Summary: Gotama

Siddhartha and Govinda journey to the camp of Gotama’s followers, and the followers welcome them as spiritual pilgrims. Gotama makes a deep impression on Siddhartha and Govinda. He seems to radiate pure enlightenment. His teachings include Buddhism’s Eightfold Path, the Fourfold Way, and other aspects of Buddhism, as well as many practices similar to those of the Samanas. Siddhartha and Govinda dedicate themselves to these teachings. Govinda quickly resolves to give himself over completely to the lifestyle Gotama prescribes. However, while Govinda is completely swayed by Gotama and decides to join his followers permanently, Siddhartha has doubts and finds he has trouble completely accepting some of Gotama’s teachings.

The next morning, when Siddhartha unexpectedly meets Gotama in the grove, he boldly speaks to him about his doctrine, praising his victory in finding the unbroken chain of being, of cause and effect. For Siddhartha, however, the unity is imperfect. The message cannot contain for Siddhartha, or for others, the secret of what Gotama himself has experienced. Siddhartha also points out a contradiction to Gotama: How can one embrace the unity of all things, as Gotama asks, if they are also told to overcome the physical world?

Gotama responds that his goal is not to give a perfect mathematical understanding of the universe, but to achieve freedom from suffering. Siddhartha responds that while Gotama himself has achieved Nirvana, he did it on his own, without a teacher. Siddhartha implicitly questions the efficacy of the approach prescribed by Gotama to his followers. Gotama admits that Siddhartha may technically have a point but also notes that Siddhartha can put forward no spiritual guidance superior to his own. Gotama asks if, according to Siddhartha’s reasoning, his legions of followers would not be better off pursuing a life of pleasure in the city. Siddhartha leaves his meeting with Gotama unconvinced that Gotama’s way of life is right for him. Sadly, he also leaves Govinda behind and begins a search for a way to find the meaning of life that is not dependent on religious instruction.

Analysis: Gotama

Although Siddhartha has been looking for someone to show him the path to enlightenment, his meeting with Gotama convinces him that no formula for salvation or enlightenment can exist. Just as the Hindus and Samanas that Siddhartha left behind preached a specific route to enlightenment, Gotama similarly teaches a set of rules. His rules, like those of the Hindus and Samanas, speak of renunciation as a means of escaping suffering. However, Siddhartha has already realized during his time with the Samanas that he cannot reach enlightenment by rejecting the world of the Self and the world of the body. He cannot believe in Nirvana if it means separation from life’s suffering. By leaving Gotama, Siddhartha rejects the prescribed formula for reaching enlightenment that this religion offers. Siddhartha realizes that all religions offer specific formulas for reaching enlightenment, just as all teachers offer knowledge couched in terms of their own experiences, and so he cannot rely on any individual religion or teacher in his search for enlightenment.

Neither Gotama nor any other guide can teach enlightenment because wisdom must be learned through experience, and it cannot be communicated through words. Gotama’s lectures communicate knowledge about enlightenment and what causes suffering, but the listener cannot translate this knowledge into actual enlightenment. The knowledge leads to greater understanding, but words themselves cannot substitute for experience, and their meaning depends on usage and interpretation. Though Gotama speaks of enlightenment, his efforts can enable a follower only to realize that the possibility of enlightenment exists—he cannot provide enlightenment itself. The follower must experience the revelation for himself or herself, which in a way renders a teacher useless: the process of reaching enlightenment is internal. Siddhartha knows this already, so he cannot become one of Gotama’s followers.

Govinda remains behind in order to follow Gotama, and although Siddhartha is saddened by his departure, he also understands that he must seek enlightenment alone. Because formulas for enlightenment do not exist, and teachers cannot pass enlightenment on to their students, Siddhartha must seek enlightenment by searching his own soul alone. Gotama has followers, but he has already achieved enlightenment and can endure distractions. Siddhartha, however, has not yet achieved enlightenment and is distracted by Govinda’s presence. He will be unable to achieve enlightenment as long as Govinda remains with him, so he lets Govinda go. Only when Govinda leaves is Siddhartha free to truly test himself in the manner necessary to bring about enlightenment.