Summary: Govinda

Govinda returns to the river to seek enlightenment. He has heard of a wise man living there, but when he arrives, he does not recognize Siddhartha. When Govinda asks him for advice, Siddhartha tells him with a smile that he is searching too hard and that he is possessed by his goal, and then calls him by name. Govinda is as amazed now as when he failed to recognize Siddhartha at the river years earlier. Govinda still follows Gotama but has not attained the kind of enlightenment that Siddhartha now radiates. So he asks Siddhartha to teach him what he knows.

Govinda stays the night in Siddhartha’s hut, and Siddhartha gives advice that is a summary of his wisdom. He warns Govinda, however, that his wisdom can’t be taught, and that no one can teach the wisdom because verbal explanations are limited and can never communicate the entirety of enlightenment. Knowledge can be passed along, but individuals must earn their own wisdom. Siddhartha points out that when one attempts to teach, as the Buddha did, then one must divide or categorize the world into Samsara and Nirvana, into disappointment and truth, into sorrow and salvation. Siddhartha has learned that for every truth, there is an opposite truth. No one is ever fully saintly or fully sinful, and if someone appears to be so, it is merely a deception that time is real. The world is never incomplete or on its path to completeness. It is complete at every moment. Grace carries every sin, all babies carry death, and all the dying carry eternal life. Siddhartha says he wants only to love the world as it has been, as it is, and as it will be, and to consider all creatures with love, admiration, and reverence.

Govinda asks Siddhartha if there is not some additional advice that might help him. Govinda points out that he is very old and has little time to reach the final understanding Siddhartha has attained. Siddhartha tells Govinda to kiss him on the forehead. When he does, Govinda sees the timeless flow of forces and images pass before his eyes, just as Siddhartha had envisioned them in the flowing river. With tears streaming from his eyes, Govinda bows down to Siddhartha, whose smiling face is no different from that of the enlightened Buddha. Govinda and Siddhartha have both finally achieved the enlightenment they set out to find in the days of their youth.

Analysis: Govinda

This chapter represents the Buddhist idea of “right rapture,” with an enlightened one who rejoices in his enlightenment yet mocks the glory of his knowledge by admitting that full communication is impossible. Yet though Siddhartha cannot fully explain his enlightenment to Govinda, his face is still a vision of truth for Govinda. The face of an enlightened person, whether Gotama, Vasudeva, or Siddhartha, is similarly illuminated. When he looks at Siddhartha, Govinda sees thousands of faces, and though these faces change continuously, they are still Siddhartha’s face. While Govinda looks at this face, he realizes, as Kamala did, that it appears no different from Gotama’s. Thus the goal Siddhartha has realized for himself, the destruction of time, is visible for Govinda in the face of an enlightened person. Govinda, who has searched for enlightenment without full knowledge of the implications of his search, has struck upon wisdom. No difference exists now between seeker and sage, no difference exists between Siddhartha and Gotama, and no disunity is possible for the enlightened one who has found his way to the wisdom of the other shore.

The mentoring relationships between Vasudeva and Siddhartha and between Siddhartha and Govinda suggest that even though no one can teach the way to enlightenment, seekers still can be guided. At the end of Siddhartha, Siddhartha presumably will carry on as the ferryman now that Vasudeva has left. Siddhartha’s son bears Siddhartha’s name, implying that he may ultimately follow in Siddhartha’s footsteps. As ferryman, Siddhartha will pass back and forth between the two worlds that the river symbolically divides and unites, which suggests that the polarities of life will always exist. Like Vasudeva, Siddhartha will be of service to those who cross over the water and will give his passengers the opportunity to listen to the river’s message, though few will hear it. Siddhartha will guide those who need guidance, but he will not force his wisdom on those who do not wish to hear it. Govinda comes to Siddhartha in search of a concrete explanation of how to achieve enlightenment, and when Siddhartha’s words fail, as any instruction must, Siddhartha is able to communicate his knowledge wordlessly, through a kiss. Siddhartha guides Govinda into understanding all the knowledge Siddhartha has. In this way, Govinda achieves the enlightenment he would never have achieved had Siddhartha attempted to teach him instead of guide him.

Siddhartha’s attempt to explain enlightenment points out a fundamental difference in how various groups and teachers perceive Nirvana. Siddhartha says that while teachers such as Gotama and the Samanas insist that Nirvana is a state that can be obtained one day, Nirvana is actually going on all around us. All men can be sinners, and all can be saints, but regardless, all things contain the potential for Nirvana and perfection. A sinner may be on the path to becoming a saint. A gambler may evolve to one day into a Buddha. Therefore, all people are sacred. Siddhartha also implies that a sacredness exists in all things. When he shows Govinda a stone, he wants to convey that even the most humble object is sacred, since that stone may one day turn into soil, which may become a plant, an animal, a man, or even a Buddha. Therefore, Siddhartha reasons, everything is sacred and contains wondrous potential. Enlightenment, rather than being a state one finally reaches, is instead a state already obtained even as it is sought.