Siddhartha Summary and Analysis
Part Two: Siddhartha
After rejecting his former beliefs about the world's suspicious, illusory character, Siddhartha becomes enthralled by its beauteous details. He reflects on his previous experiences and realizes that "he had never found his Self, because he had wanted to trap it in the net of thoughts" (47). Neither, though, is the Self to be trapped in the net of senses. The Self is a totality which cannot be understood through only one aspect. Siddhartha, then, resolves "only [to] strive after whatever the inward voice commanded him, not tarry anywhere but where the voice advised him" (48).
Having left Govinda and the Buddha, Siddhartha spends the night in a Ferryman's hut. There he dreams of suckling the bosom of a woman and tasting the pleasures of life. The next morning he meets the Ferryman and crosses the river. Siddhartha admits to having no money to pay for the voyage, but the Ferryman says that friendship is payment enough. Siddhartha then comes to a village where he meets a woman with whom he comes close to having sex. He stops, though, just before the point of intercourse because his inner voice commands him not to do so. Leaving the woman, Siddhartha continues on to a large town where he sees a beautiful woman being carried on a sedan chair by her servants. Smitten, Siddhartha determines to met her and enters town to make himself presentable.
A couple of days later, Siddhartha returns to the grove where he saw the beautiful womanhe learns in town that she is a courtesan named Kamalaand begs to meet her. Making her acquaintance, Siddhartha asks Kamala to teach him the art of Love. Kamala responds that she will only do so when Siddhartha obtains nice clothes, shoes, and money with which to buy her gifts. Siddhartha asks Kamala where he might acquire such things. She asks him what skills he has, to which he replies, thinking, waiting, and fasting. Kamala sends him away with a robe, but not before trading him a kiss for a poem. The next day Siddhartha returns to Kamala and she instructs him to see the merchant Kamaswami who will give him a job.
Amongst the People
At Kamala's request, Siddhartha goes to see Kamaswami. The merchant asks Siddhartha about his background and skills. After some philosophical wordplay, Kamaswami learns that Siddhartha can read and write and offers him a job. Siddhartha moves into the merchant's house and learns about business. Soon he is living on his own and visiting Kamala regularly for his love lessons. "Here with Kamala lay the value and meaning of his present life, not in Kamaswami's business" (66).
Although Siddhartha is successful as a merchant, he shows little enthusiasm for business or anything else except for being with Kamala. This lack of enthusiasm stems from a realization Siddhartha has about his relations with other people; "Although he found it so easy to speak to everyone,...he was very conscious of the fact that there was something that separated him from themand this was due to the fact that he had been a Samana" (70). He possesses a distance from his emotions and behaviors that ordinary people do not possess. This distance indicates that his Self is not really participating in his daily activities. The only aspect of his life in which he felt truly involved was Kamala, who he admits knows him better than anyone ever has.
The more time Siddhartha spent in the town, the more distracted he became from his quest. As Hesse puts it, "At times he heard within him a soft, gentle voice, which reminded him quietly, complained quietly, so that he could hardly hear it" (71). The only outlet he had for reflection was with Kamala with whom he would discuss the Buddha and the nature of enlightenment. Kamala remarks that Siddhartha's frequent recollections of the Buddha indicates that he is a Samana still at heart, a state which prevent him from fully appreciating his present existence.
At last, Siddhartha begins to feel attached to ordinary life. The consequence of this, however, was that "that eager readiness to hear the divine voice within his own heart had gradually become a memory, had passed" (76). This transition was not easy, though. While he excites his senses and narrows the distance between his Self and his daily activities, Siddhartha does not possess the sense of importance with which ordinary people live their lives, and for this he envies them.
Eventually, "the soul sickness of the rich crept over him, and Siddhartha gives himself completely to his acquisitiveness and his insatiable desire to consume (78). This change is most profoundly represented by Siddhartha's passionate gambling. Siddhartha begins gambling as a way to show his contempt for riches, but soon the thrill of the game became its own reward, the higher the stakes, the more potent the intoxication. This downward spiral is finally arrested by a dream Siddhartha has.
Earlier during the night of the dream, Siddhartha notices the first traces of age on Kamala's face, provoking Siddhartha's own fear of mortality. After he leaves Kamala, he tries to deaden his anxieties in an orgy of dance and wine, but this only makes him feel more sick and desperate. That night he dreams that Kamala's songbird has died and that he threw its carcass out into the street. At this discarding of the bird, Siddhartha feels that he had discarded all that was valuable within himself. Upon waking, Siddhartha goes to his pleasure garden and reflects upon his life to that point. He realizes that he is tired of his present life, his hedonistic routine and his possessions. Siddhartha then leaves the town, never to return. When Kamala hears of his departure, which was not unexpected, she releases her songbird and closes her house to visitors. After a time, she discovers she is pregnant with Siddhartha's child.
By the River
After leaving town, Siddhartha returns to the river where had met the ferryman. Disillusioned with himself and the world, he contemplates suicide. As Hesse says, "There was no more purpose; there was nothing more than a deep, painful longing to shake off this whole confused dream, to spit out this stale wine, to make an end of this bitter, painful life" (88). Right before he surrenders to a watery death, though, Siddhartha hears the sound "Om" emanating from within him. Although he stops his self-destruction, his crisis deepens as he begins to understand how wretched his life has been. Overwhelmed, Siddhartha falls into a deep sleep.
When he awakes from this sleep, Siddhartha feels refreshed and happy. At first he wonders if perhaps he actually did die and was reborn anew. Eventually, though, "he recognized himself, he recognized his hands and feet, the place where he lay and the Self in his breast, Siddhartha, self-willed, individualistic" (91). Soon he realizes that his old friend Govinda is near him. Govinda, not recognizing Siddhartha in the garb of a rich man, tells him that he stopped to watch over his sleep. Siddhartha discloses his identity, and the two friends speak briefly before Govinda returns to the Buddha.
Siddhartha sits by the river for a while and considers his life, concluding that although his recent existence has almost pressed him to suicide, it was good for him to have lived it. As Siddhartha says, "I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide in order to experience grace, to hear Om again, to sleep deeply again and to awaken refreshed again" (97). He had to let the Brahmin, the Samana, the pleasure-monger, and the man of property all die in order to find the self that lurked beneath these identities. Now he is happy and free like a child, possessed of a great capacity to love. He is now ready to complete his life's journey.
Intrigued by the river's beauty and silent wisdom, Siddhartha decides to stay by the river. Siddhartha soon meets the ferryman Vasuveda who had taken him across the river at the beginning at Part II. Siddhartha soon discloses all his thoughts to Vasuveda who has a remarkable aptitude for listening. He tells Vasuveda his life story up to his recent experience by the river, and Vasuveda entreats him to stay with him.
The two grow together as Siddhartha begins to learn the river's wisdom. Among this wisdom is the unreality of time, which Siddhartha expresses by analogy to reincarnation. As he says, "Siddhartha's previous lives were also not in the past, and his death and his return to Brahma are not in the future. Nothing was nothing will be, everything has reality and presence" (107). Transformed by this wisdom, Siddhartha begins to emulate Vasuveda's demeanor, expressing a contented peace in the routine of daily life. Years pass.
One day the two ferrymen hear that the Buddha is dying. Kamala, on hearing the news as well, travels with her son to be near Goatama as be passes into eternity. As she sits down to rest in the forest, she is bitten by a snake. She cries for help, and the nearby Vesuveda comes to her aid. The old ferryman takes her back to his hut where Siddhartha immediately recognizes her. The dying Kamala introduces Siddhartha to his son. On recognizing that Siddhartha has finally found the peace he sought for so long, she dies. As Hesse says, "It had been her intention to make a pilgrimage to Goatama...to obtain some peace, and instead she found only Siddhartha, and it was good, just as good as if she had seen the other" (113). Vesuveda and Siddhartha make her funeral pyre as the young boy sleeps.
After Kamala dies, Siddhartha keeps his son with him by the river. The boy, though, refuses to accept Siddhartha as his father and consequently does nothing he is told. As Hesse says, "[Siddhartha] had considered himself rich and happy when the boy had come to him, but as time passed and the boy remained unfriendly and sulky,...Siddhartha began to realize that no happiness and peace had come to him with his son, only sorrow and trouble" (118). Many months pass, but the boy remains intransigent. Vasuveda advises Siddhartha to let the boy leave and rejoin the life of which his mother's death deprived him. Siddhartha agrees in theory, but he cannot let his son go. He loves the boy as he has loved no other and wants to save him the misery of his own follies in the town.
Siddhartha begins to feel that this experience with his son had awakened new emotions in him. We are told that "he had never undergone the follies of love for another person. He had never been able to do this, and it had then seemed to him that this was the biggest difference between him and the ordinary people (122). And although Siddhartha recognized that this passion was in the end no better than the passion for wine or women, he indulged himself, feeling that this folly had to be experienced in order to complete his worldly education.
Eventually, the boy runs away and Siddhartha becomes very distraught. Vasuveda tells Siddhartha to let him go, but Siddhartha follows him. Upon reaching the town, Siddhartha recalls his own experiences there and admits to himself what he knew all along, that he cannot stop the boy from living his own life. Siddhartha feels a great sorrow at this loss, and the happiness he had known as a Ferryman leaves him. He sits down and waits for his suffering to cease, murmuring "Om" to himself to counteract the pain. Vasuveda soon arrives and leads the despondent Siddhartha back to the river.
The pain of losing his son is long-lasting for Siddhartha. It enables him, however, to identify with ordinary people more than ever before. He reasons that "with the exception of one small thing, one tiny little thing, they, [ordinary people] lacked nothing that the sage and thinker had, and that was the consciousness of the unity of all life" (130). Siddhartha even doubts the value of this consciousness. Perhaps, as he has said before, the experience of unity rather than a knowledge of it is what is ultimately important.
Though his sorrow allows Siddhartha to begin to understand what wisdom really is, the thought of his son has not left him. One day his pain becomes too much and Siddhartha sets off in a desperate search of his son, but stops as he hears the river laughing at him. He looks into the river, sees his own father whom he had left, and turns back, concluding that "everything that was not suffered to the end and finally concluded, recurred, and the same sorrows were undergone" (132). Returning to his hut, Siddhartha tells Vasuveda all of this, but as he does, Siddhartha notices a remarkable change in the old man.
After having heard of Siddhartha's woe, Vasuveda leads Siddhartha back to the river, imploring him to listen deeply. At first Siddhartha hears only the voices of sorrow, but these voices are soon joined by voices of joy, and at last all the voices are subsumed under the great sound of "Om." Realizing the unity of these voices, Siddhartha's pain fades away and "his Self had merged into unity" (136). He has at last found salvation. Recognizing his friend's achievement, Vasuveda departs into the woods to die, thereby joining the unity he had helped Siddhartha find at last.
Still restless and unsatisfied after all his years of searching, Govinda goes to speak to the Ferryman reputed to be a sage. The Ferryman, Siddhartha, recognizes Govinda immediately, though Govinda does not recognize him. Govinda tells Siddhartha about his inability to find what he has so long sought. Siddhartha tells Govinda that he does not find because he pays too much attention to the search. As Siddhartha says, "Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal" (140). When Siddhartha finally addresses Govinda by name, Govinda recognizes him, and happy to have reunited after so long, Govinda spends the night at Siddhartha's hut.
The next day Govinda asks Siddhartha to explain the doctrines by which he lives. Siddhartha repeats his oft mentioned refrain that he eschews teachers and doctrines, arguing that while knowledge is communicable wisdom is not; "one can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it" (142). This leads Siddhartha to express his doubts about words altogether. According to Siddhartha, words never express the entire truth of anything. The reason for this is that time is not real. Contrary to our words, there is no thing which is only one thing; every thing is always everything. The lesson that Siddhartha draws from the unity of all things in everything is that "everything that exists is good....Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding" (144). Ultimately, expressing love and admiration toward all things is the most important thing in the world. Govinda is confused by most of what Siddhartha says, but he feels certain that his old friend is a holy man.
Preparing to leave, Govinda asks Siddhartha for something to help him along his path. Siddhartha tells Govinda to kiss his forehead. Doing so causes Govinda to see a continuous stream of different faces in place of Siddhartha's. Overwhelmed by this display of unity and timelessness, Govinda falls to ground in front of the man "whose smile reminded him or everything that he had ever loved in his life, of everything that had ever been of value and holy in his life" (152).
Part Two: Analysis
This chapter is the beginning of Siddhartha's new life. He no longer believes that this world hides a more true one behind it. Siddhartha's goal from now on is to discover his place in this world, which requires his experiencing all aspects of it. The contemplative and ascetic lives robbed him of this totality. He will no longer privilege any aspect of his being, thought or senses; he will only listen to the prompting of his inner voice. Just what this voice is and where it comes from is not clear. Was it always really there, just hidden? Does its interiority mean it is a distinct aspect of the Self from thoughts or senses? If it is, is it of this world, like thoughts and senses, or is it somewhere else, hidden? There seems to be no simple answer to these questions. Siddhartha simply acquiesces to its will, granting it an authority which is not justified except with the facile justification that it is himself. But since the nature of Self is precisely at issue, this seems an unsatisfactory answer.
Alone, Siddhartha spends the night in a Ferryman's cabin and has a dream in which he suckles the bosom of a woman. This symbolizes the newness of Siddhartha's present path, a second childhood of sorts. As Thoreau wished to suck the marrow from life, Siddhartha wishes to suck as much from his allegorical mother, life, as he can. The pleasurable and intoxicating effects of this foreshadows Siddhartha's turn to a sensuous and sensual life.
There is foreshadowing as well in Siddhartha's interaction with the Ferryman. First, the Ferryman suggests that one can learn much from the river if one only listens. After Siddhartha's disillusionment with a life of the senses, he learns how to synthesize a life of thought and the senses by listening to the voice of the river. Second, the Ferryman proclaims that Siddhartha will come back to the river as his friend, which happens later in the novel. Siddhartha's comparison of the Ferryman to Govinda also presages the Ferryman's future status as Siddhartha's faithful companion.
Siddhartha's rather unlikely interactions with the woman by the river emphasize the mythic quality of the story as well as foreshadow the importance the art of love will have in Siddhartha's near future, a future beginning with his meeting of Kamala. Kamala is the great archetype of the woman in the novelnearly the only woman in the novel at all, a fact which might undermine Hesse's pretenses toward universality. Consider her introduction: "Beneath heaped-up black hair he saw a bright, very sweet, very clever face, a bright red mouth like a freshly cut fig, artful eyebrows painted in a high arch, dark eyes, clever and observant, and a clear slender neck above her green and gold gown" (51). She is voluptuous and sensual and she knows it. She represents the finest that the world has to offer, Love, a offering which, not coincidentally, Siddhartha can only enjoy when he has gathered around him other worldly trappings. (This relationship suggests the Buddha's remark that if there were anything in the world more powerful than sex, he would not have reached Nirvana).
Also, the prominence of the number three in this section is indicative of a pattern throughout the novel, heightening both its allegorical and religious qualityas in Christianity, the God of Hinduism, Brahman, is separated into three distinct parts, Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. There are, for instance, three skills which Siddhartha possesses and three things which Kamala wants Siddhartha to acquire before she will teach him. On a broader level as well, Siddhartha's life is divided into three distinct periods: one in which he identifies with thought, one in which he identifies with senses, and one in which he synthesizes these into a great unity.
Amongst the People
This chapter introduces Kamaswami, Siddhartha's employer. Like Kamala, Kamaswami represents worldly existence; he even shares two of her strongest traits, clever eyes and a sensual mouth. This focus on the mouth signifies the strength of the appetitive and consuming in Kamaswami and Kamala, acquisition of money for the former and sex for the latter.
The most important thing to take from this chapter is Siddhartha's awareness of how profoundly he is separated from common people. While he entered the city with a mind to experience life fully, his attitude has not changed so much from when he was a Samana. He still maintains the distance between his lived life and his Self which characterized his former belief in the duality of the world. That this is problematic for Siddhartha is demonstrated by the quiet revolt of his inner voice, "which reminded him quietly, complained quietly, so that he could hardly hear it" (71). The only area in which this distance is bridged is his time with Kamala, though not completely, as she notes. That love is the highest form of worldly existence is indicated again by the fact that in love giving and taking become one, a sublimation of the more materialistic commerce which Kamaswami represents.
It is also notable that Siddhartha finally identifies himself with another living person. Although there is a certain similarity between Siddhartha and the most significant persons in previous chapters, his Father, Govinda, Goatama, this is the first time Siddhartha notes this similarity himself. It is curious, though, in what way this similarity is drawn out. While Kamala was first presented as the embodiment of worldly living, Siddhartha finds that they share a distance from their lives. As Siddhartha says to Kamala, "within in you there is a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself" (71). While this quality seems at first to be positive, by the end of the chapter it takes on a potentially negative tone. This is expressed in Siddhartha's statement that "Maybe...I am like you. You cannot love either, otherwise how could you practice love as an art? Perhaps people like us cannot love. Ordinary people canthat is their secret" (73). If Kamala cannot truly love because she practices love as an art, then the implication is that Siddhartha cannot truly live because he practices living as an art. In other words, he is too concerned with his quest and his progress toward his goal that he does not give himself to the actual experience of living. This foreshadows Siddhartha's future realization that searching often makes finding impossible, as well as pointing the way to the next stage of Siddhartha's journey, one in which he gives himself fully to the world.
This chapter completes Siddhartha's journey into the world of ordinary living. While he enjoys a feast for the senses previously unknown to him, he loses sight of himself, his inner voice drowned out by the din of stimulation which Siddhartha experiences. It is interesting that Siddhartha experiences primarily the negative results of this existence, "the soul sickness of greed." Why this happens is not so clear. Hesse tells us that Siddhartha envied the ordinary people because he lacked "the sense of importance with which they lived their lives, the depth of their pleasures and sorrows, the anxious but sweet happiness of their continual power to love" (77). Ironically enough, this seems to indicate that Siddhartha's problem in this regard was that he did not give himself enough to this life; while he sought to satisfy his senses, he retained enough of his distant, thinking self to feel guilty at his behaviors. Why did the copresence of thought and sense create such a problem for Siddhartha? Are we to assume that those who feel the importance that Siddhartha lacked had completely forsaken their thinking selves, that they really were children? Why couldn't Siddhartha gain their self-importance by losing his thinking self? It seems as if the most likely answer is that Siddhartha is really different than most people. While everyone possesses an inner voice, not everyone has heard it. Siddhartha has and because of this, he can never live the life of an ordinary man. What may be innocuous or beneficial for others takes on a bad taste in Siddhartha's mouth. Again, though, this limits the universality of Siddhartha's quest.
Siddhartha's obsession with dice symbolizes the Hindu cycle of death and rebirth known as Samara, not coincidentally, the name of this chapter. That Siddhartha is sickened by his unending participation in this "senseless cycle" indicates his readiness to step out of Samara, to liberate himself from the scourge of time and find Nirvana. As Siddhartha says when reflecting about his whole life in the town, "this was a game called Samsara, a game for children, a game which was perhaps enjoyable played once, twice, ten timesbut was it worth playing continually? Then Siddhartha knew that the game was finished and that he could play it no longer" (84). It is interesting that Hesse chooses to represent Samsara with something as unconditionally bad as a gambling addiction. In Hindu cosmology, Samsara is not wholly bad, something from which to escape as quickly as possible. It is a learning experience through which people pass until they can appreciate their true nature. Siddhartha's idea that Samsara is at its core futile and defeating is much closer to Buddhism in that it stresses the universality of suffering, e.g. the first Noble Truth.
The chapter's focus on Samsara is also brought out in Siddhartha's first awareness of his own mortality. Samara is a cycle of rebirth, but every beginning requires an end to what preceded it. Seeing old age beginning to overtake Kamala, Siddhartha realizes that staying in this world, living according to the rules of its game, means a continuous series of deaths as well as lives. Renouncing Samara and ordinary human life is renouncing inevitable death. This realization of mortality recalls the Buddha's first experience with death in his youth, an experience which led him on his path toward eventual enlightenment and liberation.
Siddhartha's dream of the bird obviously foreshadows the chapter's end when Kamala releases the bird. The dream and reality are different, though, in significant ways. In the dream, the bird had died and was discarded by Siddhartha himself. This represents Siddhartha's succumbing to the power of death, a death he has brought himself to by ignoring the protestations of his inner voice. In reality, though, Kamala, the world, releases the bird, Siddhartha, to follow himself. Kamala's agency here is important as it indicates that Siddhartha's path is not as individualistic as it may seem. The world must release him; he cannot simply cast off its yoke by himself. Needless to say, the significance of dreams as well as the idea that the world is committed to some extent to advancing Siddhartha's spiritual progress emphasizes the mythic, allegorical quality of the story.
By the River
There is very little action in this chapter. It is mostly consumed by Siddhartha's thoughts, a consideration of his life's journey. First, though, is Siddhartha's acting out the old wisdom that one must hit bottom before beginning the path to recovery. Siddhartha's bottom is his desire to kill himself, to cast his wasted life to oblivion. This suicidal propensity reflects the power death now has over Siddhartha. Although Siddhartha has determined to revolt against the senseless cycle of Samara, he must answer to it, at least symbolically; that is, he must die in order to be reborn. The result is a kind of Westernized version of Hinduism in which the multiple lives necessary for salvation occur within one lifetime.
Siddhartha's literal death is prevented by his sudden awareness of the indestructible Divine within him, signified by the sacred mantra "Om," which resonates through his being. The result of this is a sort of immediate objectification of himself. Siddhartha is suddenly able to reassume the position of his truer Self, and appreciate just how far from his path he has strayed. Of course, this realization is painful, but it is a necessary pain, the death throes of his decayed Self. Suddenly Siddhartha falls into a deep sleep. This is, of course, a metaphorical death, the termination of his sensuous life. The restorative function of this sleep echoes the suggestion in the first chapter that in sleep we experience a oneness with Atman we do experience in consciousness. In this death/sleep, then, Siddhartha recenters himself, and regains his connection with his inner voice.
The reappearance of Govinda when Siddhartha awakes signifies the end of this period of his life. Siddhartha completed a life of the mind departing from Govinda, and here he completes a life of the sense departing from Govinda. That Govinda reappears when Siddhartha completes his third period by becoming enlightened should come as no surprise. Also, seeing Govinda again allows Siddhartha to see that he has learned to love in a way he previously could not. This feeling of love causes Siddhartha to reflect on the change he has experienced. When he was with Kamala, Siddhartha reasoned that he could not love because he had too much distance between his actions and his thoughts. Feeling love now, he reasons that his thinking Self has lost some of its exclusive power in his life.
According to Siddhartha, this justifies all the depravity of his worldly life. Indeed, he goes so far as to claim that such a life was necessary in order to diminish the significance of his thinking self, his Samana self. Siddhartha argues that it was his reliance on this Self, his pride in it, that prevented him from appreciating other aspects of his life. His arrogance was so strong that it required losing himself in a sensuous existence to counteract its influence. Having lived both extremes, Siddhartha realizes that a happy medium is best. Again, this is meant to mirror the Buddha's advocacy of the Middle Path between poles of indulgence and abnegation.
It is interesting to consider the relation of this realization to Siddhartha's avowed independence. After speaking to the Buddha in the forest, he declared that he would only follow the promptings of his inner voice. As Siddhartha became more involved with his sensuous existence, though, he began to hear the inner voice less and less, ignoring its complaints about his behavior. He claims in this chapter that losing himself to the world was ultimately good for him. If so, why did the inner voice protest and eventually depart? This might seem to indicate the voice is not as authoritative as Siddhartha thought it. He does not conclude this, however. The voice has returned, represented metaphorically by Kamala's bird, and Siddhartha does its bidding once again.
The chapter introduces the setting for the remainder of the novel, the river. The river is a powerful Hindu symbolit is Hindu lore that bathing in the Ganges river can provide liberation from the cycle of death and rebirthand the fact that Siddhartha settles here is important. Interestingly enough, for all of Siddhartha's opposition to teachers, he feels an incredible compulsion to learn from the river. This process of learning is brought out very early in the chapter as Siddhartha recalls Heracleitus' observations about never stepping in the same river twice.
Siddhartha's meeting Vesuveda continues the repetition of his past. As when he left Govinda and the Buddha, Siddhartha meets the same Ferryman again. This presence of circularity within a broadly linear progress is characteristic of the Indian worldview. It is interesting that Siddhartha feels such a kinship with and respect for Vesuveda, especially given the latter's reticence and general inability to express himself through words. Vesuveda is a foil to the river's multitude of voices, highlighting the incapacity of people and words to teach.
Eventually, Siddhartha identifies the river with Brahman; it contains everything and does not exist in time. It even speaks the hold word "Om" which signifies completeness. Meditating on the river, then, Siddhartha begins to appreciate the unity of all things in a way he never did before. This unity is no longer the abstract thought of a Brahmin or a Samana; it has a palpable reality in the river. Soon, the peace of timelessness and complete Being, the peace which Vesuveda enjoys, begins to overcome Siddhartha. Hesse even tells us that people seek out the two Ferrymen as if they were holy men. This is obviously a comparison to the only other truly holy man Siddhartha knows, the Buddha, who renters the picture suddenly.
It is not coincidental that Siddhartha Goatama, the Buddha, passes from the world just as the Siddhartha, Hesse's protagonist, finds the peace for which he has so long sought. Juxtaposing these events emphasizes Siddhartha's likeness to the Buddha. This likeness becomes even greater when Kamala appears. We are told that "it had been her intention to make a pilgrimage to Goatama, to see the face of the Illustrious One, to obtain some of his peace, and instead she had found only Siddhartha, and it was good, just as good as if she had seen the other" (113). Also, Kamala's death recalls the time Siddhartha first noticed the signs of old age on her face. But while he could only think of the horror of death then, "in this hour he felt more acutely the indestructible of every life, the eternity of every moment" (114).
The significance of this boy in the story is clear from his name or lack thereof. Hesse never tells us the boy's actual name, and he is referred to only as young Siddhartha. Young Siddhartha represents Siddhartha's encounter with a more youthful and tempestuous version of himself. He sees his strength in the boy, but recognizes that it is directed toward a worldly life, the same life which nearly drove Siddhartha to suicide. Naturally, Siddhartha wants to share his wisdom and save his son the pain he endured. His inability to succeed in this, though, corroborates Siddhartha's previously voiced conviction that everyone needs to go his or her own way, that there is value even in living an ultimately fruitless existence. Siddhartha was taught as a child the futility of a materialistic life, but he needed to actually experience such a life to truly appreciate the lesson. The same is true for his son.
Besides this, though, the appearance of Siddhartha's son is important because it allows Siddhartha to experience the one aspect of worldly life which had always eluded him, love. Ironically enough, this worldly passion only assails him after he has renounced all the other trappings of his worldly life. This indicates the uniqueness of love amongst worldly emotions, a uniqueness which makes it all the more powerful and difficult to overcome.
Siddhartha recognizes that this love is Samsara and will ultimately distract and sadden him as his gambling and eating and love-making had done before. Despite this, he feels an importance to his existence he had not felt before. And as this feeling seems to spring from the deepest recesses of his being, Siddhartha feels he must listen to it and follows its lead. Siddhartha's encounter with love, then, is significant because it represents Siddhartha's last hurdle to the imperturbable peace of Nirvana.
The boy's flight across the river and to the town also brings out his similarity with his father who made the same journey to the world before. Siddhartha's flashbacks on the outskirts of town also emphasize this point, and underscore Siddhartha's impotence in saving his son from his own experiences.
It is in this chapter that Siddhartha finally attains Nirvana. The way in which he does this suggests a subtle inversion of the path Siddhartha had hitherto followed. Siddhartha discovers that he is not as different from other people as he had once imagined. As Hesse says, "He did not understand or share their thoughts and views, but he shared with them life's urges and desires," most importantly, the desire to love and be love (130). Ironically, it was the frustration of this desire that made him so aware of its power. In other words, Siddhartha learned to identify with other people through identifying with their suffering. By suffering, he was able to include himself in the unity of human beings. This is subtly different than the traditional Hindu/Buddhist view which urges us to expand the scope of our identification as a means to avoid suffering. Suffering stems from too narrow a focus on personal desires and can be abolished only by expanding our consciousness past the point of desire; to be unified with everything, to find peace, means no longer identifying yourself with suffering.
Rather than following this logic, Siddhartha's path to unification and peace proceeds by recognizing that he is the kind of being that suffers, that he is the kind of being that experiences joys. All of these various aspects of him are part of the great unity of nature. Being one with everything means identifying with everything rather than not identifying with anything and subsequently identifying with nothing. This becomes the answer to Siddhartha's unanswered question as to whether the consciousness of unity has great value. The answer is a resounding yes, but this consciousness must come from a life of concrete experience and not an abstract awareness of metaphysical objectivity. It arises from within life and not outside of it.
This is why Siddhartha realizes that wisdom is "a preparation of the soul, a capacity, a secret art of thinking, feeling and breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of life" (131). Wisdom is engagement with life rather than withdrawal. It is a way of living, of accepting and appreciating all aspects of life as valid and important. The river laughed at Siddhartha because he still rebelled against his suffering. He did not yet accept suffering as part of the unity of life. This, then, is what Vasuveda showed him at the river. The torrents of pain and suffering were everywhere in the river, but with them were the babbling streamlets of simple joy and cascades of personal fulfillment. A single-minded focus on either pain or joy ignores the totality that became "the great song of a thousand voices [that] consisted of one word: Omperfection" (136).
This is a very complex proposal, as one might expect any prescription for salvation to be. Accordingly, there are any number of possible responses. In any case, it is hard to know what to make of this chapter in which a talking river leads Siddhartha to Nirvana and Vasuveda enters forest enshrouded in a dazzling light in order to go "into the unity of all things" (137). This episode seems to belong to realm of the mythic perhaps more than any other. If this is so, though, what lessons are we supposed to take from it? In particular, how are we supposed to interpret the central notion of unification. Obviously, Siddhartha's consciousness remains in some sense separate; he is still a locus of thoughts and intentions. These are questions which Siddhartha proposes to address in the final chapter.
As this is the last chapter of his allegory, Hesse not surprisingly takes the opportunity to offer a final presentation of the lessons his protagonist has learned. In this regard, it is not surprising that Govinda asks Siddhartha to express his doctrine of life. Govinda, present the end of every previous period of Siddhartha's life, is here as the reader's surrogate, bidding Siddhartha to offer the novel's moral. Besides this, Govinda's return at the end of the novel helps emphasize the change Siddhartha has gone through since he left his friend at the end of part I. And the contrast between Govinda and Siddhartha's spiritual progress validates Siddhartha's contention that one must follow one's own path to enlightenment.
Siddhartha offers five lessons in this chapter. The first lesson is that seeking a goal can distract one from finding that goal. As Siddhartha says, "Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal" (140). This is another way to express Siddhartha's belief that relying too much on thought distracts one from one's goal. Wisdom, the goal for which Govinda seeks, is a manner of living, a capacity, and not an object which one can isolate and capture in thoughts. This is Siddhartha's second lesson: while knowledge is communicable, but wisdom is not. No one can tell you where to find wisdom; it simply comes when you are ready to receive it. Siddhartha's third lesson is that words are deceptive, which he expresses in the paradoxical phrase that "in every truth the opposite is equally true" (143). Words divide; they point to things by saying it is this or that and it not anything else. This, though, violates Siddhartha's belief in the fundamental unity of all things. The reason we give words such power is that we live under the illusion that time is real. Everything exists in all things at every moment. This leads Siddhartha to his fourth lesson, everything that exists is good since it is all part of the perfect unity of Brahman. Siddhartha's fifth lesson is ethical and stems from his belief that all that exists is good: love everything. As Siddhartha puts it, "...I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration, and respect" (147).
After hearing all of Siddhartha's lessons, Govinda remarks on the similarity between the Buddha and Siddhartha, and we are clearly meant to see the two as near identical at this time. (It raises the question of why Hesse chose Siddhartha as his protagonist rather than his namesake, Goatamathe freedom of fiction one supposes). There is another similarity, though, that elevates Siddhartha even more than his similarity with the Buddha. This is his similarity to the river, a more powerful similarity because the Buddha is still a man while the river is nature and life itself. When Govinda kisses the Siddhartha, he has an experience akin to that Siddhartha had at the river. What Siddhartha heard from the river, Govinda now sees in Siddhartha's face: the diversity of the world represented as a great unity.
As in the previous chapter, it is difficult to know what to make of these lessons. They distill much of what happened in previous chapters, but they do not succeed in explaining central concepts of the novel very well. Many of them rely on paradoxes, such as finding requires not seeking, which seem to violate ordinary language use. But if our words and the concepts they convey are applied to new and unfamiliar contexts, how could we possibly understand these applications? Perhaps Siddhartha's view that language cannot track reality excuses Hesse from trying to clarify the ideas he shrouds in a mystical garb throughout the book. Or perhaps it is a final reiteration of the point that the unity of being and the illusion of time must be experienced rather than communicated. If this is true, though, the novel, constituted as it is by words, does not seem an effective means to edify the reader. And if this is so, why write it? Siddhartha says of the Buddha, "Not is speech or thought do I regard him as a great man, but in his deeds and life," deeds and life which Siddhartha experienced firsthand (147). As readers, though, we do not experience Siddhartha's life firsthand. Our contact with him is mediated through Hesse's words and Hesse's thoughts. Are we condemned, then, to never truly appreciate the book's lessons? To understand only part of what Siddhartha says or does, and if so, is this is enough for us to take an practical lessons from the book? Hesse certainly intends for us to do so, but the seeds of doubt are planted by him.
In the end, though, the lingering question one is left with is how intertwined Siddhartha's metaphysical and the ethical proposals are. Need we accept reincarnation, the unity of all Being, and the fiction of time in order to accept Siddhartha's ethics of self-determination and love? As Hesse wrote this for a Western audience, the answer is presumably no. This is an allegory, a moral tale, and not a philosophical treatise. If we accept this suggestion wholeheartedly, which Hesse gives us many reasons to do, then his invocation of Indian metaphysics serves primarily to create an exotic and mystical context to seduce Western readers. This, though, seems to overlook the Hesse's detail in weaving his narrative from strands of uniquely Indian thoughts. It seems extreme to dismiss this as merely stylization. In the end, though, perhaps we should follow Siddhartha's example in determining how much significance to give to the Indian religion/philosophy in Siddhartha: let each come to his or her own conclusion.
Siddhartha Essays and Related Content
- Siddhartha: Essays
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- Siddhartha: Questions
- Siddhartha: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Hermann Hesse: Biography