Siddhartha, a Brahman’s son, tall and handsome. He decides in his youth to seek enlightenment. As a result of this quest, he and his friend Govinda leave their comfortable homes and join a group of wandering ascetics, the Samanas. Later, they go to hear the Buddha. Although Siddhartha admires the man, he feels that the life of this monk is not what he is seeking, so he leaves. In his wanderings, he sees a beautiful courtesan and decides that he must know her. She sends him to a merchant to learn a trade. While she teaches him about love, the merchant teaches him about business. By the time he reaches the age of forty, he realizes that he has not found enlightenment. He wanders into the forest, where he meets a ferryman. He stays with him and finally achieves enlightenment by listening to the songs of the river.
Govinda, a monk. A childhood friend of Siddhartha, he insists on accompanying him and joining a group of wandering ascetics. When he hears the Buddha speak, he decides that he must remain with this man, and the friends part. Much later, he encounters a wealthy man sleeping in the woods and stands guard over him until he awakes. It is only then that he discovers that it is his old friend Siddhartha. He is surprised at the changes he finds but makes no judgments. In old age, after the death of the Buddha, he hears of a ferryman who is considered a sage and a holy man, and he goes to see him. Again he finds that it is his old friend, who has since found enlightenment, but he does not understand the words Siddhartha uses to try to explain what has happened to him. It is only when Govinda kisses his forehead that he realizes that Siddhartha sees and partly understands.
Kamala, a courtesan. An extraordinarily beautiful woman, she is wealthy and experienced. She teaches Siddhartha the ways of love, but she realizes that neither of them is capable of love as they are. After Siddhartha leaves, she discovers that she is pregnant. She closes her house and no longer receives visitors. Eventually, she turns her house over to the followers of the Buddha, and when she hears that he is dying, she takes her son and sets out to see him. On the journey, she is bitten by a snake while near the river, and Siddhartha and his friend find her. She dies in Siddhartha’s arms.
Vasudeva, a ferryman. A poor old man, he has found enlightenment listening to the river. He takes Siddhartha in after Siddhartha leaves his wealth. Vasudeva becomes Siddhartha’s friend and adviser. Already an old man, during Siddhartha’s stay he begins to lose his strength and can no longer operate the ferry. After Kamala’s death, he counsels Siddhartha to allow his son to leave and live his own life. It is only after Siddhartha finally takes his advice that he reveals the river’s entire message to his friend. After he is sure that Siddhartha understands, he walks off into the woods to die.
Gotama, the Buddha. He is a wise man living an ascetic life whose words and manner of living have a profound effect on those around him. From all over India, people flock to hear him; many remain as his followers. Siddhartha goes to hear him speak in the hope that he will find enlightenment. Although he recognizes the Buddha as a very holy man, he does not find the path he seeks.