Young Siddhartha, full of grief, attends his mother’s funeral. He lives in the ferryman’s hut but will not eat. Siddhartha respects his grieving. He finds that the boy is spoiled, and used to rich things and the attention of his mother. The boy does not know Siddhartha and will find it hard to cope with such minimal conditions, so Siddhartha is patient and cares for him. But though at first, Siddhartha felt so enriched by the thought of knowing his son, as time goes on, the boy’s mischievous ways and surly attitude toward Siddhartha drains him of that initial joy. But still Siddhartha loves him and suffers through it. He and Vasudeva divide the work between the river and the hut so that Siddhartha can stay with his son.
Siddhartha has faced challenges throughout his life, but the arrival of his son and his son’s grief overtakes his mind and heart like nothing else so far. The familial bond seems to have an effect that no other bond has, not even the bond he had with Govinda or with his revered elders like Vasudeva and Gautama. It is the paternal bond that makes Siddhartha excuse the boy’s worldly sullen attitude that, in contrast, Siddhartha had greeted with such scorn when he first encountered it in the town.
But, as time goes on, Siddhartha, expecting his son to come round and learn to love him, is disappointed. Young Siddhartha is defiant and rude. One day, Vasudeva approaches Siddhartha about it. It saddens him to see his friend so misused. He sees that the boy is used to the city and did not leave it willfully, like Siddhartha did. Vasudeva has asked the river about it and the river has laughed at them. He urges Siddhartha to listen to the river too.
The river’s laughter shows that the wisdom of the river is far ahead of Siddhartha at this point, looking on his heartache and knowing the way out of it. It provides hope that the anxiety that consumes him now may just be an illusion and will turn into something that leads to growth. The river’s laugh is interestingly similar to the smile of the Buddha, an even purer symbol of joy.
Siddhartha doesn’t feel ready to part with his son. He asks for more time. He believes that he can woo his son and that eventually, young Siddhartha will hear the river too. Vasudeva agrees that certainly the boy is destined for something, but they do not know what path he will take yet. His stubborn heart will have to suffer much and do much sin, Vasudeva expects. He says that while Siddhartha does not punish or beat the boy, he forces him with his love and affection, and keeps him prisoner with two old men that are not of the same world as he.
Siddhartha has learned about the natural flow and unity of the river and its timelessness, but now, affected deeply by the love that he has for his son, he is not embodying the spirit of the river in his actions. He is forcing the boy and keeping him off course. The words he uses like “woo” show that he wishes to tempt and pull his son’s loyalty from the town to the riverside, which is very much against the natural philosophy that he believes in deep down.
Siddhartha is saddened and ashamed but when Vasudeva suggests that the boy should be brought back to the town, Siddhartha is reluctant to part with him. He is worried that his son will succumb to the town’s pleasures. The ferryman smiles and tells Siddhartha to trust in the river. What can one do to save someone from the world, what can one teach him? He reminds Siddhartha that he himself ran from teaching and found awakening by the river, following his own path. He assures Siddhartha that all the love in the world will not save someone from their destiny.
Siddhartha has been so clear in his impulses to leave teaching and follow his own path, but now, puzzled by love, he does not appreciate the same need in his son. He does not trust his son with the delusions of the town. We are reminded of the defiance of Siddhartha when faced with his own father’s possessive paternal love.
Vasudeva had never spoken so much at once. Siddhartha thinks restlessly about it. He knows Vasudeva is right, but his love is stronger than this knowledge and he is terrified of losing the boy – he has never loved anyone so painfully and happily at once, and he cannot let his son go. He gets on with life again, silently bearing his son’s defiance while Vasudeva looks on patiently.
Young Siddhartha’s hold on his father continues. We have never seen Siddhartha be so pushed and pulled in various directions before. The Buddha’s warning about love being a consuming delusion has some sense behind it because Siddhartha can barely distinguish his own path from that of his son.
Looking at his boy’s face, Siddhartha remembers what Kamala once said to him. She told him that he couldn’t love, and he himself agreed that he was separate from the child people. But now he knows the love of the child people and can suffer for someone else and be stupid for someone else, and though he had mocked it before, he respects the feeling now and feels richer for it. He feels that it is a very human, childlike feeling but that it is right. Pleasure, pain and folly all have their place.
The episode with his son takes its place in Siddhartha’s journey, and despite the pain he feels, again he feels the rightness of everything. This is a far cry from his life as a samana and as a merchant, where feelings and pain were so hateful to him. After each period of discontentment, is an awakening, but it is a cycle that seems to be leading somewhere.
Young Siddhartha goes on abusing his father, humiliating him and sulking. Nothing about Siddhartha can influence the boy. He is bored and feels so imprisoned by Siddhartha's kindness that he would almost prefer to be punished. One day, when Siddhartha asks his son to do a chore for him, young Siddhartha erupts in a fit of rage and refuses. He dares Siddhartha to hit him and says he hates him for trying to make him an imitation of himself. The boy runs away in the night, taking money and the ferryman’s boat with him.
This is the first time we see the situation from young Siddhartha’s point of view and see that his pain is separate from Siddhartha’s. He picks up on his father’s ethical contradiction – he has spent all his time trying to find his own path and not imitate or follow, but now he has forced his son to follow in his footsteps.
Siddhartha is anxious for the child’s safety and begs that they make a raft and follow him. But Vasudeva responds that they will make a raft only to fetch the boat back and they must leave the boy. He will be able to look after himself better than Siddhartha is able to look after him. Vasudeva is sorry to see Siddhartha suffering, but he is sure that Siddhartha will soon laugh at all of this.
Vasudeva, as the wise elder in this situation, guides Siddhartha to make the right decision and let his son go. Ironically, it is the presence of his child that has made Siddhartha childlike again, desiring and seeking and needing guidance from the fatherly ferryman.
They build the raft and go over to the boat that has been abandoned. Vasudeva takes an axe with them, because he suspects that young Siddhartha may have destroyed their oar to make a point. Sure enough when they get to the boat, there is no oar left. He wants Siddhartha to realize that his son doesn’t want to be followed. Siddhartha hurries to search for his son, but as he walks, he starts to think that maybe it is futile, and he stops worrying for the boy’s safety, knowing deep down that his son will find his way home.
Just like Siddhartha, the boy is seeking his own path and must be left alone to follow it. The sight of young Siddhartha being so defiant and strong-willed in creating his own path shows us how far Siddhartha has come that he now has a duty to someone else’s individual path, not just his own.
Siddhartha still wants to see his son. He arrives at the grove that used to belong to Kamala, and his eyes are filled with visions of the past, of himself as a young samana, of the proud way he had entered the world of love lessons and Kamaswami’s riches, of the songbird and his desire for death. He feels it all anew. Now he knows that he cannot save his son or bring him back. His paternal love feels like a wound, and though Siddhartha feels like the wound will blossom like a flower, it hasn’t blossomed yet and he feels empty and sad.
Going towards the town and the grove where he had been so jaded is like taking a step into the past for Siddhartha and we realize that he has learned all that he needed to from this place and must go back to the river in order to carry on his journey to enlightenment. We see clearly that, even though Siddhartha feels loss, that he knows he must follow his own path and his son might have quite a different path.
Siddhartha, as he had learned from the river, sits and waits and tries to listen to his inner voice. He speaks the ‘om’ silently for a long time outside the gates of the grove. Monks bring him fruit as he sits there, but he doesn’t notice. Eventually he is brought out of the trance by Vasudeva standing above him, smiling cheerfully. They share the fruit and go quietly back to the riverside hut. They don’t mention the boy. Soon Siddhartha falls asleep.
Siddhartha relives his cycle again. He tries to speak the ‘om’ as he did as a youth, and is approached by monks, but it is the river, and Vasudeva’s silent smile, that saves him again, and again restorative sleep comes beyond his control.