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.
Siddhartha centers on the lifelong search of Siddhartha, the young son of a Brahman, for enlightenment. As a boy, he is trained in the traditional rituals and meditations of the learned, but there is a restlessness in his soul. He cannot stop questioning and speculating, and he doubts whether any of his teachers is truly enlightened. Against his father’s wishes, he decides to join a group of Samanas, wandering ascetics, and his friend Govinda accompanies him. For three years, Siddhartha lives the ascetic life of self-denial. He cultivates a dislike of the sensual world and tries to empty himself of desires in order to reach the innermost core of his being. Eventually, however, he becomes dissatisfied, and guesses that the Samanas are no closer to enlightenment than the Brahmans who had taught him in his early youth.
Leaving the Samanas, Siddhartha and Govinda travel to see Gotama the Buddha, who has the reputation of being a wise man and supreme teacher. The young men are impressed by the Buddha’s quiet bearing and peaceful countenance, but Siddhartha, unlike Govinda, does not become his disciple. Siddhartha is skeptical of all teachings, convinced that enlightenment cannot be taught but can only be experienced by the individual for himself. He resolves to leave behind all doctrines and teachers. This decision is a major turning point for him, as he becomes more accepting of himself and more ready to appreciate the beauty of the sensory world. He is now alone, free of past ties, and ready to travel in whatever direction he chooses.
The second part of the novel relates Siddhartha’s gradual immersion in the world of sensual and material activities. Reaching a large town, he meets Kamala, a beautiful courtesan. She teaches him the art of love and finds him employment with a rich merchant named Kamaswami. Siddhartha prospers in business, and, as the years go by, he becomes rich and acquires a taste for luxurious living. At first, he had regarded business as a game and was unable to take seriously the small pleasures and desires of ordinary people. Gradually, however, he becomes deeply entangled in the life he has chosen. He becomes ruthlessly acquisitive, gambles recklessly, turns discontented, weary, and full of self-disgust. When he realizes that he can no longer hear the inner voice which once guided him, he concludes that life is worthless and decides to leave the town, never to return.
This journey marks another turning point in his life. In despair, Siddhartha wanders into a forest and comes upon a river. As he is about to drown himself, from somewhere within the deepest recesses of his being he hears once more the sacred sound “om,” the beginning and ending of all Brahman prayers. In that moment, he realizes his folly. He falls into a restorative sleep, and when he awakes he feels reborn. He meets an old ferryman, Vasudeva, who invites Siddhartha to stay and live with him. Siddhartha becomes a ferryman, and as time passes he finds peace of mind with the saintly old man.
Many years later, followers of the Buddha, on a pilgrimage to see their dying master, come to be ferried across the river. Among the pilgrims is Kamala, who has renounced her former life to become a benefactress of the monks. She is accompanied by a son she bore to Siddhartha, conceived on their final meeting. When Kamala is bitten by a snake and dies, the boy is left in Siddhartha’s care. The youth is restless and bad-tempered, however, and he cannot return Siddhartha’s love; eventually he runs away, and Siddhartha never sees him again. Through his possessive love for his son and its sad outcome, however, Siddhartha learns to have sympathy for the common folk; their simple passions no longer seem trivial to him. He also continues to grow in his knowledge of the unity of all things. He talks at length with Vasudeva, whose attentiveness, love, and serenity seem to Siddhartha like that of God. Together they listen to the river, in which Siddhartha discerns the whole stream of cosmic life, good and evil, joy and sorrow.
In the final episode, Siddhartha meets Govinda for the second time since they parted as young men. Govinda is still a seeker, and he asks Siddhartha to share some of his wisdom with him but finds Siddhartha’s words strange and difficult to understand. Siddhartha asks him to kiss his forehead, and as he does so, Govinda experiences a transforming illumination. He sees all the forms of the cosmos—animals, humans, gods—both the good and the bad, contained in Siddhartha’s smiling face, and he realizes, as Kamala in her dying moments had also nearly guessed, that there is no difference between Siddhartha and Gotama the Buddha.