Hermann Hesse
Contributed by Sharen Felty
The Ferryman

After he has decided to live a new life at the river, Siddhartha promptly meets the same ferryman who once helped him traverse the river years earlier. The ferryman’s name is Vasudeva. He remembers when Siddhartha was a Samana and that he has slept in his hut. He asks if Siddhartha would like to share it once more. Siddhartha declares that even though he has the appearance of a merchant, he would like to live with Vasudeva by the river. When Siddhartha tells Vasudeva about all of his experiences, Vasudeva realizes that the river spoke to Siddhartha. He says yes, he can be his assistant.

Siddhartha spends all his time with Vasudeva, working, eating, and sleeping alongside him. Vasudeva teaches Siddhartha everything he needs to know to be a ferryman. It is during this time that Siddhartha gently questions Vasudeva about the link between his life at the river and his apparently enlightened detachment. Vasudeva explains that the river holds many secrets and lessons. The first lesson the river teaches Siddhartha is that time does not exist. When he asks whether Vasudeva has learned that secret as well, Vasudeva gives him a broad smile and says it has. Siddhartha is excited about this discovery and comes to understand that all difficulties, hostilities, anxieties, suffering, and self-torment have their anchor in time. It is when people are able to overcome the idea of time that all of this will disappear. After some time passes, Vasudeva smiles even more widely when Siddhartha takes note of the fact that the river has a number of different voices, that it sounds like everything and everyone that exists, and that when the voices are perceived in unison the sound Om can be heard.

News that the Buddha will soon die spreads across the land. Hundreds of pilgrims start appearing to pay him homage. Two of them are Kamala and her son. The son didn’t want to accompany her as he too much loves the comforts of home. Kamala stops to rest a short distance from the river and is bitten by a poisonous snake. Vasudeva hears the boy’s cry for assistance. He carries Kamala to the ferry and then traverses the river with her to his hut. Siddhartha recognizes Kamala and he finds her son rather familiar. He quickly realizes that the boy is his son. Kamala stays alive long enough to speak to him. In this final conversation, she realizes she does not need to see the Buddha to fulfill her dream of seeing an enlightened one. She sees that Siddhartha is the same as Buddha. Siddhartha feels that he is blessed himself. He has a son now.  


Siddhartha has devoted many years of life to the pursuit of enlightenment. His experiences have demonstrated to him that enlightenment is something that cannot be taught. Yet in Vasudeva, he finds the perfect teacher—in a way, a teacher who does not provide any instruction. Vasudeva himself says that he is not a teacher: “If I could talk and teach, I would perhaps be a teacher, but as it is I am only a ferryman,” he declares. Vasudeva listens to what Siddhartha says and encourages him in his decision to listen to the river. Siddhartha surrenders his entire self, including even his own clothes, to Vasudeva so that he may follow the man’s example in leading a life of calm wisdom and fulfillment. Vasudeva provides Siddhartha with food and shelter, but he does not impose his own experiences and wisdom on him. While Siddhartha follows the example set by Vasudeva, he reaches enlightenment by following his own path. We see that Vasudeva is both a literal and a figurative guide. He guides Siddhartha back and forth across the water and also affirms the spiritual progress Siddhartha makes and encourages him in his continued search. Vasudeva is positioned between the ordinary world and that of enlightenment. He functions as an intermediary for the seeker Siddhartha who goes to the river and wishes to pass from one world to a different one. Among the important lessons that Siddhartha learns from the river is the time does not exist. The present is the only moment that matters. Siddhartha is now able to perceive that all life is unified, just as the river succeeds in being in all places at once. Through evocation of the symbol of the river, we see suggestion of the unity of life. Hesse is referring to the religion and philosophy of Taoism. Taoism maintains that there is a force called Tao that flows through all living things and the universe, connecting them. It is believed that balancing the Tao is needed to have complete happiness. The Yin Yang is the primary symbol of Taoism. The Yin Ying is a circular symbol with one black section and one white section. The sections fit together seamlessly.

The Yin Yang indicates the balance of opposites. This is a concept that the final part of Siddhartha explores. The river and its consistent presence and movement reveal the existence of opposites such as time and timelessness and flux and permanence. Siddhartha has tried to achieve enlightenment in a variety of different ways, but it is only when he realizes that opposites are able to co-exist that he obtains enlightenment.

The river’s essence never alters and it can be in all places at once. It is in this way that Siddhartha is like the river. In spite of the changing parts of his experience, the essence of his self has always stayed the same. He refers to his life as a river and makes use of this comparison in determining that there is no such thing as time. With the assistance of the river and Vasudeva, Siddhartha is finally able to learn the final elements that are needed for him to achieve enlightenment. The true significance of the river is revealed to Siddhartha by Vasuveda. The river can instruct Siddhartha in everything he must know, starting with how to listen. This doctrine indicates that knowledge is found in the present place and time. This means that from his position in the here and now, Siddhartha is able to find out everything there is to know. He now comprehends that time does not exist, as everything there is to learn can be learned from the present moment. Free of his fear of time, concerns about the fleeting nature of life, or the problem of boredom, Siddhartha is able to reach enlightenment.

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