Certainly. This too I have learned from the river: Everything returns! You, too, Shramana, will come back.
When the ferryman Vasudeva and Siddhartha first meet, Siddhartha crosses the river towards the city. Here, Vasudeva predicts that Siddhartha will return to the river someday. Siddhartha does indeed return to the river, suicidal and spiritually bereft from many years of city life. Vasudeva’s quiet wisdom gives him insight that the river will draw Siddhartha back, foreshadowing their future relationship.
“You will learn how,” Vasudeva said, “but not from me. The river taught me how to listen, from the river you too will learn how.”
Vasudeva explains that Siddhartha will learn the art of listening from the river, not from him. Siddhartha’s journey has taken him from his father, to the Shramanas, to Gautama, to Kamala and Kamaswami, and now to Vasudeva. Unlike Siddhartha’s other teachers, however, Vasudeva diverts Siddhartha’s attention away from himself and towards the river.
Look here, I am no scholar, I do not understand how to speak, I do not understand how to think, either. I understand only to listen and be pious, I have learned nothing else.
In a display of humility, Vasudeva explains to Siddhartha that his wisdom comes not from books or sophisticated philosophical knowledge, but from listening to the river and nothing else. Vasudeva refrains from engaging in a student-teacher relationship with Siddhartha. He understands that his role serves only as a guide for those ready to receive the wisdom of the river and not as an instructor.
“That is so,” Vasudeva nodded, “all of the voices of creation are in its voice.”
Vasudeva responds after Siddhartha remarks that he senses that the river has “many voices.” Vasudeva agrees that the river contains many voices—the voices of kings, warriors, of women giving birth—essentially all the voices of creation. Vasudeva’s role as the ferryman and spiritual guide leads Siddhartha to these important insights by gently guiding Siddhartha’s course, rather than directly telling him what to think or do.
Water chooses water, youth chooses youth, your son is not in a place where he can thrive. Go and ask the river too, go and listen to what it tells you!
As matters between Siddhartha and his son climax, Siddhartha looks to Vasudeva for advice. As always, Vasudeva refers Siddhartha to the river for answers. Vasudeva knows that Siddhartha’s son needs to leave the river in order to grow according to his own nature; the river has nothing to teach the son yet.
O yes, he too is called, he too is of life eternal. But do we know then, you and I, to what he is called, to which path, to which deeds, to which suffering?
Vasudeva reminds Siddhartha that no one—not even they—can determine another person’s calling in life. Siddhartha’s son needs to make his own choices, make his own mistakes, and follow his own desires. Vasudeva knows that Siddhartha’s son will likely reach enlightenment as his father has, but the path he takes to get there must be of his own design.
The ferryman’s smile beamed brightly; he gently touched Siddhartha’s arm and said, “Ask the river about it, Friend! Hear it laugh out loud!”
The ferryman Vasudeva tells Siddhartha not only to go to the river, but also to hear the river laugh at him. Vasudeva knows that when Siddhartha brings his conflict with his son to the river, the river will laugh, revealing Siddhartha’s hypocrisy. Siddhartha left his father to forge his own path, and so will Siddhartha’s son. Vasudeva understands that only the river can help Siddhartha understand this truth.
Do you really believe you have committed your follies so that your son may be spared them?
In a rare instance of instruction, Vasudeva points outs an important error in Siddhartha’s logic. Siddhartha knows that a person’s journey towards enlightenment can only come from within, yet he ignores this fact with his son. Siddhartha wants to protect his son from the same mistakes he made, but, as Vasudeva points out, no one can dictate another person’s path.
“You have heard it laugh,” he said. “But you have not heard everything. Let us listen together, there is more that you will hear.”
When they first meet again, Vasudeva tells Siddhartha that he will hear many sounds in the river, but there is one sound he will hear above all else. Now, Vasudeva, with his divine sense of timing, knows that Siddhartha has now reached the end of his journey and is ready to hear this last sound—the sound of “Om.”
I have waited for this moment, dear friend. Now that it has come, let me go. For a long time I have waited for this moment, for a long time I have been Vasudeva the ferryman. Enough now, the time has come. Farewell, hut, farewell, river, farewell, Siddhartha!
Vasudeva bids farewell to Siddhartha and to life. As a ferryman, he can no longer physically make the crossings. As a spiritual guide, Siddhartha has now reached nirvana. Vasudeva looks forward to his death with joy, knowing that he completed his work on earth.