The novel begins with a brief retrospective glance at Siddhartha's Brahmin (priestly Hindu caste) family background, his upbringing, and the innocence and tranquility of his childhood. We are promptly aligned with Siddhartha at the threshold of young manhood and simultaneously observe the orthodox Brahmin father of Siddhartha who, with his son, performs the rite of ablution at the river. Later, as we meet Govinda, Siddhartha's boyhood friend and close comrade, we feel them to be so close intellectually and fraternally that they are almost one.
In spite of the admiration and adoration which Siddhartha receives from his family and friends, his soul is perpetually restless and fraught with disquieting dreams. Unable to find inner peace, Siddhartha initiates his search for Atman. He knows that Atman, the individual spirit or Self, is within him and is inclined toward Brahman (the supreme universal Soul), and he strives to find his own way to experience Atman. Siddhartha is troubled by the fact that nobody — not the wisest teachers, or his father, or the holy songs — can lead him to the discovery of Self. Teachers and scripture have yielded only second-hand learning, not the first-hand experience from which knowledge emanates. Siddhartha suggests that his father, like himself, must not he actually experiencing Atman, for he continually performs ablutions to absolve himself of spiritual impurity and guilt. (The individual soul will not merge with the all-perfect Being unless the individual soul is cleansed of guilt.)
Up to this point, the passage of time has been vague and barely perceptible, but we are suddenly made conscious of a specific evening. It is important to note that this time pattern continues throughout Siddhartha: Years pass imperceptibly; then, a day and a half or two days will suddenly emerge as strikingly distinct. Now, the Samanas are briefly described, and on this specific evening, Siddhartha breaks the news to Govinda that he has decided to free himself from his predetermined Hindu caste and plans to leave his father to join the Samanas. After standing on his feet all night in defiant endurance and upon receiving reluctant consent from his father, Siddhartha leaves home at daybreak. The father alludes to his own spiritual disquietude as Siddhartha departs, and he asks his son to teach bliss to him should he find it in the forest among the Samanas. Govinda's shadow then appears and he joins Siddhartha.
We have now been introduced to two important motifs — the river and the shadow. The river is introduced as a cleansing agent, and Govinda, who will part ways with Siddhartha and again rejoin him, is Siddhartha's shadow. Among the important themes of the book is the father-son theme, which will be reestablished at the end of the novel with Siddhartha's defiant, prodigal son leaving him. Also introduced in this section is Hesse's unique handling of time through compressing longer time periods and unexpectedly expanding shorter time periods. The syllable "OM,'' the sacred syllable of the Hindu yoga breathing exercise, is introduced and we become aware that concentration on the word — and abstraction from all mundane things — will enhance unity with Brahman and will suspend the concept of time.
Another of the important considerations in this section is this: For Siddhartha, Atmam is all-perfect. The god Prajapati is not nearly so important to Siddhartha because Prajapati was created. Siddhartha concedes more attributes of deity to Atman, for a created god, like anything else created, emanates from something else and is thereby not a first cause. But Siddhartha is not able to evoke Atman at will. Atman is discovered only after the ego is negated and the conscious and the unconscious are resolved through synthesis. References to the Hindu scriptures, the Vedas (specifically the Rig Veda) and the Chandogya-Upanishads, are made but they do not satisfy Siddhartha because they do not show him the way, even though they contain learned material. In short, it is becoming evident already that Siddhartha is a rebel; he must think for himself. He is not a ready-made disciple.