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.
In keeping with this novel of ideas, all the major characters in the novel, with the exception of the merchant Kamaswami, are spiritual seekers, each after his own fashion. Most important among them is the protagonist, Siddhartha. Siddhartha is a romantic in the sense that he rejects familial and institutional ties in order to discover truth through his own personal experience. He must make his own mistakes and learn from them, just as his son must do in his turn. Yet Siddhartha possesses a superior soul; his intrinsic purity inevitably reasserts itself, even though he is caught for many years in the false life of sensual pleasure. His personal qualities are less important, however, than the philosophical nature of his quest for enlightenment.
Govinda is always the loyal disciple, never the leader or trailblazer. He accepts a position subordinate to Siddhartha from the outset. Siddhartha is the one who will do great things, and Govinda wants no more than to be his servant and companion. It is Siddhartha’s decision to join the Samanas, and it is also his decision to leave them. It is appropriate that Govinda remains as a disciple of the Buddha; he is happier when he can follow a set of teachings along a prescribed path. By the end of his life, he has won the respect of the younger monks, but he still remains a seeker. Following the conventional path, he has not found peace, a fact which confirms Siddhartha’s earliest suspicions.
Even the courtesan Kamala has spiritual yearnings. She understands Siddhartha better than Govinda does, because, curiously, she is more like Siddhartha: She is unlike other people; like Siddhartha, she has a stillness inside her, a sanctuary to which she can retreat. Then, too, she realizes that he remains a Samana at heart. It is significant that Kamala becomes Siddhartha’s only close friend, and it comes as no surprise that many years later she goes on a pilgrimage to see the Buddha and that she finds peace when she spends the last moments of her life with Siddhartha.
Vasudeva is the teacher who does not teach. Everything about his being radiates serenity and calm, but he has no doctrine, only the wisdom of experience. Uneducated in the conventional sense, and in his own mind lacking eloquence, he inspires confidence through the quality of his silence; he is an excellent listener, and he does not judge. Others seek him out for counsel. The simple ferryman claims that it is the river, Hermann Hesse’s symbol of life itself, which has taught him everything. Vasudeva knows the unity of things and the perfection of the world, and Siddhartha comes to resemble him.