Siddhartha has every advantage at the beginning of the story, coming from the upper-class family of a respected Brahmin. His life is centered on learning and devotion to the priesthood, but it does not fulfill him. He determines to leave his father's home and strike his own path, and nothing will deter him. For three years with the Samanas, Siddhartha practices extreme self-denial, but this does not bring him the enlightenment he seeks either. He transitions from wanting to destroy the Self to becoming a wealthy merchant and lover and fully embracing the Self, leaving behind his pious ways. His life of sin and vice at last disgusts him, and he abandons it, realizing it has also helped him learn about the fullness of the human experience. Under the guidance of Vasudeva, he becomes a ferryman and learns to listen to the river to learn wisdom from it. Perhaps his greatest test in life is the discovery and loss of his and Kamala's son, a rich city brat who runs away and breaks Siddhartha's heart. Siddhartha realizes his son has done to him what he himself did to his father, and he can't help but be amused by the way life works. Siddhartha at last achieves enlightenment when he experiences love for everything in the world and its people, just as they are, good and evil, foolish or wise.
Vasudeva is a longtime seeker of enlightenment, and the path he has chosen is one of contemplation of nature—specifically, the river, which teaches him to listen and to be devout. He lives a modest life, doing honest work, in a quiet, honorable way, helping and guiding others as the need arises. This humble ferryman becomes a mentor to Siddhartha, hinting at the lessons the river holds for him. Vasudeva has been through his own trials in life, having loved and lost his wife, and has likely learned wisdom and gained perspective from the experience. By the end of the novel, Siddhartha sees Vasudeva as a wise man radiating love and happiness. It is clear he is very near enlightenment as he leaves Siddhartha to enter into "the unity of all things."
Govinda grows up with Siddhartha, whom he greatly admires and suspects will be a holy man someday. Govinda devotedly follows his friend, joining the Samanas because Siddhartha does. Only when Govinda chooses to follow the Buddha does he part from Siddhartha. His life as a follower does not satisfy him, though, for he is unable to reach enlightenment through the teachings of others. Even as an old man, Govinda still seeks Nirvana. He catches a glimpse of enlightenment when Siddhartha helps him experience the unity of all things, a moment which overwhelms Govinda with tears and love.
Gotama is a man who has achieved enlightenment, and in doing so, he has attracted a legion of devoted followers who wish to do the same. The Buddha appears unflappable; he is serene and radiates love and happiness. He has achieved Nirvana in his own way, through meditation rather than through the teachings of others. It is this method Siddhartha chooses to emulate, rather than become one more follower of the Buddha.
When Siddhartha first meets Kamala, she is a worldly, sharp-minded woman who embodies sensuality and earthly pleasures. She encourages Siddhartha to acquire wealth, fine clothes, and gifts in order to become her lover, and the two have an affair that lasts many years. Kamala becomes Siddhartha's only close friend, and together they reach blissful heights in their lovemaking. After Siddhartha leaves once more to find his path, Kamala gives birth to his son. She changes her life entirely, closing the doors of her home and giving up life as a courtesan. She later becomes a devotee of Gotama and donates her pleasure garden to him and his followers. On a journey to see the Buddha when he is near death, Kamala is bitten by a snake and dies.