Siddhartha combines two universal myths, that of Everyman searching for enlightenment and that of the hero on the way to sainthood. Siddhartha takes the journey common to all of Hesse’s later heroes, passing from the irresponsible paradise of childhood through the purifying conflicts of youth to the liberation of adult wisdom, the “higher irresponsibility” of absolute faith. Throughout Hesse’s works is the reminder that one can learn how to live only from life itself, not from books or teachers. Thus, Siddhartha, the eternal seeker, goes his own way, bowing to no one. He must disregard the wishes of his father, the advice of his friend Govinda, and finally even the counsel of the great Buddha. Only thus can he find his way to his true self.
The story of Siddhartha is also built on the myth of the quest. For Siddhartha, the quest begins when he feels that the teachings of Brahmanism do not lead to salvation and decides to try other paths. He leaves home with his friend Govinda to join the ascetic Samanas, with whom he spends three years. When he realizes that asceticism and yoga are only leading him further away from himself, he goes with Govinda to hear the teachings of Guatama the Buddha. Govinda remains with the great teacher, but Siddhartha decides that he must seek his own path through immersion in the world of the senses.
He travels to a large city, where he falls in love with Kamala, a famous courtesan. With her help Siddhartha becomes wealthy, able to afford anything he wants—including Kamala herself. Eventually he realizes that this life of indulgence is just as pointless as a life of denial, that both luxury and asceticism can be extremes that obstruct the path to spiritual illumination. He decides, therefore, to turn his back on the world of Sansara and illusion. Unaware that Kamala is now pregnant with his child, Siddhartha flees the city and returns to the river, where, in despair, he almost commits suicide.
Realizing that suicide is an evasion, not an answer, he decides to stay by the river and to try to understand himself. He looks upon the contrary experiences of asceticism and indulgence as necessary opposites that define and neutralize each other, leaving him once again in his original state of innocence but with a knowledge of good and evil. Living with the wise ferryman Vasudeva, Siddhartha learns many secrets from the river, the most important ones being that time is an illusion, that all being is one, and that for knowledge to be significant, it must be conditioned by love.
Twelve years later, Kamala comes to the river with her son in search of Buddha. When she dies from a snake bite, Siddhartha begins to care for the boy. He loves his son desperately, but the boy longs to escape the two old boatmen and return to life in the city. Eventually he escapes, and Siddhartha, realizing how deeply he loves his son, also realizes that loving him means letting him go. Vasudeva soon dies, and Siddhartha takes his place. Govinda appears one day and is struck by the change that has overtaken Siddhartha, for it is clear to Govinda that Siddhartha, like Buddha, has at last achieved absolute peace and harmony.
When Hesse talks of peace and harmony, he means the perfect balance of opposites. Every truth is made up of equally true opposites. In order for Buddha to teach about the world, he had to divide it into Sansara and Nirvana, illusion and truth, suffering and salvation. The world itself, however, is never one-sided. A deed is never wholly Sansara or wholly Nirvana, just as a person is never wholly a saint or a sinner. These absolutes persist because people are under the illusion that time is real. Time is not real; and if time is not real, then the dividing line between this world and eternity, between suffering and bliss, between good and evil, is also an illusion.
The lesson Siddhartha learns is that the world is perfect at every moment, that every sin carries the hope of grace within it. During deep meditation it is possible to dispel time, to see simultaneously all of the past, present, and future, and then to see everything as good, everything as perfect, everything as Brahman. Thus, everything that exists is good—death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary; it needs only the concurrence of true believers. Then all will be well with them and nothing can harm them.