Summary: The Son

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.

Analysis: The Son

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?

See Important Quotations Explained