The son of a Brahmin, Siddhartha lives with his father in ancient India. Siddhartha is not only handsome but well-respected. Everyone in the village where they live thinks that he will be just like his father, a successful Brahmin. Siddhartha has a life that is almost idyllic with Vodina, his best friend. However, he is inwardly dissatisfied. He carries out all the religious rituals and he does what the religion claims will bring him peace and happiness. Nevertheless, he feels there is something missing. None of the elders in the village, including his father, has achieved enlightenment. Siddhartha feels that remaining with them will not allow him to resolve the questions he has regarding the nature of existence. He thinks that his father has already given the community all the wisdom he has to offer, and he wishes to find something more.
Samanas are wandering ascetics. A group of them pass through town one day. They are almost naked and starved and have arrived to ask for food. They hold the belief that it is through asceticism that enlightenment can be achieved. Asceticism is a rejection of the body, including any kind of physical desire. The path this group preaches differs from the one Siddhartha has been taught. However, he thinks it could give him some of the answers he is seeking. He decides to try this new path. While Siddhartha’s father doesn’t want his son to join this group, he is unable to dissuade him. Govinda also hopes to find a path to enlightenment and he goes with Siddhartha to find a new life.
The discipline and patience that Siddhartha learned from growing up in the Brahmin tradition makes him able to quickly adjust to the ways of the Samanas. He learns to lose his desire for clothing, property, and sexuality and for all traditional trappings of life. He comes to want nothing but the sustenance needed to stay alive. His goal becomes to find enlightenment through the elimination of his Self. He is successful in renouncing worldly pleasures.
Siddhartha eventually becomes half-starved and sunburned. He loses his resemblance to the boy he once was. Govinda is eager to praise the Samanas. He points out the significant spiritual and moral improvements both men have achieved since joining the group. Yet Siddhartha remains dissatisfied. He does not find a permanent solution in the path of self-denial. He argues that while the oldest Samanas have lived according to ascetic rules for many years, they still have not reached true spiritual enlightenment. The Samanas have not been any more successful than the Brahmins that the men left behind. At this point, Siddhartha and the other Samanas start hearing word of a new holy man. His name is Gotama the Buddha. This man is said to have achieved Nirvana, which is total spiritual enlightenment. Govinda convinces his companion that they should leave their present group and seek out Gotama. Govinda and Disshartha tell the Samanas’ leader about their decision to leave. It is clear that the leader is displeased by this. However, Siddhartha is able to silence him with a hypnotizing gaze that is almost magical in nature.
Siddhartha and Govinda are able to find Gotama’s camp of followers. They are brought into the group. Initially, Siddhartha is pleased by what he sees in Gotama. He and Govinda are given instruction in the Eightfold Path as well as the four main points and other aspects of Buddhism. Govinda feels certain in his wish to join this new group, but Siddhartha still feels doubtful. He sees a contradiction in Gotama’s instruction. He questions how it is possible to understand and embrace the unity of all things, as Buddha requires, if one is told to cast off the physical world. Siddhartha comes to understand that Buddhism is unable to provide all the answers he requires. Feeling sad, he leaves Govinda behind and sets off on his own quest for the meaning of life. He feels that the achievement of discovering the meaning of life will not depend on religious instruction.
Siddharta’s plan involves starting a life free from the spiritual quests he had been pursuing, as well as meditation. He decides to try to learn from the material world and the pleasures of the body. He comes across a ferryman on his wanderings. This man is friendly and seems entirely content with a simple life. Siddhartha traverses the river on which the ferryman operates and reaches a city. It is here that he meets Kamala, a beautiful courtesan. He realizes that she would be the perfect person to give him instruction in the world of love. However, Kamala refuses to have him unless he can prove that he is able to fit into the material world. She urges him to follow the path of the merchant. With the young woman’s assistance, Siddhartha is soon able to become employed with Kamaswami, a merchant. He starts to learn the trade. Siddhartha learns about the business world and makes progress in mastering the skills taught to him by Kamaswami. Kamala consents to become his lover. She share her knowledge of love with him. Siddhartha continues on this path for a number of years. His business acumen improves and he soon becomes a rich man. He enjoys all the benefits that his newly affluent life affords him. He dances, drinks, and gambles. He knows that he can buy everything available in the material world that he wishes to have. Yet he feels detached from his life. He is unable to see it as anything other than a game. He isn’t concerned about whether he wins or loses the game. This is because it doesn’t affect his spirit in any significant way. He finds that the more he gains in the material world, the less satisfying he finds it. He soon finds himself trapped in a cycle of unhappiness. He tries escaping it by taking part in even more drinking, gambling, and sex. In his most disillusioned state, he has a dream. It is of Kamala’s rare songbird being dead in a cage. He comes to realize that he is slowly being destroyed by the material world and that it is not giving him the enlightenment he has long sought. One evening, he decides to abandon it all and leaves without telling either Kamala or Kamaswami.
Siddhartha feels sick at heart. He continues to wander until he happens upon a river. He thinks about drowning himself but ends up falling asleep on the riverbank. Govinda is now a Buddhist monk. He passes by as Siddhartha sleeps. Govinda fails to recognize this friend but he watches over him anyway to make sure he is not hurt by snakes. When Siddhartha wakes up, he recognizes Govinda immediately. Govinda sees that Siddhartha has changed a great deal and now has the appearance of a wealthy man. Siddhartha says that he is neither a rich man nor a Samana. Siddhartha wishes that he could become a new person. Govinda promptly departs to continue with his journey. Siddhartha rests beside the river and thinks about where his life has brought him.
Siddhartha looks for the same happy ferryman he met several years earlier. The ferryman says his name is Vasudeva. He shows he has an inner peace that Siddhartha wishes he could enjoy, too. Vasudeva indicates that he has achieved his sense of peace by way of several years studying the river. Siddhartha expresses he wishes to learn from the river, too. Vasudeva says he will allow Siddhartha to live and work alongside him. Siddhartha begins his study of the river and starts to find in it spiritual enlightenment different than any he has ever known before. As he sits beside the river, he thinks about the unity of all types of life. In the voice of the river, he hears the word Om.
Kamala the courtesan and her son approach the ferry one day. They are on a pilgrimage and intend to visit Gotama, who is reputed to be dying. Prior to being able to cross the river, Kama is bitten by a snake. The bite kills the woman despite being tended to by Siddhartha and Vasudeva. Before she passes away, she informs Siddhartha that he is her son’s father. The boy is eleven years old. Siddhartha makes his utmost effort in comforting the boy and providing for him. However, the boy is cynical and spoiled. He views life with the two ferrymen with scorn and wants to go back to the city and enjoy a life of wealth. Vasudeva thinks that Siddhartha’s son ought to be permitted to leave if he wishes to. However, Siddhartha does not feel ready to let him go. Siddhartha wakes up one morning to discover that his son has run away and taken not only all of his money but Vasudeva’s, too. Siddhartha pursues the boy, but as he gets to the city he realizes that his efforts are futile. Vasudeva follows Siddhartha. After bringing him back to their spot by the river, he tells him to soothe his emotional pain by listening to the sounds of the river.
Siddhartha’s studies of the river lasts for many years. Vasudeva gives Siddhartha instruction on how to learn the numerous secrets the river holds. A revelation comes to Siddhartha as he contemplates the river: Just as the river’s water flows into the ocean and is replenished by rain, all life forms are connected to one another in a cycle that has no beginning or end. Birth and death are only parts of the timeless unity. Good and evil, joy and sorrow, and life and death are all components of the whole and are needed in order to understand the meaning of life. Siddhartha learns all the lessons the river has to offer. Vasudeva then says that he is done with life at the river. He goes to find a new life in the forest. This leaves Siddhartha to be the only ferryman.
The novel concludes with Govinda coming back to the river to look for enlightenment by meeting with a wise man who resides there. Upon Govinda’s arrival, he is not able to recognize that Siddhartha is the wise man. Govinda still follows Gotama but he hasn’t yet been able to achieve the sort of enlightenment that Siddhartha radiates at this point. He wants Siddhartha to instruct him in everything that he knows. Siddhartha tells him that there is no one that can teach Govinda the wisdom. This is because verbal explanations have too many limits and are never able to communicate enlightenment in its entirety. He asks that Govinda kiss him on the forehead. When Govinda complies with this request, he experiences communicated to him Siddhartha’s vision of unity. Both Govinda and Siddhartha have now achieved the kind of enlightenment they started their quest to find in their youth.