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Siddhartha | Plot Summary

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Summary

Part 1

Siddhartha, son of a Brahmin (priest), grows up in an environment of ease and learning. He is loved by his family and devoted to his spiritual practices, but a deep thirst for knowledge drives him. He feels he cannot learn anything new from his father and the other Brahmins. His burning question is the nature of Self, which is larger and more interconnected than the individual ego—where does Self come from, and how can a person find Atman (the essence of all life in the universe) through knowledge of Self? When a group of Samanas visit town, Siddhartha determines to join these wandering ascetics in their life of self-denial. His father reluctantly lets Siddhartha go, and his best friend Govinda joins him on his path. The two friends spend three years with the Samanas, fasting and enduring physical suffering in an effort to master the Self. Dissatisfied with his progress, Siddhartha notices that none of the order have reached enlightenment, and he begins to doubt his current path. When news arrives that Gotama, the Buddha, is nearby, the friends leave the Samanas to hear him preach.

In the Jetavana grove in the town of Savathi, Govinda, enraptured by the Buddha's teachings, asks to join his community and is accepted. Siddhartha recognizes Gotama as a truly enlightened holy man, yet does not wish to follow him. He believes he cannot learn from any teacher, but must find enlightenment on his own. Siddhartha leaves Govinda behind, and then encounters Gotama in a grove. He questions the Buddha about a flaw in his teachings, and the holy man advises him not to get too wrapped up in words, opinions, and knowledge. As Siddhartha departs the grove, he realizes that trying to destroy the Self has failed him as a path to enlightenment, and that he can no longer try to escape from himself. With new eyes, he sees the world around him as important and full of meaning, rather than an illusion as he had previously believed. He considers returning to his father, but realizes he cannot go back to that life, which would still be unfulfilling to him. His senses are awakened now, but he has no idea where to go or what to do and feels utterly alone. He belongs nowhere and with no one, and a feeling of despair shudders through him as he sheds his old life and walks forward into an unknown future on an unknown road.

Part 2

Siddhartha realizes that he has never really paid attention to the world around him, and now he sees it as beautiful. His inner voice tells him that appreciating the senses is just as important as thinking, and that he must experience both to achieve enlightenment. He spends the night in a generous ferryman's hut, where he dreams that Govinda transforms into a seductive woman. The next day Siddhartha comes to a town and sees a beautiful courtesan there named Kamala. He cleans himself up and pays her a visit, asking if she will teach him the art of love. She laughs, advising him that he will need to acquire fine clothes, shoes, and wealth before she will consider him. She sends him to the wealthy merchant Kamaswami, who gives him a job, and before long, Siddhartha becomes wealthy and respected in town. Business is a game to him, and his real focus is on his time with Kamala, who has become his lover and his only real friend. Life does not touch his heart, though; it flows about him and he remains detached from the passions of "ordinary people." He wishes he could be more like them, and suggests that neither he nor Kamala can truly love another.

After many years Siddhartha grows to despise his life and himself. He has long ago given up his spiritual practices, becoming attached to vices such as drinking and gambling instead. As his soul deadens, though, his senses awaken, and he becomes more and more involved with worldly concerns and passions. One night Siddhartha dreams Kamala's caged songbird dies, and he awakens in despair, realizing it is goodness in himself that has really died. He is trapped in a meaningless life of material gain and superficial pleasures, striving toward nothing, and can endure it no longer. Without saying goodbye, he leaves town with only the clothes on his back. Kamala, who is unsurprised at his departure, soon discovers she is pregnant with his child.

Siddhartha is truly miserable and considers drowning himself in a river, but the sound of Om (a sacred mantra) awakens in a corner of his soul and saves him from doing the deed. He sinks into a deep sleep and awakens feeling reborn. Sitting nearby is Govinda, now a monk, who has watched over him in his sleep and who has not recognized his old friend. When he learns Siddhartha's identity, he is amazed at his fancy clothes, and Siddhartha reminds him that appearances are only temporary, always changing. Govinda departs, and Siddhartha decides to stay by the river for a time, following his inner voice. He finds the ferryman with whom he stayed some 20 years before, and asks to become his apprentice. Vasudeva agrees, saying that the river has spoken to Siddhartha and will teach him many lessons. Siddhartha listens well, and over time he hears the many voices of the river, which merge into the word Om. He grows radiantly happy, and the two friends come to be known as wise men throughout the land. After many years, Kamala travels nearby, on her way with Siddhartha's son to see the dying Buddha, Gotama. She is bitten by a snake and dies at the ferryman's hut, leaving the boy with his father. Throughout the following months, the spoiled city boy is miserable, and he makes Siddhartha's life miserable, too. Siddhartha's son runs away to town, and his father follows him with the intention of bringing him back. Once Siddhartha arrives there, however, he realizes pursuing the unwilling boy is useless.

Vasudeva brings Siddhartha back to the river, but the pain of his son's loss plagues him for a long time. Siddhartha has learned to love people by this time, and he also understands that there is a unity connecting all living beings. As he reflects on his son, he realizes with some amusement that the boy is just like himself, who once left his own father to seek his life's path. Life is strange to him, constantly repeating itself in generation after generation. As Siddhartha vents his feelings to Vasudeva, he observes the older man has become like the river, like "God Himself"; his friend has achieved enlightenment. Vasudeva urges him to listen again to the river, and Siddhartha hears the voices merge together into Om. He experiences the unity of all beings, losing his Self in the experience and becoming one with all. At last he finds peace and enlightenment, and Vasudeva departs, his life's work finished.

Sometime later an anxious, aging Govinda comes seeking the wise old ferryman, hoping to learn some wisdom to help him find enlightenment. Once again he does not recognize Siddhartha, who tells him that sometimes blessings are right under Govinda's nose but he can't see them. Siddhartha reminds his friend of having slept by his side once at this river, and Govinda then knows his identity. Govinda is amazed to find his friend a true holy man, but cannot comprehend the message Siddhartha is trying to tell him. Words cannot convey the wisdom Siddhartha has gained. It must be experienced personally to be truly understood. Siddhartha asks Govinda to kiss him on the forehead, and when he does, Govinda is filled with a feeling of love and a sense of the unity of all things in the universe. These forms are revealed in Siddhartha's smiling face. It is the smile of the Buddha, and Govinda tearfully bows to him in humble gratitude.

Siddhartha Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Siddhartha and Govinda become Samanas to seek enlightenment.

Rising Action

2 Govinda follows Gotama, while Siddhartha goes his own way.

3 Siddhartha meets Kamala, gaining wealth to win her affections.

4 Siddhartha hates his rich, sinful life and decides to leave.

5 The sound of Om keeps Siddhartha from drowning himself.

6 Siddhartha becomes a ferryman under peaceful, kind Vasudeva.

7 Kamala dies nearby, leaving Siddhartha's son with him.

8 The spoiled son runs away, breaking Siddhartha's heart.

Climax

9 Siddhartha listens to the river and achieves enlightenment.

Falling Action

10 Vasudeva departs into the woods, his life's work finished.

11 Govinda arrives seeking wisdom from the wise old ferryman.

Resolution

12 Siddhartha helps Govinda glimpse unity and enlightenment.

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