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.