Did not Atman dwell inside him, did not the primal source flow within his own heart?
Early on in the story, Siddhartha begins to grow restless at home, dissatisfied with his life and yearning for another path. Siddhartha’s upbringing gave him a deep knowledge of holy texts such as the Upanishads, which teach of the existence of the Atman, the “All-One,” in which one can find nirvana. Yet, Siddhartha keenly observes the difference between knowing things through the mind and knowing things through experience. As Siddhartha considers all the wise, sagacious men who surround him, he sees that for all their knowledge of Atman, they have not yet experienced the All-One themselves.
Govinda replied: “Our eldest has reached perhaps the age of sixty years.” And Siddhartha: “Sixty years old, and he has not attained nirvana.”
Govinda and Siddhartha discuss the age and progress of one of their spiritual teachers. After spending years with the Shramanas, a group of ascetics, Siddhartha grows restless with them. Siddhartha observes in them the same problem he observed at home: These holy men possess extensive knowledge of nirvana but have not reached such a state themselves. While the Shramanas taught Siddhartha the important art of losing oneself through a strict ascetic regime of fasting and long hours of meditation, Siddhartha has grown weary with the process. Siddhartha yearns to learn from others who’ve actually found success with their methods.
And—such is my thinking, o Exalted One—no one attains deliverance through teaching!
Siddhartha engages in a polite argument with Gautama, the Buddha, over whether one can truly achieve enlightenment through another’s teachings. Siddhartha acknowledges that Gautama has achieved enlightenment, which would indicate that Gautama can show others how to reach enlightenment as well. However, Siddhartha’s experiences with the Brahmins and Shramanas lead him to believe otherwise. Siddhartha points out to Gautama that experiencing enlightenment doesn’t necessarily enable a person to teach others how to achieve enlightenment—such an elevated state simply enables them to teach others about the world. Siddhartha maintains that people can only reach enlightenment through their inner selves.
In this hour Siddhartha ceased struggling with his fate, ceased suffering. On his face blossomed the serenity of knowledge, which no will opposes any longer, knowing perfection, in agreement with the flow of events, with the stream of life, full of compassion, full of sympathy, abandoned to the flow, belonging to unity.
The narrator describes the moment in which Siddhartha achieves enlightenment when Vasudeva brings Siddhartha to the river for one final time. Siddhartha first sees a flow of images from his life—his father’s face, his time with Kamala, Govinda’s face—as they all dissolve and merge into the flow of the river itself. Siddhartha hears the culmination of the thousands of voices of the world into one single sound: Om. Finally, Siddhartha merges with the river itself, understanding life as one continuous flow of unity, where enlightenment resides in every moment.
You, Venerable One, may indeed be a seeker, for, striving toward your goal, there is much you do not see which is right before your eyes.
During Siddhartha and Govinda’s final visit, Govinda eagerly asks Siddhartha to tell him how he achieved enlightenment, the goal they have both searched for all their lives. Here, Siddhartha tells Govinda the act of seeking nirvana can, ironically, bring him farther away from it. Siddhartha tells Govinda to focus his attention on the world around him instead. From his time with Vasudeva, Siddhartha has come to understand that the essence of Atman exists everywhere. He instructs Govinda to use an indirect approach to best sense the truths he seeks.