Siddhartha knows he wants to stay by the river, and resolves to find the ferryman who had showed him kindness before. He thinks this is the way to start his new life. He watches the crystal movement of the water and the voice within him is strong and loving. He knows that the man who has grasped the secrets of the river must know many other things. One of these secrets is the water’s constancy – it is always running but never runs out. Siddhartha does not fully understand this secret but knows that it is special.
There is a direct connection it seems between the movement of the river, and the voice in Siddhartha. This voice always shows us the state of his spirit. If it is clear, Siddhartha is going in the right direction, if it is weak, there is something wrong. But the river encourages his voice in a new way, showing that every direction is right, and its colors and sensations wash away Siddhartha’s doubt.
Siddhartha suffers greatly with hunger but he carries on and gets to the river and sees the old ferryman standing in his boat. The ferryman agrees to ferry Siddhartha across and as they go, Siddhartha compliments him on the river life he has chosen. The ferryman thinks it must be nothing to a man in such fine clothes.
Siddhartha’s desires plague him but his desire to escape from the riches and delusions of the town is greater, and pushes him on. The ferryman is just the right person to greet Siddhartha’s struggling identity, because he seems so at peace with who he is.
Siddhartha does not wish any longer to be judged for these clothes. He offers them to the ferryman in exchange for his apron. He also asks if he can be the ferryman’s assistant and learn how to row the ferry. Now the ferryman recognizes Siddhartha as the samana from years ago. He introduces himself as Vasudeva and asks Siddhartha to share his hut again and tell him the story of how he came to be a finely dressed man.
Siddhartha is again uncomfortable in his clothes. He had appeared in the town dressed as a homeless beggar, and now as a finely dressed man he is out of place with the ferryman, who he wishes to learn from and not belittle. The repetitive shedding of Siddhartha’s skin is a natural process, which seems to be leading him towards the source of his inner voice.
Siddhartha watches Vasudeva row with admiration for his calm strength and focus. He remembers the fondness he had felt for the ferryman when they’d first met. When they reach the hut, Vasudeva offers Siddhartha plenty of bread and mangoes and Siddhartha eats with gusto. Then as the light disappears, the pair settles by a tree and Siddhartha begins the long story of his life.
Vasudeva presents Siddhartha with everything he needs at this moment. He is almost a father to Siddhartha. Besides food and shelter, Vasudeva’s skills of ferrying, quietness, peace, and comforting, all provide for Siddhartha’s spirit in a way that his previous teachers never did.
Vasudeva listens carefully. Listening is the ferryman’s great virtue. Siddhartha feels that Vasudeva is absorbing all that he is telling him, without judgment, and when he comes to the most recent chapter of his story, about finding the ‘om’ by the river, the ferryman listens so carefully that he closes his eyes. Vasudeva is very pleased to learn that he the river has spoken to Siddhartha as it has to him. He invites Siddhartha to stay with him, and sleep on the pallet that his late wife used to sleep on.
Listening is a skill we have not heard before. We know well about Siddhartha’s abilities to wait and fast, and think, and now his abilities to gamble and make love, but listening presents itself now as the holiest, most honest of virtues. It connects the essence of Vasudeva to the essence of the river, and promises Siddhartha that he too could become one with nature.
Siddhartha accepts and praises Vasudeva for his ability to listen, hoping to learn it from him one day, but Vasudeva says he will only learn it from the river itself. He tells Siddhartha that he has already learned how the water moves downward, and he will learn something else from it too, but he won’t explain what that other thing will be. Vasudeva reminds Siddhartha that he is no sage, that he has a ferryman’s knowledge and that for some people the river is not a hindrance but a source of the deepest knowledge. After this, the pair goes to sleep.
So far, Siddhartha’s gifts have been attributed to his own essence and his own holiness, but Vesudeva’s attribution of his ability to listen to the river, shows that a person is not just an essence and a set of gifts, he is connected to the world and part of the world’s forms. There is something secret and important about the wisdom that Vesudeva has that seems meant for Siddhartha too.
Siddhartha lives with Vasudeva and learns all the skills of ferrying and fixing the boat. But he learns most from the river, about how to listen with an open heart. Vasudeva is a man of few words, but when Siddhartha asks him about the secret of time, which he has learned from the river, he knows exactly what Siddhartha means and is excited to share it. The river has taught Siddhartha that the source occurs at the same moment as the end, and there is no separation, and he learns to see his own life this way, from his birth to his death, all one whole. They are both very happy in this knowledge.
The river takes on human and godlike figures in Siddhartha’s life. He was always taught to revere elders and those that had achieved greater wisdom and enlightenment, but the river, eternal, always there, ancient, is the most venerable figure he has found and provides him with a new kind of inspiration for his onward journey.
On another occasion, Siddhartha asks the ferryman if it is true that the river is all voices, each woman, man and creature. Vasudeva says that it is true and that the voice is the holy word ‘om’. With these lessons, Siddhartha becomes more and more like the ferryman, joyful and smiling. The pair sits like brothers beside the river and even sometimes, as they listen to the river, have the same thoughts, as if the river is speaking to them at once.
Siddhartha and Vasudeva speak about the truths of the river as if they are knowable and definable, like the proverbs of the Buddha’s teaching or the verses that Siddhartha used to recite. The river is both a kind of wisdom and a wise man.
The travelers that crossed the river felt this special spirit emanating from the ferrymen and often found themselves opening up to them, telling their life stories. After a while, people come to the river just to see the ferrymen, because word has spread that they are sages or wizards, but when they meet them, they find two friendly old men, quiet and strange, and wonder how the rumor started.
The reputation that crosses the region about the ferrymen mirrors that of the Buddha earlier. News of the humble lives of Siddhartha and Vasudeva travels even without the following of monks or the sermons and spiritual teaching that created Gautama’s reputation.
Years pass, uncounted, until one day, hoards of monks and pilgrims start arriving at the river, and tell the ferrymen that they are going to see Gautama, the Buddha, who is mortally ill and will soon die his final human death and pass into glory. Siddhartha reflects on the great voice of this teacher, and remembers him fondly. He remembers his young self, dubious of teaching, trying to separate himself. Now he knows that though he had needed to separate himself from teaching, he no longer believes in separations. He knows that he is connected to everything.
The end of the cycle of Gautama’s life brings Siddhartha’s contemplation on the cycles of his own life. There is a deep connection in the narrative between Gautama and Siddhartha, and at this stage of Siddhartha’s realizations and awakenings, Gautama’s departure seems to be making way for a new saint.
Amongst the hoards is Kamala, who is also on a pilgrimage to visit the dying Buddha. Since knowing Siddhartha, Kamala has given up the life of a courtesan to be a supporter of the monks and a pilgrim herself. She brings Siddhartha’s son, named after his father, with her. He follows his mother in a sulk, not understanding why he has to tag along. He demands rest stops every so often.
The spiritual society surrounding Siddhartha carries and flows, one person affecting another in a very natural way. Kamala’s pilgrimage has been stirred by meeting Siddhartha, and her son comes along in the same motion. It is as if the whole set of characters are on the same collective pilgrimage.
On one of these rest stops, as Kamala is resting her eyes, a black snake attacks and bites her. They try to go on towards the river but Kamala collapses. Young Siddhartha is distraught. Luckily, Vasudeva hears Kamala’s cry and comes to her and carries her to the hut. Siddhartha sees the boy first, and a strange feeling rises inside him, then he recognizes the mother and knows that the boy must be his son.
The collection of events that occur by the river tie together is such a perfect way that it seems like fate for Siddhartha’s lover and son to arrive with him at this moment. The collision of the town setting and the river setting creates a collision of everything Siddhartha has learned, and suggests that some kind of culmination, confrontation, or blending of the two is imminent.
Siddhartha and Vasudeva try to look after Kamala, giving her a healing potion, but she is already in a bad way. When she wakes, she sees the familiar face of Siddhartha over her and then remembers her son and worries for him. Siddhartha assures her that he is looked after. Kamala tells Siddhartha that he has grown old but that he still looks like the young samana she first knew, and has the eyes of her young son. She asks if he recognizes her and her son. Then, tired and troubled, she closes her eyes again.
When Siddhartha came into the town, Kamala was the face that greeted him and led him into a new world and offered him the next stage of his journey. Now, the roles have reversed and it is Siddhartha who can offer Kamala her next stage. His peacefulness and guardianship over her completes the circle.
Young Siddhartha is afraid for his mother and Siddhartha tries to comfort his son. He remembers a prayer he learned from the Brahmins and sings it. His son calms down and sleeps. Siddhartha and Vasudeva know that Kamala is dying. She awakes again in great pain. She tells Siddhartha that he looks both the same and different, that his eyes have changed. She sees that he has attained peace. She tells him of her hope to travel to the Buddha and look into his eye, but, as Siddhartha tells her that she will find peace too, she knows that she has found it in her old lover’s eyes and it is just as good as Gautama. Unable to speak, she gazes at Siddhartha until her body gives out.
In Kamala’s dying state, she desires the serenity of the Buddha’s teaching that she has come to admire and seek refuge in. But without this hope, holy comfort comes in the form of Siddhartha. Love and wisdom together form a pleasing, peaceful vision when she looks at him. We see now how close to the Buddha’s state of enlightenment Siddhartha has become.
Siddhartha watches Kamala’s pale face, now old and without the color of the fig that he once saw. He lets the sight take him over, and sees his own figure stretched out and pale. He has a deep feeling of the eternity of life. Vasudeva prepares food for him, but he doesn’t eat. He spends the night sitting outside the hut, every so often listening for his son.
Siddhartha’s human qualities and connections appear suddenly before him. His body and Kamala’s body have aged, and they have created a new life. These bonds draw Siddhartha into deep reflection.
Early in the morning, Vasudeva comes out and Siddhartha tells him that he has been reflecting, listening to the river tells him about oneness. Vasudeva sees that Siddhartha has been touched by sorrow but that it has not entered his heart. Siddhartha cannot be sad when his life has been enriched by finding his son. Vasudeva tells him that his son is welcome to stay with them, but now they must build Kamala a pyre in the same way that Vasudeva had built one for his wife when she passed.
The connection between Vasudeva’s and Siddhartha’s paths is very clear now. Vesudeva has gone through grief just as Siddhartha is going through it, and has grown to be at peace with his solitude. The river soothes Siddhartha and makes him realize the gift of his son.