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Siddhartha | Study Guide

Hermann Hesse

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Siddhartha | Part 2, By the River | Summary

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Summary

Siddhartha is miserable now, "deeply entangled in Samsara," and he takes no pleasure or comfort in anything. He even wishes to die, or at least forget the sinful, foolish life he has been living. He comes to the river, where he once met the ferryman, and gazes into the water, on the verge of throwing himself in. Then "from a remote part of his soul," he hears the sound of Om, and as he intones the syllable, his soul reawakens. Horrified at the selfish act he has almost committed, Siddhartha suddenly remembers all that is divine, all that he has forgotten, for one brief, passing moment. Exhausted, he sinks into dreamless, wonderful sleep.

When he awakens it is as if the past was long, long ago, and he feels "like a new man." Nearby, he notices a seated monk who had been watching over him as he slept, and realizes it is Govinda, his old friend. The monk does not recognize him and is about to depart again on his pilgrimage when Siddhartha utters his name in farewell. Their reunion is a happy one, and both reveal they are on a pilgrimage. Govinda notices Siddhartha's fancy clothes, shoes, and perfumed hair, and he remarks that he has never seen a pilgrim dressed the way Siddhartha is dressed. Siddhartha responds, "Remember, my dear Govinda, the world of appearances is transitory," and though he has been a rich man, he is not one now. Govinda ponders his friend "doubtfully" for some time, and then departs to catch up with his fellow monks. Siddhartha realizes he still loves his friend, but more than that, "he [is] full of joyous love towards everything he [sees]." He considers that his previous malaise may have been because he was unable to feel love.

He then notices his intense hunger, and knows he has entirely lost his former skills of fasting, waiting, and thinking. Siddhartha is now "an ordinary person," and he is starting at square one again. He is a child once more, having stripped away years of youthful thought, meditation, and prayer through the worldliness of his merchant life. "I know nothing, I possess nothing, I have learned nothing," he thinks, and smiles at the path his life has taken. He has no idea where his path may lead next, but he is happy, and he once again hears the bird singing within his breast.

Siddhartha praises himself for breaking free of his old life, "that soft, well-upholstered hell," but also notes the benefit of having experienced it for himself. His knowledge of the world is no longer intellectual, but gained through personal experience—and this experience has at last destroyed his Self. "His small, fearful and proud Self" had died when he faced his own death and became like a child once more. In his youth he had been too arrogant, too pious, too intellectual, "always the priest or the sage." He imagined he was destroying the Self through his pious acts, but the Self grew instead, feeding on his pride. Only a life of worldly indulgence could strip him of these notions, beating him down "until the priest and Samana in him were dead." The old Siddhartha is dead and a new one has been born. Yet this form, too, will be transitory. He then notices the beauty of the river again, and how it seems to have "something special to tell him," so he decides to remain there for a time.

Analysis

Siddhartha begins yet another cycle of life with his rebirth by the river, becoming "like a new man" after his spiritual crisis. Once again it is the sound of Om that helps his innermost Self to reawaken.

The arrival of Govinda to watch over him at just this juncture is perhaps providential rather than mere coincidence. Comparing the two characters is revealing. Siddhartha has been "off the path" for more than a decade, cavorting in the world of pleasure and wealth. Govinda, on the other hand, has remained dedicated to his path of discipleship and of doing good for others. (Siddhartha stopped doing good deeds for others, over the years, as he became greedier.) Govinda stops to watch over a stranger sleeping by the river purely out of altruism, not realizing it is actually his old friend. Siddhartha offers thanks, "although I needed no guard," he says, downplaying the fact that he was sleeping alone in a dangerous place. (And he certainly doesn't admit that he nearly drowned himself the night before.)

Instead, he moralizes (perhaps condescendingly): "Remember, my dear Govinda, the world of appearances is transitory," making a lesson out of his fancy clothes, shoes, and hair. Perhaps he is too proud to admit to his devout friend how far he has fallen from grace. He falls back on his former habit of schooling his old friend, even though Govinda has been the more spiritually devoted of the two for many years now. It is likely for this reason that Govinda eyes him "doubtfully" before departing. Govinda may also recognize that Siddhartha is worse off than he lets on. Only desperation could drive a clearly rich man to sleep in such a wild place as this. Since Siddhartha does not seem to want help, though, Govinda respectfully goes on his way. Much as their separation was once painful to Govinda, the friends are on different paths now, and Govinda accepts this without struggle.

Another salient point to be made in comparing the friends is that, contrary to expectation, it is Siddhartha who is making spiritual breakthroughs rather than Govinda. Siddhartha has followed his own path, his inner guide, along the way, at one point deliberately deciding to obey his own instructions rather than those of other men. By contrast, Govinda has walked in the footsteps of others. The results they've achieved suggest Siddhartha is right to do things his own way, even if it flies in the face of tradition or expectation. Siddhartha has certainly experienced a genuine breakthrough by the river, and his temporary feeling of love for everything is the result. His epiphany that his former misery was caused by his inability to love is a great step toward enlightenment. He has become that "ordinary person" he once envied, able to love and like a child once more, starting over. Even his own folly can't ruin his happy mood, as he realizes the knowledge he has gained while imprisoned in "that soft, well-upholstered hell." He sees his former flaws more clearly: how he has been both over-intellectual and holier-than-thou in the past, and how his ego has been humbled through his worldly experiences. Yet he knows this new Siddhartha will be temporary, too—just one more version of Siddhartha in the endless cycle of death and rebirth.

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