Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, the central character takes a journey that is like the journey one takes through life. This journey shows him as he develops from an impetuous youth to a man with the wisdom that comes with age. His goal is to attain Nirvana, and on the journey he encounters the Buddha. He believes he must always work toward his goal, but the Buddha argues with him and encourages him to become a monk and join the Sangha. In this way, Buddha tries to guide Siddhartha, but Siddhartha continues to follow his own path and refuses the invitation. The reason he makes this choice is because he believes that the individual may find his own way, and while he does not deny the validity of those who choose to be taught and to participate in a group such as the Sangha, he knows this way is not his way and that he would rather serve as an example to others to find their own path.
The novel is divided into a series of sections as Siddhartha makes his journey. The novel begins with some family background showing that Siddhartha is admired by his family and friends but somehow dissatisfied at the same time because he cannot find inner peace. He decides therefore to search for his Atman, or individual spirit, his sense of self. This is within him, and he is dismayed to find that no one can tell him how to find his Atman. Real knowledge is always first hand, and teachers and the written word are all second-hand knowledge at best. Only through experience can Atman be reached, and Atman becomes Siddhartha's goal. His journey is therefore the journey of experience, seeking to attain what others cannot give him.
In the section entitled "Gotama," Siddhartha and Govinda, his friend and shadow, meet the Buddha and listen to him speak. Siddhartha is not really interested in what the great teacher has to say, though: "He did not think they would teach him anything new" (23). What impresses Siddhartha is that Buddha is holy throughout and that he possesses knowledge which he has acquired through his own efforts. Siddhartha sees this as the only method to pursue, and it is also his way as he seeks his own path rather than trying to learn from someone else, even the great teacher. The Buddha argues that for Siddhartha to join the Sangha would be the best and most direct way to attain the knowledge he seeks. Placing oneself before the feet of the Master would be the path to spiritual enlightenment. Siddhartha, though, says that he must seek his own way and learn from experience, and he would not be able to do this in the Sangha. He would be learning second hand, and that is not real knowledge.
The two young men do listen to the Buddha and absorb what he says. Govinda is much more attentive than Siddhartha, for Govinda wishes to remain and learn from the master:
The Illustrious One spoke in a soft but firm voice, taught the four main points, taught the Eightfold Path; patiently he covered the usual methods of teaching with examples and repetition. Clearly and quietly his voice was carried to his listeners -- like a light, like a star in the heavens (23).
Govinda represents Siddhartha's shadow, and at the end of this section that shadow falls away because Govinda stays behind to join the Sangha. Perhaps that is Govinda's personal route to knowledge, but it is not Siddhartha's. In the first section he set out to find his own way, leaving behind those who could not teach him. Now, he leaves behind the greatest of all teachers and so affirms his intent to take his own path.
In the first section, the father and son go to the river for cleansing. The river represents a cleansing and returns as a motif in the section entitled "By the River." At this point in the journey, Siddhartha reaches a point of crisis, a point of change, and it is meaningful that his crisis takes place by the river. The river signifies purification, but in this case, the river signifies oblivion to Siddhartha, for he contemplates throwing himself into it and ending his pain. He has reached his moment of crisis, the time when he rejects all that has gone before and prepares to accept a new life, though he does not know this when he arrives at the river and contemplates ending his life:
He was full of ennui, full of misery, full of death; there was nothing left in the world that could attract him, that could give him pleasure and solace (88).
His thoughts of death are signals telling him of the end of his old life. The believer must pass through a symbolic barrier going from one life to another to achieve Nirvana, which is what Siddhartha now must do. That symbolic passage does represent the passage of the soul into death and back again to life.
In making this passage from one life to the next, the river serves as a cleansing agent:
Siddhartha reached the long river in the wood, the same river across which a ferryman had once taken him when he was still a young man and had come from Gotama's town (89).
The river represents unity, being ever-changing and yet always the same. Siddhartha is also the same person and yet changed when he returns to the river, both at the same time. The river returns again and again in this book. Govinda also returns, and ultimately Govinda will cross the river with Siddhartha as his ferryman. Returning to the river is both a cleansing experience and a new opportunity for spiritual enlightenment. Siddhartha himself becomes a teacher and imparts what he learns at the river to others:
When someone is seeking... It happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal (141).
It is when the individual stops seeking that he turns to death and shows that he no longer seeks anything in this world. When he stops seeking, as he does at the river, Siddhartha learns what he has sought all along:
he was completely conscious of Brahman, of the indestructibleness of life; he remembered all that he had forgotten, all that was divine (91).
He then sleeps, and as he does he hears the water in the river passing by, always moving so that he river is always changing, and yet always standing for the essence of the river, or that which stays the same and is the river. This is true of the Atman as well.
The water rushing by reveals Siddhartha to himself:
With a distorted countenance he stared into the water. He saw his face reflected, and spat at it... At that moment, when the sound of Om reached Siddhartha's ears, his slumbering soul suddenly awakened and he recognized the folly of his action (90).
In addition teaching Siddhartha about the spiritual nature of existence, the river dissolves time because it is always flowing and yet always remains the same. The rushing water takes time from Siddhartha as he sleeps:
When he awakened after many hours, it seemed to him as if ten years had passed (91).
The river therefore has the same effect as spiritual enlightenment because it removes the individual from this time and place and so frees him from the bonds of time. This is what happens to Siddhartha now, leaving him free of time so that he can desire to remain forever in this one place:
The past now seemed to him to be covered by a veil, extremely remote, very unimportant. He only knew that his previous life... was finished, that he was so full of nausea and wretchedness that he had wanted to destroy it, but that he had come to himself by a river, under a cocoanut tree, with the holy word Om on his lips (91-92).
At this point, he also finds that the holy word is in his heart, and he has found it by looking within just as he set out to do. Siddhartha is physically immersed in the river, a repeat of the ritual from the opening pages of the book, but now this symbolic action has greater meaning because he really is immersed in the Divine, cleansed by the river and with a dawning awareness because the river takes away time. Outside of time, Siddhartha has new insight into himself and his place in the universe:
Perhaps he had really died, perhaps he had been drowned and was reborn in another form (92).
He has indeed been reborn into another form, but he has not drowned and instead has been cleansed and set free.