The wound brought on by the loss of his son hurts Siddhartha for a good while. He sees the families that cross the river in a different way now. He understands them and is envious. He now feels a sense of kinship with all the various travelers from the childlike world that pass by. Their desires no longer seemed silly to him, in fact they are now vital, even venerable. He begins to feel that the child people are equal to the thinkers, with only one thing, consciousness, separating them. And sometimes Siddhartha even doubts the importance of this consciousness and sees the child people as superior, with their blind devotion to their loved ones.
Though Siddhartha had played the game of the child people when he lived in town in the service of the merchant, it is only after sharing his life with his flesh-and-blood son and giving so much of himself in sacrifice, that he truly understands and respects the love and desire that dominates the child people. Natural emotion and love become high qualities now that Siddhartha has experienced them enough to truly understand them.
Siddhartha has gradually learned what real wisdom is and he is even more drawn to Vasudeva, as the embodiment of the oneness and the smile that real wisdom is all about. But the wound of his son still burns in him, and one day he longs to go to town and see his son. He takes the boat out, but all of a sudden he hears the river laughing at him. He peers into the water and sees his reflection and in it, the reflection of his own father. He remembers how they parted and realizes that his father had felt the same suffering, and the whole situation was a cycle. The river laughs. Siddhartha’s wound is still not healing but hope glimmers in the distance.
Siddhartha, who was once devoted entirely to the pursuit of enlightenment, now shares his devotion between his role as a father and his role as the old sage that we have seen him become. But neither diminishes the other – in fact, the acknowledgement of the cycle of fatherhood and sonhood gives Siddhartha a greater scope to his wisdom. As the river always appears as a symbol of rightness and oneness, it does so again here, telling Siddhartha that his feelings are still going in the right direction.
Siddhartha goes back to the hut, wanting to open his heart to Vasudeva, the great listener. Vasudeva is old and slow now, but still wears his serene smile. Today, they talk of things they’ve never talked of before, the most embarrassing things, his envy, the wound of his son. Siddhartha feels the exquisite comfort of Vasudeva’s listening, as if he is bathing the wound. Siddhartha feels that it is no longer Vasudeva, that the man has transformed into the river itself, and eternity itself.
Vasudeva’s qualities have always had a light, serene quality, but now as the narrator describes his actions, they become more and more akin to the flow of water and with the water’s healing properties. Vasudeva is the personification of what Siddhartha has learned from the river.
Siddhartha stops thinking about his wound and the presence of Vasudeva fills him up. Vasudeva’s transformation seems right and just. He realizes that he views Vasudeva as a god, but that it cannot last. He must say goodbye to the ferryman. When Siddhartha has finished his story, Vasudeva sits silently, radiating love for his friend. He suggests they listen to the river together.
Note how many of the good, wise things in Siddhartha’s journey, the truths, travel and spread in this natural way. The knowledge of the ferryman’s goodness and the sensation of things coming to an end are just like this – they happen without intention or seeking.
Visions appear to Siddhartha as he watches, the faces of his lonely son and lonely father, and himself. The voice of the river is lamenting and determined. Vasudeva urges Siddhartha to keep listening and listen better. The images of his friends and family now merge and flow with the river’s voice. The river runs towards an endless set of goals, attaining each one and pushing towards the next as its form changes. Now its voice is filled with thousands of voices.
All through the novel, Siddhartha has been struggling with how the diversity and the unity of the world fit together, but in moments of true awareness of the river and his path, it is clear that even the senses, which seem so distinct, are one and the same sense. Voices and visions are taken in at once, together.
Siddhartha listens and now he utterly absorbs everything. He listens perfectly. The voices are indistinguishable, angry, loving, dying, all the same. He sees the world as a river, the wholeness of the river is the wholeness of the world, and now the voice comes to him in a single word, ‘om’. Siddhartha’s face takes on the same radiance of Vasudeva’s. He feels his wound blossoming and his ego becoming one with everything else.
Siddhartha’s suffering has stopped. He knows divine, perfect knowledge. Vasudeva sees that Siddhartha has this knowledge thanks to the river and happily he tells Siddhartha that he has been waiting for this moment, and now he can say goodbye to his life as a ferryman. He tells Siddhartha that he is going into the forest and into the oneness. Siddhartha bows to his friend and watches him walk away, full of peace and light.
This perfection could only be achieved through the natural pursuit of experience and life and through the understanding of the natural world. The river is not just the source of this wisdom and perfection but also a kind of legacy. Now that understanding of the river has passed on to Siddhartha, Vasudeva has reached his own enlightenment.