Hermann Hesse
Contributed by Sharen Felty

Siddhartha meditates on the loss of his son for many days. He feels a great deal of sadness and pain. On one occasion when Siddhartha looks into the river, he sees the water laugh at him for allowing the wound to hurt him so deeply. He recognizes that there is an inevitable flow to life. In this way, it is just like a river. When he was a boy, he himself left his home even though his father protested greatly. His own son has now left him. It is because of this doubled perspective that Siddhartha is able to sympathize with his father and his son at once. He comprehends that there are some sorrows in life that we cannot prevent and that will pass through generations. He now has a feeling of peace. That evening he confides in Vasudeva about everything that he has felt. His friend appears to absorb his sorrows. Siddhartha now understands that Vasudeva has the same level of enlightenment as the Buddha. He seems like a god.

The elder ferryman tells him to listen more intently to the river. They sit on the bank and Siddhartha finds that all of the images of his life come before him. He hears voices of good and evil, joy and sorrow, and laughter and mourning. But he does not allow himself to be caught up any one voice. He hears only the word Om. He suddenly recognizes that his Self is only a part of the great perfection that is comprised of all the world’s voices speaking at once. He is no longer doubtful of his place in the world and he no longer second guesses his actions. His face is now reflective of the same kind of divine understanding that he first saw on Vasudeva’s face when he met him. It is in this hour that Siddhartha ceases fighting his fate. The serenity of knowledge makes his eyes glow in a singular way. Vasudeva witnesses this and declares that he has been waiting for this to happen. He leaves, going into the forest. Siddhartha is left to be the ferryman.


Siddhartha is required to give up that which he loves in order to reach enlightenment. His difficulty in giving up his son indicates that love is the most difficult challenge he has faced during his journey. In this way, he is no different than anyone else who has loved. The loss of his son is difficult, but that which he experiences now as a father is really the same as the experience he had many years before as a son. When Siddhartha sees there is a reflection of himself in the river, there is an image of his father superimposed on it. It is as though his father is being subject to the same test that Siddhartha is currently undergoing. He witnesses a vision of the self not only in the past but also the future. His son behaves in the same way he himself once acted. The boy will follow a path of his own choosing one day. Siddhartha is acting in the same way his father did many years previously when he wanted his son to stay at home in spite of his own wisdom. These parallels, which persist in spite of everything Siddhartha has learned, indicate that the present moment really does hold all of time. The present moment presents a concentration of experience that it would take numerous lifetimes to experience. Siddhartha realizes not only that he is in himself always the same no matter what changes happen in his life but also that he is the same as all other human beings in the world.

We see suffering function as a humanizing force for Siddhartha in “Om.” It is through suffering that Siddhartha is able to discover unity among his roles of father, son, and traveler, as well as between the past and future. Siddhartha used to look at people in the mortal world with scorn but at this point his suffering lets him perceive the unity he has with the world in its entirety. No longer does he stand above anyone else. His suffering has proven to him that he is just like them. It is only in recognizing these similarities with the remainder of the world that he is able to has the compassion needed to achieve true enlightenment. Vasudeva and Siddhartha have both suffered. Similarly to how Vasudeva goes back to the divine, Siddhartha will too one day. Both men have been able to overcome suffering in the quest for enlightenment.

Vasudeva’s vocation as a ferryman is as a person who guides others from one side of the river to the other. This fits in with his status as a spiritual guide. If we see one side of the river as representing enlightenment and the other side as being symbolic of life as it is lived before enlightenment takes place, then he helps to bring people to the final destination of enlightenment.  However, people are required to first get to the river on their own volition and understand that they need to get to the other bank. He does not give people information on where they need to go but assists those who are ready to carry out the journey. Vasudeva leaves Siddhartha as soon as the latter achieves enlightenment. This means that Siddhartha inherits the position of ferryman. It is in this manner that a certain kind of equality is suggested between Vasudeva and Siddhartha. While descriptions of Vasudeva are often in divine terms, he does not keep up the power relationship that is typical to the link between student and teacher or the divine and the mortal. Siddhartha is Vasudeva’s equal when the latter leaves. He has brought Siddhartha to the destination of enlightenment and can now leave. This is different than the behavior of a teacher who would stay to continue teaching others.

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