Summary: Kamala

For a time Siddhartha wanders aimlessly. He sees the physical world with fresh eyes, noticing the animals that frolic around him and the beautiful plants along his path. For the first time he truly feels a part of the present and notices the world as it is, rather than ignoring it in favor of more spiritual, abstract contemplations. He spends the first night of his new life in a ferryman’s hut and dreams of Govinda. In the dream, Govinda, imitating Christ, asks, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” Then Govinda changes into a woman, and Siddhartha suckles at her breast.

The next day Siddhartha asks the ferryman to take him across the river. The ferryman tells Siddhartha he has learned much from the river, and Siddhartha finds comfort in the ferryman’s words. When they reach the other bank, Siddhartha regrets not being able to pay the ferryman, but the ferryman does not seem to mind. He prophesies that Siddhartha will return to the river in the future, and that Siddhartha will give him a gift at that time.

At the edge of a village, a young woman appears and attempts to seduce Siddhartha. Though she tempts him, his inner voice tells him to resist. However, the next woman Siddhartha sees as he enters the city offers a temptation he can’t resist. She is Kamala, a beautiful, elegant courtesan. As her sedan chair is carried past Siddhartha, she returns his smile. His first worldly goal is clear.

After a bath in the river and a haircut and shave from a friendly barber, Siddhartha returns to Kamala. She is amused that a Samana should come out of the forest and ask to be taught the art of love. Even though she is willing to exchange a kiss for a poem, he will learn no more until he can return wearing fine clothes and bearing gifts. Despite her apparent amusement, she recommends Siddhartha to her friend Kamaswami, a wealthy businessman, but insists that Siddhartha become his equal, not his servant.

Analysis: Kamala

The title of this chapter, “Kamala,” and those of the two chapters that follow suggest that Siddhartha will seek meaning in the world of the senses, a radical departure from his exploration of the spiritual world. The root word of Kamala, kama, signifies the Hindu god of love and desire. Siddhartha’s immersion in this world will awaken these aspects of himself, which he has long kept quiet. His transformation begins even before he meets Kamala or Kamaswami. His increased awareness of the sensory world, apparent from the beginning of this chapter, demonstrates that he is allowing the world to influence him. In the past, he trained himself to deny the senses and find the truth by ignoring the world and time, which he took to be illusory. This idea of the world as illusion, or Maya, is common to Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and suggests that the material world is a distraction from the divine, essential truth. By trying to see the world with clarity, rather than ignoring it as Maya, Siddhartha has made a clear break from his previous spiritual understanding.

Siddhartha’s dream of Govinda turning into a woman marks a transitional moment in Siddhartha’s life, as he moves away from his previous ascetic life that he shared with Govinda toward a new life of desire, which he’ll share with Kamala. Initially, this shift concerns mainly Siddhartha’s senses and imagination, but his encounter with the washerwoman at the edge of the village makes him consider if and when he will enter the world of desire. He rejects her, despite desiring her, which indicates an awareness of the difference between obeying one’s inner voice and succumbing to impulse. When Siddhartha becomes Kamala’s lover, he makes a conscious choice to enter the world of desire, and he becomes attached to it.

Siddhartha’s encounters with the two women suggest that physical desire and sex are essential aspects of the material world he must explore. When the first woman wordlessly invites Siddhartha to engage in a sexual act, Siddhartha refuses her, but his curiosity about sex remains. When he sees the beautiful courtesan Kamala, his lust finds a focal point. When Siddhartha decides to make sex his new project, he immerses himself with an intensity usually reserved for his religious apprenticeship. Although he has rejected spiritual teachers, he will accept a teacher of desire, and he consciously decides to follow her teachings. Siddhartha is not an innocent, and neither is he willing to passively accept whatever sexual experience falls into his lap. He is, to some extent, calculating and ambitious. He asks around about Kamala, and when he speaks with her, his deep commitment to change himself to obtain her love becomes apparent to both of them. Siddhartha completes the break from the spiritual world when he shaves and has his hair trimmed, for he has finally taken into account his own physical body, transforming himself in order to fit into the material world.