Siddhartha is born and raised in ancient India by Brahmins, learning spiritual practices of meditation and thought. He excels at everything. He is accompanied through childhood by his friend Govinda, who loves Siddhartha dearly, as does everyone else. But Siddhartha is ill at ease. He does not think he can learn anything more from the Brahmin teaching and so decides to begin a pilgrimage with the samanas, a group of wandering ascetics. His father very reluctantly lets him go but Govinda follows.
Siddhartha and Govinda learn the life of the samanas, fasting and suffering. Siddhartha sometimes doubts whether they are really approaching any higher knowledge. Then, one day, a rumor reaches them that the Sublime Buddha, Gautama, is among them. Siddhartha is dubious of teaching, but agrees to hear the Buddha’s sermon, so the pair journey with many others to Gautama’s grove. Here, they spot the man himself, impeccably calm and with a perfect smile. They know he has reached enlightenment. Govinda decides to take refuge in the teaching. This is the first decision he has made for his own path. But Siddhartha tells Gautama that he does not think accepting teaching from another is the way to find one’s own deliverance.
Siddhartha goes into the forest and has an awakening, seeing all the river’s colors as if for the first time. He wants to learn from the world of ‘things’. He stays with a kind ferryman, then he goes to town and notices a beautiful courtesan, Kamala, and requests that she teach him in the art of love. She will only teach him if he brings her rich gifts, so she refers him to a merchant, Kamaswami, who takes him into service. Here he becomes a rich man, gambling and trading. Years pass and Siddhartha’s spirit sickens. He feels detached from the material world but also caught in its cycle. He has a dream in which Kamala’s songbird dies and with it, all Siddhartha’s hope. He leaves the town, and goes back to the river. Later we find out that Kamala is pregnant with his child.
Siddhartha, wishing to die, edges close to the river. But instead, the word ‘om’ comes to him from the river, and he falls into a deep sleep. When he wakes, there is a samana waiting with him, whom he recognizes as Govinda, his childhood friend. He tries to explain to Govinda that he has become many different people, but he is still searching. Siddhartha muses on his life, where his sadness has come from, and how the ‘om’ saved him. He seeks out the ferryman, who had attained peace by the river. The ferryman agrees to let Siddhartha stay and work with him. He advises that Siddhartha listens to the river as he does. Siddhartha begins to find enlightening visions and voices in the water.
One day, it is rumored that Gautama is dying. Kamala, now a pilgrim too, comes towards the river with her son, young Siddhartha. The boy is sulky and wishes to rest, and it is then that a black snake bites the resting Kamala. Vasudeva hears the cries and brings her to the hut and she sees Siddhartha. Kamala dies, and now Siddhartha must be guardian to his son. But young Siddhartha doesn’t know his father and is used to very rich things in town, not the simple life of a ferryman. He makes life very hard for Siddhartha. Vasudeva, seeing how painfully Siddhartha loves his son, advises that he should let the boy go to the town, because he does not belong here. Siddhartha can’t face letting him go, but soon he has little choice, the boy runs away and it is obvious that he doesn’t want the ferrymen to follow him.
Siddhartha learns the secrets of the river with Vasudeva by his side and eventually his wounds at the loss of his son start to heal. He understands the unity that Gautama taught, through the river. He sees that the river is the same at its source as in the waterfall and in the rain, that time doesn’t really exist. The world is like this river, eternal and whole. Now that Siddhartha can really listen to the river too, Vasudeva is ready to go ‘into the oneness’, and he leaves the river with Siddhartha and disappears into the forest.
In the town, the monks of Gautama live in Kamala’s old grove, and Govinda hears about a wise ferryman. He still seeks enlightenment and goes to the river. He doesn’t recognize Siddhartha when he sees him, and asks for a taste of the ferryman’s wisdom. Siddhartha says he has changed many times, that he was once that sleeper by the river that Govinda protected, but that despite change, everything is part of a whole, always in the present moment. Each sinner is also a Buddha. One must agree with it all, and love everything easily. This is what Siddhartha has learned. Govinda sees that his old friend has become one of the enlightened ones and that his smile radiates like a saint’s.