That evening, Siddhartha and Govinda approach the samanas and are accepted to join them. They give away their clothes and wear loin cloths instead. This begins a life of fasting and abstinence from the world. The sight of worldly people and possessions and property become a sham to Siddhartha. It all tortures him. His one goal is now to become empty of all desire, all worldliness, and, in doing this, extinguish the ‘self’ in order for his true essence to awaken.
A lot of the samana way of life is about extinguishing and diminishing the outside world, which is a surprising twist, since from the outside, the samanas, with their near nakedness and wandering, seemed to offer more of a natural life than the one Siddhartha experienced in his childhood Brahmin home.
Through the dry and rainy seasons, Siddhartha suffers the pain of burning and freezing, and sores from walking, but he withstands everything, until the pains fade. He learns to control his breath, to slow it right down until he is hardly breathing. He learns the art of unselfing meditation, loosing his soul from memories and senses. He feels like he embodies the creatures around him, the heron and even the dead jackal, through the whole life cycle. He transforms, from creature to plant to weather to self again. No matter how totally he seems to leave himself, he always returns, and feels himself in an inescapable cycle.
Siddhartha is overtaken by physical phenomena. The heat and the cold impose themselves on his body, but through thought he banishes all of his human responses and overcomes them. But instead of becoming one with nature, as we later learn is possible, Siddhartha seems to be trying to extinguish himself, to eliminate the impact of nature on him. Each time he comes back to his own body, it seems like a failure, not like a positive reconnection with his spirit.
Siddhartha asks Govinda, who has been living this painful samana life along with him, whether he thinks they have made progress. Govinda thinks Siddhartha is learning quickly and will become a great samana, even a saint, but Siddhartha himself is not so sure. He thinks he could have learned just as much among criminals in the red light district or an ox driver! Govinda thinks this is a joke. How could the same selflessness be learned there? But Siddhartha tells him that the abandonment of the self that he has learned as a samana does not differ that much from the abandonment of an ox driver having an ale after a hard day’s work. The drinker’s escape is momentary though, thinks Govinda, and surely the ascension that they are learning to achieve is more profound. Siddhartha is cynical.
In both the life of the samanas and the philosophy of contemplation and speaking the om that they learned from the Brahmins, Siddhartha and Govinda have grown up with the notion that enlightenment is a high ideal and that there is a distinct direction upwards that leads to this level of greatness. But Siddhartha’s comparison of the wizened samana to a drunk or an ox driver shows that he is beginning to realize the diversity of paths that can lead to similar heights. The picture of enlightenment gets a little blurry here.
On another occasion, Siddhartha questions if they are really approaching higher knowledge or whether they are going round in circles themselves. He makes the point that the eldest samana teacher has not yet reached Nirvana. They don’t seem to be getting any closer to their goal. Siddhartha, slightly mockingly, tells Govinda that he has decided to leave the samana path, because he doesn’t trust that learning from even the wisest samanas is any better than learning from a monkey or some such creature. He isn’t even sure that there is any value in learning at all.
It is clear that, since childhood, the young pilgrims have been set on a track of seeking knowledge. When it seems that even the end of that track and the very highest authorities in the hierarchy of spiritual knowledge are no more enlightened than the young men are, the Brahma and samana methods of teaching and learning and ruminating come to seem misguided.
Govinda doesn’t understand how Siddhartha could say such things. It terrifies him to doubt everything he has valued as holy. What would be left without this holiness? he thinks. He recites a verse about how holy bliss cannot be uttered in words. Siddhartha thinks deeply about the problem but it does not appear clearly to him.
The difference opens up between Govinda, who still believes his lessons blindly, and Siddhartha, who can no longer trust in the words of hymns. Though Siddhartha’s path seems less clear, his will and doubt are leading him towards his own path while Govinda follows the paths of others.
After three years leading the samana life, a rumor reaches Siddhartha and Govinda of a Sublime teacher, called Gautama, the Buddha, who had also wandered through the land as an ascetic, and whose legend has all the Brahmins enthralled. Many believe that the Buddha can heal the sick. Some have even heard that he had encountered the devil, and won.
The rumors of this religious leader are so extreme that it doesn’t seem like Gautama could have had such humble beginnings as a wandering ascetic. Reputation puts the Buddha above all, in a kind of non-human realm of his own.
In a corrupt world, sick with plague, the news of this sage sounds wonderful. People all over India are struck with a new feeling of hope. And this hope comes to the samanas in the forest too. But the rumors are colored equally with doubt. Siddhartha distrusts the idea of teaching, but Govinda wishes more than anything to hear the Sublime One speak. Siddhartha expresses his surprise at the change in Govinda, who he had always expected would live as a samana for the rest of his days. Siddhartha is mocking, but he agrees to hear the teaching. Though he does not believe that Gautama will reveal anything new to them, he tries to go ahead with an open mind.
The world surrounding Siddhartha is suffering from the same loss of spiritual wellbeing as he is. Spiritual sickness spreads through the land, as if it is contagious. The Buddha’s teaching has arrived to them and presents a duality for Siddhartha, whether one should follow wisdom in another or find it within oneself – which is the truer goal?
Siddhartha tells the eldest samana that he and Govinda plan to leave and the samana is furious. Govinda is embarrassed to have upset their elder, but Siddhartha proposes showing the samana one of the skills he has learnt, and proceeds to hypnotize him, making him speechless and benevolent. As Siddhartha and Govinda go their way, Govinda praises his friend for having picked up such an impressive spell. Siddhartha does not wish to perform miracles though. That kind of trickery belongs in the samana’s world.
Siddhartha shows real, physical skills and is able to outdo an elder samana. He shows that his doubts are reasonable – if he can overpower someone who has been learning and philosophizing for many years, then there must be something that he has, something beyond the skills of a samana.