala, and when he speaks with her, his deep commitment to change himself to obtain her love becomes apparent to both of them. Siddhartha completes the break from the spiritual world when he shaves and has his hair trimmed, for he has finally taken into account his own physical body, transforming himself in order to fit into the material world.
Kamaswami agrees to receive Siddhartha in his home, but he is suspicious about what Siddhartha can do for him. Siddhartha follows Kamala’s advice and does not beg for work but, instead, acts in a manner that requires Kamaswami to treat him respectfully. Kamaswami quizzes Siddhartha about his desire to become a businessman, not expecting much. When Siddhartha answers honestly, and shows that he can read and write, Kamaswami is impressed and offers to take Siddhartha as a protégé. Siddhartha lives in Kamaswami’s house and works with him as a merchant. Siddhartha handles the business world with relative ease, but he does not emotionally attach himself to the results of his ventures, laughing off failure as easily as he laughs at his success. Disturbed by this flippant attitude, Kamaswami tries to motivate Siddhartha by giving him a small percentage of the gains from each transaction. Yet business remains only a game for Siddhartha, and nothing Kamaswami does can make him take business affairs more seriously. Kamaswami suggests that he try giving himself over to the pleasures wealth can bring, but still Siddhartha does not change his perspective. His life as a Samana showed him that many people live in a childish, animalistic way, suffering over things that have little real meaning, such as money, pleasure, and honor. Siddhartha rejects this sort of suffering.
Kamala, on the other hand, opens Siddhartha to the world of love, which excites him far more than the merchant life Kamaswami offers. Siddhartha works hard with Kamaswami in order to afford the gifts and clothes necessary to court Kamala, but he feels he learns far more important lessons from her than from Kamaswami. He learns much about the physical act of love, but also about patience and self-respect. He notes that she understands him better than do Govinda or Kamaswami, because she, unlike Kamaswami, can always retreat from the material world and be herself. Her life seems to have purpose and meaning and in this way seems similar to the life of Gotama himself.
Though they share great intimacy and a feeling of connection, Siddhartha and Kamala are not in love. For Kamala, sex is a part of her work as a courtesan, and her instruction of Siddhartha is undertaken primarily for financial gain. Similarly, Siddhartha is interested in his relationship with Kamala only because it provides him deeper insights into the world of love that might better enable him to achieve enlightenment. Though Siddhartha is the best lover Kamala has ever had, Kamala and Siddhartha realize that people like themselves cannot truly love.
Siddhartha’s decision to exploit the senses, instead of denying them, draws him into the world of time and average people. This world is linked to the Hindu god Kama, the god of desires, who is represented in the names of those closest to him during this period: Kamala and Kamaswami. From these worldly people, Siddhartha learns much that is useful in the world of time, including how to live happily in the moment and induce it to yield its fruits, as well as how to use the present to produce a desired consequence in the future. Yet at the same time, and almost without his knowing it, Siddhartha’s life in the world of Kama brings him the first of those virtues appropriate to a seeker of enlightenment. From Kamala he learns part of the Eightfold Path considered “right attitude,” which indicates that the correct way to approach an experience is to completely surrender the Self while keeping the purpose steadily in mind. In addition, from Kamaswami he learns the concept of “right aspiration,” which indicates that working for an immediate gain yields no real profit. Kamaswami actually exemplifies the opposite of this concept, and his failure enables Siddhartha to realize that only a voluntary investment can give a worthwhile return.
An encounter between an innocent pilgrim and the modern world is one of Hesse’s favorite literary devices. When Siddhartha meets Kamaswami, Siddhartha’s innocence highlights the hypocrisy and spiritual poverty of his new world, which involves materialism and commerce, two aspects of modernity. During Siddhartha’s initial job interview with Kamaswami, Siddhartha’s answers to the questions are both honest and backhanded. When Kamaswami asks Siddhartha how he managed to live with so few possessions, Siddhartha says he has never really thought about what he lacked or how he should live. This response is a slap in Kamaswami’s face, since Siddhartha is actually pointing out the poverty in Kamaswami’s value system. Kamaswami initially intends to criticize Siddhartha by pointing out his lack of practical experience, but Siddhartha responds by calling into question the very criteria that determine whether some experiences are more practical than others. Siddhartha’s lack of desire for material possessions is not the weakness Kamaswami might think. Instead, Siddhartha shows it as an asset in the business world. If one does not fear success or failure, one can act more aggressively.
Kamala is a master instructor of the truths of the material world, just as Gotama was a master instructor of the truths of the spiritual world. Kamala has an ability to find “stillness and sanctuary” within herself. She can steel herself against the outward flow of the world by retreating into this stillness. This ability is rare, and Siddhartha notices that the people immersed in the material world are trapped within it and cannot see beyond the small triumphs and tribulations of their lives. Similarly, Gotama can transcend the spiritual world he discusses. Just as Kamala can teach the truths of the world of love yet maintain enough distance from these truths to avoid being controlled by them, Gotama understands that the truths he communicates are not the entirety of knowledge. By contrast, the Brahmins and Samanas are able to see things only in terms of the spiritual knowledge they preach. Alternative approaches to knowledge threaten them, and they reject the alternatives without truly considering them. Just as Gotama is able to see past the words he speaks and to see the connection between moments in the world, Kamala is able to sense a unique spiritual dimension in the realm of love. In this way, Kamala, though not enlightened, is as important an instructor of knowledge for Siddhartha as Gotama was.
In Kamaswami’s employ, Siddhartha becomes wealthy and enjoys Kamala’s intimate company. He lives this way for many years, becoming more and more successful at business. At first, while business is all a game, he feels superior to those who pursue worldly pleasures and riches. Gradually, however, he, too, falls under the spell of possessions. He looks and acts like a wealthy merchant, wearing the finest clothes, eating rich food, entertaining dancers, and gambling, but he finds that the spiritual voice within him has died. Even his continued relationship with Kamala brings him little peace.
Some twenty years after his arrival, he notices that Kamala’s face has wrinkles and his own hair has traces of gray. Siddhartha begins to have dreams that suggest the time may have come to move on. In one dream, he recalls a conversation with Kamala in which she expresses interest in Gotama, but Siddhartha dissuades her from seeking him out. In another dream, he finds the rare songbird Kamala keeps in a cage has died. He throws it out into the street, as though he discards all that is good and of value in his life. When he wakes up, he feels death in his heart. The inner voice that had prompted him to become a Samana, to turn away from the Buddha, and to face the unknown has been silent for a long time.
Distraught over these dreams, Siddhartha retreats to a pleasure garden to meditate. He considers his life in the city. The life he has made by apprenticing himself to Kamaswami seems only a diversion from his path to enlightenment. His nights of drinking, dancing, and eating have yielded a pleasant oblivion but have produced nothing. His relationship with Kamala has given him pleasure and taught him much about love, but it cannot continue forever if he aims to achieve enlightenment. He realizes that he has been playing at the game of Samsara, the cyclical path of normal life in which one lives, suffers, and dies. While it is important for him to have played this game, he does not need to keep playing it forever. He leaves the city in despair, without informing anyone of his departure. When Kamala learns of his disappearance, she frees her songbird from its golden cage. From this day on, Kamala accepts no more lovers, and she discovers she is pregnant with Siddhartha’s child.
Siddhartha has learned that asceticism is a dead end in his search for enlightenment, and he now learns that the same holds true for sensory indulgence—neither path, alone, leads to enlightenment, and the mastery of either asceticism or sensuality inevitably results in enslavement. Siddhartha has mastered almost everything he has attempted to do: He was a model son of the Brahmins and a skilled ascetic among the Samanas, and he is now mastering the art of love and desire. However, perfection leaves little room for variety or spontaneity, and Siddhartha discovers that he has become a slave to the very thing he has mastered, with no possible relief from the cycle of predictable events. Even his experiences with Kamala fit into this unending pattern. He is devoted to Kamala, but he is also bored. He must seek pleasure over and over again to keep boredom from returning, which leads only to more boredom. As the years accumulate, Siddhartha understands that the cycle of the senses revolves slowly but inevitably around the fixed point of death. Siddhartha had to immerse himself in the material world to learn all that it offered, but this sort of immersion ultimately traps most people, preventing them from ever achieving enlightenment. Siddhartha has to leave this world to escape the same fate.
Kamala rightly observes that Siddhartha initially sees the city with the eyes of a Samana, but Siddhartha’s loss of spiritual detachment is inevitable. Siddhartha himself observes that his superior, distant feelings eventually disappear as he spends more time in the city. Such feelings can continue to exist only if he can maintain his distance from the material world and act as an impartial observer, but the more Siddhartha masters the material world, the more he becomes a part of it. He becomes almost equal to Kamaswami in business, and he becomes the greatest lover Kamala has ever had. In both cases, he becomes as good as his teachers, effectively becoming just like his teachers, which anchors him in the material world. He is no longer a thin, naked Samana but a wealthy, well-clothed, and well-fed merchant. The only aspects of his spiritual roots that remain are those isolated within his mind. As he gains material power, his spiritual power declines, until Siddhartha can no longer hear his inner voice. His spiritual roots are now a memory. Love and the material world have dragged Siddhartha away from the spiritual enlightenment he seeks.
Siddhartha’s dream about the dead songbird suggests what could happen if Siddhartha continues on his current path, and it helps Siddhartha decide to leave the city. Kamala’s actual release of the songbird upon Siddhartha’s departure suggests that Siddhartha has experienced an awakening. When Siddhartha disappears, Kamaswami searches for him, thinking bandits have captured him, but Kamala shows no surprise—she has expected Siddhartha to leave. She releases the songbird as soon as she hears the news, clearly linking Siddhartha and the bird. The bird dies in Siddhartha’s dream, and its death brings Siddhartha a feeling of complete spiritual emptiness. In the real world, the bird is freed, which suggests that Siddhartha has avoided the spiritual death foretold in the dream and has awakened from his slumber in the material world. Kamala is also on the verge of an awakening: after she releases the bird, she decides to take no more lovers. She changes her life in the wake of Siddhartha’s departure, and her pregnancy indicates a radical change that parallels the change Siddhartha will undergo next.
Siddhartha leaves the city and wanders back into the countryside, feeling miserable and contemplating suicide. He ponders the paths he has taken in search of enlightenment. With the Samanas, he abstained from all physical indulgence, and in the city he satiated every physical desire, but neither of these approaches brought him closer to enlightenment. Siddhartha wanders aimlessly back to the river he had crossed with the ferryman. As he is about to let himself slip into the water and end his useless life, the sacred word Om reverberates within him, and his slumbering spirit awakens. He recognizes the folly of his contemplated suicide, lies down in the grass, and falls asleep.
Siddhartha wakes up to find that a meditating Buddhist monk has joined him. He realizes it is Govinda, but Govinda does not recognize him. Siddhartha introduces himself, and Govinda tells him that he is still a follower of Gotama. Govinda remains convinced that his role as a spiritual pilgrim is still correct. Siddhartha replies that he too is a spiritual pilgrim, but his old friend is skeptical. After all, Govinda points out, Siddhartha is well fed and looks like a rich merchant. Siddhartha tells Govinda an abbreviated version of what has happened in his life since they parted, and repeats that he too is still a pilgrim in search of enlightenment. Govinda remains skeptical, but he bows respectfully to Siddhartha and goes on his way.
Siddhartha feels he can learn nothing more by joining again with the Samanas or the followers of Gotama. Eventually, Siddhartha reasons that his overthinking compromised his previous attempts at enlightenment. His zealous attempts to attach himself to religious movements or ways of being that appeared to offer enlightenment have been in error. He has, in a sense, been trying too hard to find what he seeks. Siddhartha stares down into the river and begins to feel a strong affection for it. He resolves to not leave its side.
When Siddhartha encounters the river, he realizes that the past is essential to life but does not determine the future. This certainty prepares him to move forward with his search for enlightenment. At the river, Siddhartha falls asleep, and when he wakes up, he knows he is a new man—he has been reborn. This rebirth differs from that of “Awakening,” when Siddhartha tried to consciously deny the past to make way for the future. The present rebirth confronts the past more directly and relates it to life in the present. The past reveals itself through memory and exists now as a bridge between the past and the future. Siddhartha sees his mistake in trying to control the direction of his life, for he could do this only by submission to the repetitive cycle of time. He considers that a long lifetime of experience and wandering has brought him nowhere at all. However, the river now grants him self-knowledge and sets him on a new course. Siddhartha has learned the Buddhist lesson of “right conduct”: he must take the way that comes naturally, heeding only his own voice, without trying to arrange the course of discovery in advance.
The appearance of Om signals the return of Siddhartha’s spiritual self and the beginning of the final path that will lead him to enlightenment. Om conveys the very essence of life, and each time it appears in Siddhartha it brings Siddhartha back in touch with his pure and primal self. When Siddhartha rejects his suicidal impulse, Om awakens him to a higher self, reminding him of the knowledge and divinity he has experienced throughout his search. The knowledge learned reappears because it is essential to what is to come. On the first page of Siddhartha, Om appears as a central, foundational teaching of the Brahmins. In this appearance it saves Siddhartha’s life and leads to awakening. It will reappear in the voice of the river as Siddhartha finally succeeds in attaining an enlightened state. Siddhartha’s deep sleep and his awakening after hearing Om bring understanding. Now, having failed to reach enlightenment through the extremes of self-denial and self-gratification, Siddhartha prepares to find a balance between the two.
Govinda cannot recognize Siddhartha when he encounters Siddhartha by the river, nor can Govinda recognize the truth about his own search for enlightenment. Govinda stays true to the Buddhist path even though he has not achieved the wisdom he seeks, and he cannot see that the path has failed him. Siddhartha, on the other hand, is able to glean truths from the Brahmin, Samana, and Buddhist worlds, but he is also able to recognize that none of these traditions will give him the enlightenment he seeks. Siddhartha, unlike Govinda, can see the flaws in potential paths to enlightenment, and he has the courage to abandon failed paths for other, more promising options. Though Govinda eventually does reach enlightenment, he does so only because Siddhartha, with his superior spiritual powers, is there to help him. Hesse doesn’t make clear whether the enlightenment Siddhartha transmits to Govinda is temporary or lasting. If Siddhartha gives Govinda only a fleeting glimpse of it, chances are good that Govinda will continue to search for his own enlightenment.
Having resolved to live a new life by the river, Siddhartha soon meets the ferryman, the same one who had helped Siddhartha cross the river years before. The ferryman, named Vasudeva, remembers Siddhartha as the Samana who had slept in his hut years ago, and he invites Siddhartha to share it once more. Siddhartha says that though he looks like a merchant, he wants to live with Vasudeva beside the river. When Siddhartha tells Vasudeva his story, Vasudeva knows the river has spoken to Siddhartha and grants his request to be his assistant.
Siddhartha works, eats, and sleeps alongside Vasudeva, while Vasudeva instructs Siddhartha in the practical aspects of being a ferryman. During this period, Siddhartha gently plies Vasudeva about the connection between his seeming enlightened detachment and his life at the river. Vasudeva replies that the river has many secrets to tell and lessons to offer, and that he will help Siddhartha learn these secrets and lessons. The first lesson Siddhartha learns from the river is that time does not exist. When he asks Vasudeva if he has learned this secret as well, Vasudeva smiles broadly and says yes. Siddhartha is excited with the discovery and realizes that all suffering, self-torment, anxieties, difficulties, and hostilities are anchored in time, and all will disappear when people overcome the idea of time. Some time later Vasudeva smiles even more broadly when Siddhartha notices that the river has many voices, that it sounds like all things and all people, and that when the voices are all heard in unison the sound Om appears.
News that the Buddha is dying sweeps through the land, and pilgrims by the hundreds begin flocking to pay him homage. Among them are Kamala and her son, an unwilling traveler who longs for the comforts of his home. A short distance from the river, she stops to rest, and a poisonous snake bites her. Vasudeva hears the son’s cry for help, carries Kamala to the ferry, and brings her across the river to their hut. Siddhartha immediately recognizes her, and he thinks her son looks familiar. Then he realizes that the boy must be his son. Kamala lives long enough to speak to Siddhartha. In this last conversation, she knows she need not see the Buddha to fulfill her wish of seeing an enlightened one—Siddhartha is no different from the Buddha. Siddhartha himself feels blessed, for now he has a son.
Siddhartha has spent many years pursuing enlightenment, and his experiences have shown him that enlightenment can’t be taught. However, in Vasudeva, Siddhartha finds the ideal teacher—in a sense, a teacher who does not teach. Vasudeva himself admits he is not a teacher: “If I could talk and teach, I would perhaps be a teacher, but as it is I am only a ferryman,” he says. Vasudeva listens to Siddhartha and encourages him to listen to the river. Siddhartha surrenders to Vasudeva his entire self, even his clothes, in order to follow his example in leading a life of calm fulfillment and wisdom. Vasudeva gives Siddhartha food and shelter, but he does not impose on him his own wisdom and experiences. Siddhartha follows Vasudeva’s example but reaches enlightenment on his own. Vasudeva is a guide, both literally and figuratively. While he guides Siddhartha back and forth across the river, he also affirms Siddhartha’s spiritual progress and encourages him to continue searching. Vasudeva is poised between the ordinary world and the world of enlightenment. He acts as an intermediary for seekers such as Siddhartha, who venture to the river and hope to pass from one world to the other.
One of the most important lessons the river teaches Siddhartha is that time does not exist, and that the present is all that matters. Siddhartha can now see that all life is unified, just as the river is in all places at one time. By evoking the symbol of the river to suggest the unity of life, Hesse refers to the philosophy and religion of Taoism, which maintains that a force, called Tao, flows through and connects all living things and the universe, and that balancing the Tao results in complete happiness. The primary symbol of Taoism is the Yin Yang, a circular shape with one black section and one white section fitting perfectly together.
The Yin Yang suggests the balance of opposites, an idea that the final portion of Siddhartha explores. The river, with its constant movement and presence, reveals the existence of opposites such as flux and permanence and time and timelessness. Siddhartha has attempted to find enlightenment in many different ways, but only when he accepts that opposites can co-exist does he reach enlightenment.
The river can be all places at once, and its essence never changes. In this way Siddhartha resembles the river. Despite the changing aspects of his experience, his essential self has always remained the same. He actually calls his life a river and uses this comparison to determine that time does not exist. Siddhartha, with the help of the river and Vasudeva, is finally able to learn the last elements necessary to achieve enlightenment. Vasudeva reveals the true importance of the river to Siddhartha: the river can teach Siddhartha everything he needs to know, beginning with how to listen. This doctrine suggests that knowledge resides in the present time and place, and that Siddhartha, from his position in the here and now, can discover all there is to know. Siddhartha understands that time does not really exist, since everything can be learned from the present moment. Without a fear of time, worry about the fleetingness of life, or the weight of boredom, Siddhartha can achieve enlightenment.
After Kamala’s funeral, Siddhartha does his best to console and provide for his son, but the boy is spoiled and cynical. Siddhartha’s son dislikes life with the two ferrymen, wishing to return to the city and the life of wealth he knows. Siddhartha cannot convince him that fine clothes, a soft bed, and servants have little meaning. Siddhartha believes he should raise his son himself, and Vasudeva at first agrees. Though he tries as hard as he can to make his son happy and to show him how to live a good life, Siddhartha finds his son filled with rage. His son steals from Vasudeva and Siddhartha and berates them, making their lives unpleasant. Siddhartha finds that, though he has never been able to love before, he now loves his son, and as a result he dismisses his son’s behavior as the inevitable result of Kamala’s death. He believes that in time his son will come to follow the same path he and Vasudeva have followed.
Vasudeva, however, eventually tells Siddhartha that the son should be allowed to leave if he wants to. Even though old men may be fully satisfied ferrying people across a river, a young boy may be unhappy in such conditions, he says. Vasudeva also reminds Siddhartha that his own father had not been able to prevent him from joining the Samanas or from learning the lessons of worldliness in the city. The boy should follow his own path, even if that makes Siddhartha unhappy. Siddhartha disagrees, feeling that the bond between father and son is important and, as his own flesh and blood, his son will likewise be driven to search for enlightenment. The river, where true enlightenment and learning can be found, should be an ideal spot for the boy to spend his days.
One night the son yells that Siddhartha has neither the authority nor the will to discipline him. The son screams that a ferryman living by a river is the last thing he would ever want to become, that he would rather be a murderer than a man like Siddhartha. Siddhartha has no reply. The next morning, Siddhartha discovers that his son has run away, stealing all of Siddhartha’s and Vasudeva’s money. Vasudeva believes that Siddhartha should let the son go, but Siddhartha feels he must follow his son, if only out of concern for his safety. Siddhartha gives chase but soon realizes his task is futile. He knows his son will hide if he sees Siddhartha. Still, Siddhartha keeps going until he has reached the city.
As he looks at the city, memories of his life there come rushing back. He remembers the time he spent with Kamaswami and, especially, with Kamala. In a flash, Siddhartha acknowledges he must let his son go. He understands that no amount of reasoning will convince him to stay. Although the son may grow into a spiritual pilgrim like Siddhartha, the quest must be undertaken on his own. Siddhartha falls to the ground, exhausted, and is awakened by Vasudeva, who has secretly followed him. Together, they return to the river.
Through his interactions with his son, Siddhartha learns the Buddhist lesson of “right endeavor,” and that it is not possible to impose one’s knowledge of the timeless upon one who is still subject to the limits of time. Siddhartha does not realize he is trying to make his son in his own image, but his son realizes it and resents Siddhartha for doing so. Siddhartha is, after all, little more than a stranger to the son. Even though Vasudeva reminds Siddhartha that no one can determine the boy’s calling, Siddhartha is blinded by love, and he ignores something he already knows: Everyone must follow his own voice to enlightenment. He has learned for himself that no one can teach enlightenment, and that enlightenment must be found within. Siddhartha tries to prescribe his son’s life just as his father had once tried to prescribe his, and he attempts to impose his views on his son. Siddhartha has come full circle. Just as he ran away from his own father, his son runs away in search of his own path.
Although Siddhartha’s road to enlightenment led him through the material world of Kama, he has tested himself only against materialism, not against love—and the appearance of his son forces him to undertake this challenge. Although Siddhartha has attained peace as a ferryman, he is fallible because he has not confronted love itself. Many compelling reasons exist for Siddhartha to allow his son to return to the city, but, blinded by love, he forgets that enlightenment must come from within and tries to impose his views on his son. Since leaving the followers of Gotama, Siddhartha has maintained that a journey toward peace and enlightenment must come from within, and Vasudeva points out Siddhartha’s contradiction of his own beliefs. Logically, Siddhartha should recognize his error in this situation. The fact that Siddhartha ignores his most fundamental belief is a testament to how much he loves his son.
He remembered how once, as a youth, he had compelled his father to let him go and join the ascetic, how he had taken leave of him, how he had gone and never returned. Had not his father also suffered the same pain that he was now suffering for his son?
Siddhartha meditates for many days on the loss of his son. His pain and sadness are great. One day, Siddhartha looks into the river, and as the water laughs at him for letting the wound burn so deeply, he realizes that life has an inevitable flow, just like a river. When Siddhartha was a boy, he left his own father despite great protestations. Now his own son has left him. Because of this doubled perspective, Siddhartha sympathizes with his father and his son at the same time. He understands that some sorrows in life cannot be prevented and will pass from generation to generation throughout time. Siddhartha feels a new sense of peace. That night he tells Vasudeva all he has felt, and Vasudeva seems to absorb all of his sorrows. Siddhartha realizes that Vasudeva is as enlightened as the Buddha, and that he seems like a god.
The old ferryman invites him to listen more closely to the river. As they sit on the bank, all the images of his life dance before him. He hears voices of joy and sorrow, good and evil, laughter and mourning. But he does not let himself be caught up by any single voice and hears only the single word Om. Sitting beside Vasudeva at the river, Siddhartha realizes that his Self is a part of the great perfection that is all of the voices in the world speaking together. Siddhartha no longer doubts his place in the world or second-guesses his actions. His face now reflects the same divine understanding that he first noticed on Vasudeva’s face when he met him. In this hour Siddhartha stops battling his fate, and his eyes glow with the serenity of knowledge. When Vasudeva sees this, he says that he has been waiting for this moment, and he departs to the forest, leaving Siddhartha as the ferryman.
In order to achieve enlightenment, Siddhartha must give up what he loves. Siddhartha’s difficulty with giving up his son suggests that love is the toughest challenge Siddhartha has faced during his quest and that Siddhartha is actually no different than anyone who has experienced love. Losing his son is difficult for Siddhartha, but what he experiences now as a father is the same as what he experienced years before as a son. When he sees a reflection of himself in the river, a reflection of his father is superimposed upon it, as though his father is subject to the same trial Siddhartha is presently undergoing. He sees a vision of the self in both past and future. His son acts in the way he himself had acted, and he will follow a path of his own choosing in the same way Siddhartha did. Similarly, Siddhartha is acting just as his father did so many years ago, trying to keep his son at home, despite his own wisdom. These similarities, which persist despite all that Siddhartha has learned, suggest that the present moment truly does contain all of time. The present moment contains a concentration of experiences that would take several lifetimes to undergo. Siddhartha knows not only that he himself is always the same despite the changes in his life but also that he is the same as all others in the world.
In “Om,” suffering acts as a humanizing force for Siddhartha. Through suffering, Siddhartha finds unity among his roles as father, traveler, and son, as well as unity between the past and future. In the past, Siddhartha has looked scornfully at people in the mortal world, but at this moment his suffering allows him to see his unity with the world. He no longer stands above and is no better than anyone else. His suffering has shown him that he is like them, and only in realizing his similarities with the rest of the world can he achieve the compassion necessary for true enlightenment. Vasudeva and Siddhartha have both experienced human suffering, and just as Vasudeva returns to the divine, so too will Siddhartha one day. Both have overcome their suffering in order to achieve enlightenment.
Vasudeva’s profession as a ferryman, one who guides a person from one side of the river to the other, fits well with his status as spiritual guide. If one side of the river represents enlightenment, and the other side represents the life as it was lived before enlightenment, then Vasudeva helps to convey people to their final destination. However, people must first reach the river of their own accord and know that they seek to reach the other bank. He does not tell people where they must go but helps those who are ready to complete the journey. When Siddhartha achieves enlightenment, Vasudeva leaves him, and Siddhartha inherits the position Vasudeva previously held. In this way, a level of equality is demonstrated between Vasudeva and Siddhartha. Although Vasudeva is often described in divine terms, he does not maintain the power relationship that would typically exist between student and teacher, or between the divine and the mortal. When he departs, Siddhartha is his equal. He has guided Siddhartha to his final destination and can now depart, unlike a teacher who would have to stay behind to continue teaching others.
No longer knowing whether time existed, whether this display had lasted a second or a hundred years, whether there was a Siddhartha, or a Gotama, a Self and others, wounded deeply by a divine arrow which gave him pleasure, deeply enchanted and exalted, Govinda stood yet a while bending over Siddhartha’s peaceful face which he had just kissed, which had just been the stage of all present and future forms.
Govinda returns to the river to seek enlightenment. He has heard of a wise man living there, but when he arrives, he does not recognize Siddhartha. When Govinda asks him for advice, Siddhartha tells him with a smile that he is searching too hard and that he is possessed by his goal, and then calls him by name. Govinda is as amazed now as when he failed to recognize Siddhartha at the river years earlier. Govinda still follows Gotama but has not attained the kind of enlightenment that Siddhartha now radiates. So he asks Siddhartha to teach him what he knows.
Govinda stays the night in Siddhartha’s hut, and Siddhartha gives advice that is a summary of his wisdom. He warns Govinda, however, that his wisdom can’t be taught, and that no one can teach the wisdom because verbal explanations are limited and can never communicate the entirety of enlightenment. Knowledge can be passed along, but individuals must earn their own wisdom. Siddhartha points out that when one attempts to teach, as the Buddha did, then one must divide or categorize the world into Samsara and Nirvana, into disappointment and truth, into sorrow and salvation. Siddhartha has learned that for every truth, there is an opposite truth. No one is ever fully saintly or fully sinful, and if someone appears to be so, it is merely a deception that time is real. The world is never incomplete or on its path to completeness. It is complete at every moment. Grace carries every sin, all babies carry death, and all the dying carry eternal life. Siddhartha says he wants only to love the world as it has been, as it is, and as it will be, and to consider all creatures with love, admiration, and reverence.
Govinda asks Siddhartha if there is not some additional advice that might help him. Govinda points out that he is very old and has little time to reach the final understanding Siddhartha has attained. Siddhartha tells Govinda to kiss him on the forehead. When he does, Govinda sees the timeless flow of forces and images pass before his eyes, just as Siddhartha had envisioned them in the flowing river. With tears streaming from his eyes, Govinda bows down to Siddhartha, whose smiling face is no different from that of the enlightened Buddha. Govinda and Siddhartha have both finally achieved the enlightenment they set out to find in the days of their youth.
This chapter represents the Buddhist idea of “right rapture,” with an enlightened one who rejoices in his enlightenment yet mocks the glory of his knowledge by admitting that full communication is impossible. Yet though Siddhartha cannot fully explain his enlightenment to Govinda, his face is still a vision of truth for Govinda. The face of an enlightened person, whether Gotama, Vasudeva, or Siddhartha, is similarly illuminated. When he looks at Siddhartha, Govinda sees thousands of faces, and though these faces change continuously, they are still Siddhartha’s face. While Govinda looks at this face, he realizes, as Kamala did, that it appears no different from Gotama’s. Thus the goal Siddhartha has realized for himself, the destruction of time, is visible for Govinda in the face of an enlightened person. Govinda, who has searched for enlightenment without full knowledge of the implications of his search, has struck upon wisdom. No difference exists now between seeker and sage, no difference exists between Siddhartha and Gotama, and no disunity is possible for the enlightened one who has found his way to the wisdom of the other shore.
The mentoring relationships between Vasudeva and Siddhartha and between Siddhartha and Govinda suggest that even though no one can teach the way to enlightenment, seekers still can be guided. At the end of Siddhartha, Siddhartha presumably will carry on as the ferryman now that Vasudeva has left. Siddhartha’s son bears Siddhartha’s name, implying that he may ultimately follow in Siddhartha’s footsteps. As ferryman, Siddhartha will pass back and forth between the two worlds that the river symbolically divides and unites, which suggests that the polarities of life will always exist. Like Vasudeva, Siddhartha will be of service to those who cross over the water and will give his passengers the opportunity to listen to the river’s message, though few will hear it. Siddhartha will guide those who need guidance, but he will not force his wisdom on those who do not wish to hear it. Govinda comes to Siddhartha in search of a concrete explanation of how to achieve enlightenment, and when Siddhartha’s words fail, as any instruction must, Siddhartha is able to communicate his knowledge wordlessly, through a kiss. Siddhartha guides Govinda into understanding all the knowledge Siddhartha has. In this way, Govinda achieves the enlightenment he would never have achieved had Siddhartha attempted to teach him instead of guide him.
Siddhartha’s attempt to explain enlightenment points out a fundamental difference in how various groups and teachers perceive Nirvana. Siddhartha says that while teachers such as Gotama and the Samanas insist that Nirvana is a state that can be obtained one day, Nirvana is actually going on all around us. All men can be sinners, and all can be saints, but regardless, all things contain the potential for Nirvana and perfection. A sinner may be on the path to becoming a saint. A gambler may evolve to one day into a Buddha. Therefore, all people are sacred. Siddhartha also implies that a sacredness exists in all things. When he shows Govinda a stone, he wants to convey that even the most humble object is sacred, since that stone may one day turn into soil, which may become a plant, an animal, a man, or even a Buddha. Therefore, Siddhartha reasons, everything is sacred and contains wondrous potential. Enlightenment, rather than being a state one finally reaches, is instead a state already obtained even as it is sought.
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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