Summary: The Ferryman

Having resolved to live a new life by the river, Siddhartha soon meets the ferryman, the same one who had helped Siddhartha cross the river years before. The ferryman, named Vasudeva, remembers Siddhartha as the Samana who had slept in his hut years ago, and he invites Siddhartha to share it once more. Siddhartha says that though he looks like a merchant, he wants to live with Vasudeva beside the river. When Siddhartha tells Vasudeva his story, Vasudeva knows the river has spoken to Siddhartha and grants his request to be his assistant.

Siddhartha works, eats, and sleeps alongside Vasudeva, while Vasudeva instructs Siddhartha in the practical aspects of being a ferryman. During this period, Siddhartha gently plies Vasudeva about the connection between his seeming enlightened detachment and his life at the river. Vasudeva replies that the river has many secrets to tell and lessons to offer, and that he will help Siddhartha learn these secrets and lessons. The first lesson Siddhartha learns from the river is that time does not exist. When he asks Vasudeva if he has learned this secret as well, Vasudeva smiles broadly and says yes. Siddhartha is excited with the discovery and realizes that all suffering, self-torment, anxieties, difficulties, and hostilities are anchored in time, and all will disappear when people overcome the idea of time. Some time later Vasudeva smiles even more broadly when Siddhartha notices that the river has many voices, that it sounds like all things and all people, and that when the voices are all heard in unison the sound Om appears.

News that the Buddha is dying sweeps through the land, and pilgrims by the hundreds begin flocking to pay him homage. Among them are Kamala and her son, an unwilling traveler who longs for the comforts of his home. A short distance from the river, she stops to rest, and a poisonous snake bites her. Vasudeva hears the son’s cry for help, carries Kamala to the ferry, and brings her across the river to their hut. Siddhartha immediately recognizes her, and he thinks her son looks familiar. Then he realizes that the boy must be his son. Kamala lives long enough to speak to Siddhartha. In this last conversation, she knows she need not see the Buddha to fulfill her wish of seeing an enlightened one—Siddhartha is no different from the Buddha. Siddhartha himself feels blessed, for now he has a son.

Analysis: The Ferryman

Siddhartha has spent many years pursuing enlightenment, and his experiences have shown him that enlightenment can’t be taught. However, in Vasudeva, Siddhartha finds the ideal teacher—in a sense, a teacher who does not teach. Vasudeva himself admits he is not a teacher: “If I could talk and teach, I would perhaps be a teacher, but as it is I am only a ferryman,” he says. Vasudeva listens to Siddhartha and encourages him to listen to the river. Siddhartha surrenders to Vasudeva his entire self, even his clothes, in order to follow his example in leading a life of calm fulfillment and wisdom. Vasudeva gives Siddhartha food and shelter, but he does not impose on him his own wisdom and experiences. Siddhartha follows Vasudeva’s example but reaches enlightenment on his own. Vasudeva is a guide, both literally and figuratively. While he guides Siddhartha back and forth across the river, he also affirms Siddhartha’s spiritual progress and encourages him to continue searching. Vasudeva is poised between the ordinary world and the world of enlightenment. He acts as an intermediary for seekers such as Siddhartha, who venture to the river and hope to pass from one world to the other.

One of the most important lessons the river teaches Siddhartha is that time does not exist, and that the present is all that matters. Siddhartha can now see that all life is unified, just as the river is in all places at one time. By evoking the symbol of the river to suggest the unity of life, Hesse refers to the philosophy and religion of Taoism, which maintains that a force, called Tao, flows through and connects all living things and the universe, and that balancing the Tao results in complete happiness. The primary symbol of Taoism is the Yin Yang, a circular shape with one black section and one white section fitting perfectly together.

The Yin Yang suggests the balance of opposites, an idea that the final portion of Siddhartha explores. The river, with its constant movement and presence, reveals the existence of opposites such as flux and permanence and time and timelessness. Siddhartha has attempted to find enlightenment in many different ways, but only when he accepts that opposites can co-exist does he reach enlightenment.

The river can be all places at once, and its essence never changes. In this way Siddhartha resembles the river. Despite the changing aspects of his experience, his essential self has always remained the same. He actually calls his life a river and uses this comparison to determine that time does not exist. Siddhartha, with the help of the river and Vasudeva, is finally able to learn the last elements necessary to achieve enlightenment. Vasudeva reveals the true importance of the river to Siddhartha: the river can teach Siddhartha everything he needs to know, beginning with how to listen. This doctrine suggests that knowledge resides in the present time and place, and that Siddhartha, from his position in the here and now, can discover all there is to know. Siddhartha understands that time does not really exist, since everything can be learned from the present moment. Without a fear of time, worry about the fleetingness of life, or the weight of boredom, Siddhartha can achieve enlightenment.