Hermann Hesse
Contributed by Sharen Felty
By the River

When Siddhartha leaves the city, he goes back into the countryside. He feels so miserable that he thinks about suicide. He contemplate the paths he has followed in his search for enlightenment. When he was with the Samanas, he refrained from every kind of physical indulgence, while in the city, he allowed himself to satiate every sort of physical desire. Neither of these ways of being allowed him to achieve enlightenment. He wanders back to the river he had traversed with the ferryman. He is getting ready to slip into the water and let himself drown, but the sacred word Om suddenly reverberates inside him. This awakens his spirit. He sees how foolish his plan of suicide is and he lies down in the grass to sleep.

When Siddhartha wakes up, he finds that a Buddhist monk is meditating beside him. He sees that it is Govinda. Govinda fails to recognize him, however. When Siddhartha introduces himself, Govinda informs him that he still follows Gotama. Govinda still believes that his path as a spiritual pilgrim is the right one. Siddhartha says that he is a spiritual pilgrim, too. Govinda is skeptical of this. He points out that Siddhartha appears well-fed and has the appearance of a wealthy merchant. Siddhartha relays a shortened version of the events of his life since they parted ways. He says again that he is a spiritual pilgrim, too, and that still searches for enlightenment. Govinda is still skeptical but he gives his old friend a respectful bow before going on his way.

Siddhartha believes that there is nothing more he could learn by again joining the Samanas or the followers of Gotama. He eventually concludes that his overthinking has compromised his prior attempts at achieving enlightenment. The zeal evident in the way he tried to attach himself to ways of being and religious movements was in error. In a way, he tried too hard to find that of which he is in pursuit. He looks down at the river and starts to feel a strong degree of affection for it. He decides he will never leave it.


When Siddhartha again comes to the river, he understands that while the past is essential to life it does not determine what the future will be. This thought gets him ready to go forward with his quest for enlightenment. He falls asleep at the river. When he awakens, he feels that he is a new man. He has been reborn. His rebirth is different from that of “Awakening,” when he tried to deny his past in order to make way for his future. This present rebirth confronts the past in a direct way and understands the way it relates to life in the present. Through memory, the past is able to reveal itself. It now serves as a link between the past and the future. Siddhartha perceives the mistake he has made in trying to control the direction his life took, as this could only be done through submission to time’s repetitive cycle. He thinks that an extensive lifetime of experience and wandering has made him end up nowhere at all. However, the river now gives him self-knowledge and puts him on a new course. Siddhartha has now mastered the Buddhist lesson of “right conduct.” He needs to choose the way that comes naturally, following only his own voice. He must refrain from trying to set up the course of discovery beforehand.  

The re-appearance of Om signifies the re-emergence of Siddhartha’s spiritual self and the start of the final journey that will bring him to enlightenment. Om communicates life’s very essence. Every time it appears in this novel, it cause Siddhartha to get back in touch with his primal and pure self. When Siddhartha casts off his suicidal thoughts, Om wakes him up to his higher self. It reminds him of the divinity and knowledge that he has experienced.  There is reappearance of the knowledge gained because it is necessary for what is to come. On the first page of the novel, we see the appearance of Om. It is clearly a foundational teaching for he Brahmins. When it appears at the present part of the novel, it saves Siddhartha’s life. It causes him to have an awakening. It will come back at the river’s voice as Siddhartha is finally successful in achieving a state of enlightenment. The deep sleep that Siddhartha has been experiencing and his awakening upon hearing Om bring new understanding. Siddhartha has failed to reach enlightenment through the extreme of self-denial and that of self-gratification. He is now ready to find a balance between these two extremes. Govinda is unable to recognize his old friend when he sees him by the river. He is also unable to see the truth about his own quest for enlightenment. Govinda remains true to the traditional Buddhist path even though he has not been able to achieve his goal. He is blind to the fact that his path has failed him. By contrast, Siddhartha is able to glean knowledge from the Brahmin, Samana, and Buddhist worlds as well as come to understand that no one of these traditions could give him the knowledge he sought. Siddhartha is unlike Govinda in that he can perceive flaws in possible paths to enlightenment. He is courageous enough to cast aside failed paths and try other ones that are more promising. While Govinda is eventually able to reach enlightenment, he is able to do so only because Siddhartha is there with his superior spiritual powers and is able to assist him. Hesse is unclear as to whether the enlightenment Siddhartha somehow transits to Govinda is lasting or only temporary. If Govinda is given only a glimpse of it, there is a strong chance that he will have to go back and search for his own enlightenment.

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