India. Asian country in which the young Siddhartha, a tall and handsome Brahman’s son, lives and travels in his search for fulfillment. His quest for enlightenment parallels the Buddha’s legendary journeys in India: He departs his father’s house to join the Samana ascetics; after forsaking them, he goes to the city, and eventually abandons the city to become a ferryman on the river.
India, where Herman Hesse traveled in 1911 to study Eastern religions and philosophies, is the birthplace of Buddhism and its promise of enlightenment, as well as Hesse’s conscious opposition to it. Whereas Buddhism attempts to prescribe an established pattern of development, Hesse attempts to show, through Siddhartha’s journey through India, that quests for spiritual fulfillment are voyages of discovery in which each person finds his or her own path to absolute peace. The setting of India, with its nameless features, incorporates the Buddha’s legendary journeys and their accumulated wisdom, through which Siddhartha pursues his own quest for universal oneness.
River. Unnamed river that is the central natural element in the novel. The river functions symbolically, marking Siddhartha’s evolution. Siddhartha’s early years in his father’s house are spent on the river’s bank in a state of innocence. At the age of eighteen, Siddhartha hopes to find truth by joining the Samanas, whose prescribed truth stirs his doubts. He then crosses the river and goes to the city. Representing boundaries of time and development, the river symbolizes Siddhartha’s passage from the realm of spirit to sense and back again.
When Siddhartha returns to the river, twenty years after his first crossing, he suffers from sickness of the soul and desires death. He listens to the river’s characteristic om murmuring—a sound that is the sacred syllable of the Hindu priestly Brahmin caste—for the unity of all being. The same om wells up within his soul and forms a bond between him and the river. The river’s murmuring lulls Siddhartha into a trancelike sleep. Eventually he awakens, refreshed, and begins the process of restoration to his former state of innocence.
The river proves to be the agent through which Siddhartha finds fulfillment. He assists Vasudeva, the wise old ferryman who transported him across the river twenty years earlier. He learns that the river represents the natural synthesis of sense and spirit; he also realizes that life is a river and that the past, present, and future are all one. The river embodies all creation, all layers of consciousness, memories and impulses common to humankind as a whole; the eternal om brings them to the surface, awakening in Siddhartha knowledge of the essential unity of being.
The river has one last lesson to teach Siddhartha—love. Many years later, Kamala, Siddhartha’s love from the city, arrives at the river with the son she has borne him and soon dies of snakebite. Little Siddhartha runs away to the city, leaving his father stricken with grief. Once again, the river speaks the sacred syllable om and heals the wound produced by his grief.
City. The projection of feeling into abstract geographical places continues with the unnamed city, Siddhartha’s destination after leaving the Samanas—a move signifying a progression from the spirit to the senses. There he meets the beautiful courtesan Kamala, through whose assistance he becomes prosperous and comes to lead a life of luxury. At length, sickened by his own degeneracy and intent on suicide, he quits the city, unwittingly abandoning Kamala, who is pregnant with his son. The city represents the second step in Siddhartha’s development, which cancels out the earlier excursion into the spirit and leads to his return to the river and his state of innocence.