by: Hermann Hesse


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The River

The river in Siddhartha represents life itself, time, and the path to enlightenment. As a representation of life, it provides knowledge without words, and Siddhartha’s reward for studying it is an intuitive understanding of its divine essence. The river’s many sounds suggest the sounds of all living things, and the flow of the river, as well as the fact that its water perpetually returns, suggests the nature of time. The ferryman points Siddhartha in the right direction, but the river itself is Siddhartha’s final instructor.

The Ferryman

In Siddhartha, the ferryman is a guide for both the river and the path to enlightenment. The ferryman is positioned between ordinary world and enlightenment, and those who seek enlightenment and are open to guidance will find what they need within the ferryman. Many teachers of wisdom appear during Siddhartha’s search, but each fails to lead Siddhartha to enlightenment. The ferryman, however, shows Siddhartha how to find enlightenment within himself. The first time Vasudeva meets Siddhartha, Siddhartha wants only to cross the river, and that is all Vasudeva helps him do. Vasudeva is not a teacher who will simply tell Siddhartha what he should know, but a guide who will lead him where he wishes to go. Years later, Siddhartha searches for knowledge from the river itself, and Vasudeva guides him in his attempts to hear what the river has to say. Siddhartha himself becomes a ferryman after he reaches enlightenment. He guides people back and forth across the river and eventually helps Govinda find enlightenment. In Siddhartha,only the ferrymen are able to help others find enlightenment.

The Smile

The only characters in Siddhartha who smile are those who have achieved enlightenment, and the smile evokes their spiritual perfection and harmony. Smiles are scarce among the Hindus and Samanas and in the material world, since enlightenment cannot be faked or forced. Only after going through the requisite stages leading to enlightenment can one express the beatific smile. Siddhartha first sees the smile in Gotama. The smile evokes Gotama’s saintliness and peace, and it impresses Siddhartha. Even when Siddhartha argues with him, Gotama responds with a smile, indicating the balance of an enlightened soul. Similarly, the smile marks Vasudeva as an enlightened soul, and he too impresses Siddhartha with his peaceful state. Vasudeva often smiles rather than talks, suggesting that enlightenment is communicated without words. Siddhartha himself does not exhibit a smile until he has achieved his own enlightenment, and this smile, in part, enables Govinda to realize that Siddhartha is like Gotama.