Summary: By the River

Siddhartha leaves the city and wanders back into the countryside, feeling miserable and contemplating suicide. He ponders the paths he has taken in search of enlightenment. With the Samanas, he abstained from all physical indulgence, and in the city he satiated every physical desire, but neither of these approaches brought him closer to enlightenment. Siddhartha wanders aimlessly back to the river he had crossed with the ferryman. As he is about to let himself slip into the water and end his useless life, the sacred word Om reverberates within him, and his slumbering spirit awakens. He recognizes the folly of his contemplated suicide, lies down in the grass, and falls asleep.

Siddhartha wakes up to find that a meditating Buddhist monk has joined him. He realizes it is Govinda, but Govinda does not recognize him. Siddhartha introduces himself, and Govinda tells him that he is still a follower of Gotama. Govinda remains convinced that his role as a spiritual pilgrim is still correct. Siddhartha replies that he too is a spiritual pilgrim, but his old friend is skeptical. After all, Govinda points out, Siddhartha is well fed and looks like a rich merchant. Siddhartha tells Govinda an abbreviated version of what has happened in his life since they parted, and repeats that he too is still a pilgrim in search of enlightenment. Govinda remains skeptical, but he bows respectfully to Siddhartha and goes on his way.

Siddhartha feels he can learn nothing more by joining again with the Samanas or the followers of Gotama. Eventually, Siddhartha reasons that his overthinking compromised his previous attempts at enlightenment. His zealous attempts to attach himself to religious movements or ways of being that appeared to offer enlightenment have been in error. He has, in a sense, been trying too hard to find what he seeks. Siddhartha stares down into the river and begins to feel a strong affection for it. He resolves to not leave its side.

Analysis: By the River

When Siddhartha encounters the river, he realizes that the past is essential to life but does not determine the future. This certainty prepares him to move forward with his search for enlightenment. At the river, Siddhartha falls asleep, and when he wakes up, he knows he is a new man—he has been reborn. This rebirth differs from that of “Awakening,” when Siddhartha tried to consciously deny the past to make way for the future. The present rebirth confronts the past more directly and relates it to life in the present. The past reveals itself through memory and exists now as a bridge between the past and the future. Siddhartha sees his mistake in trying to control the direction of his life, for he could do this only by submission to the repetitive cycle of time. He considers that a long lifetime of experience and wandering has brought him nowhere at all. However, the river now grants him self-knowledge and sets him on a new course. Siddhartha has learned the Buddhist lesson of “right conduct”: he must take the way that comes naturally, heeding only his own voice, without trying to arrange the course of discovery in advance.

The appearance of Om signals the return of Siddhartha’s spiritual self and the beginning of the final path that will lead him to enlightenment. Om conveys the very essence of life, and each time it appears in Siddhartha it brings Siddhartha back in touch with his pure and primal self. When Siddhartha rejects his suicidal impulse, Om awakens him to a higher self, reminding him of the knowledge and divinity he has experienced throughout his search. The knowledge learned reappears because it is essential to what is to come. On the first page of Siddhartha, Om appears as a central, foundational teaching of the Brahmins. In this appearance it saves Siddhartha’s life and leads to awakening. It will reappear in the voice of the river as Siddhartha finally succeeds in attaining an enlightened state. Siddhartha’s deep sleep and his awakening after hearing Om bring understanding. Now, having failed to reach enlightenment through the extremes of self-denial and self-gratification, Siddhartha prepares to find a balance between the two.

Govinda cannot recognize Siddhartha when he encounters Siddhartha by the river, nor can Govinda recognize the truth about his own search for enlightenment. Govinda stays true to the Buddhist path even though he has not achieved the wisdom he seeks, and he cannot see that the path has failed him. Siddhartha, on the other hand, is able to glean truths from the Brahmin, Samana, and Buddhist worlds, but he is also able to recognize that none of these traditions will give him the enlightenment he seeks. Siddhartha, unlike Govinda, can see the flaws in potential paths to enlightenment, and he has the courage to abandon failed paths for other, more promising options. Though Govinda eventually does reach enlightenment, he does so only because Siddhartha, with his superior spiritual powers, is there to help him. Hesse doesn’t make clear whether the enlightenment Siddhartha transmits to Govinda is temporary or lasting. If Siddhartha gives Govinda only a fleeting glimpse of it, chances are good that Govinda will continue to search for his own enlightenment.