Summary and Analysis
Vasudeva, the quiet ferryman whose name is derived from one of the names of Krishna, and which basically means "he in whom all things abide and who abides in all," is an unforgettable character. In Siddhartha's decision to stay by the river, he recalls the ferryman and resolves that his new life will begin again with the ferryman. Siddhartha's inner synthesis will be effected through a resolution of permanence and transience — and it is Vasudeva, as well as Siddhartha's own inner voice, which affirms that the river will prove to be the agent of Siddhartha's fulfillment. As Siddhartha requests that Vasudeva take him across, Siddhartha is completely absorbed by the tranquil human presence of the ferryman, as earlier he had been by that of Gotama Buddha.
The key to learning from the river, according to Vasudeva, is listening. We will discover, however, that before Vasudeva's knowledge can be of any significance to Siddhartha, it must be tempered with love. What Siddhartha learns from Vasudeva is an affirmation of life and a sense of harmony with nature.
After Vasudeva tells Siddhartha that the river has spoken to him, he tells Siddhartha that he will learn two things from the river. Already he has learned one of these: to strive downwards like a stone. Vasudeva cannot tell Siddhartha what the other thing to be learned will be, for it is a form of intuitive experience which defies verbalization. Vasudeva then tells Siddhartha about the job of ferryman, his task being to take people across the river and to give them directions once they get across. Symbolically, his task is to show men the way to salvation. He can only show the way, however. Men must attain salvation themselves. The conversation continues through the evening and into the night and, at its end, the narrative lapses into indefinite time.
One of the outstanding conversations of the entire novel occurs when Siddhartha asks Vasudeva about time. The ferryman tells him of the transcendent timelessness of the river, which brings Siddhartha to the realization that life is also a river and that past, present, and future are all one. Childhood, adulthood, and old age are separated only by shadows, not by reality. This, basically, is Siddhartha's Nirvana. This mystical union with simultaneity, with Brahma, forms the nucleus of the book. The conversation then culminates with Siddhartha's equating time with suffering, another basic idea of the book. We are reminded that the river embodies all creation, all layers of consciousness: It is the collective unconscious of man's ancestral soul in its ten thousand voices, and the eternal OM brings them to the surface of our consciousness simultaneously. The two ferrymen, Vasudeva and Siddhartha, become as brothers, united by the sacred river.
Years pass and we come to learn that Gotama Buddha is on the threshold of eternal salvation and his Buddhist followers are gathering to their teacher for the last time. Siddhartha recalls the living presence of the Buddha which has awed him so much, and he feels a strong bond with him.
The montage narrative again zooms into a definite time sequence as we observe the day when Kamala and her eleven-year-old son come to see Buddha. The observant reader somehow knows now that Kamala has been attracted to the life of the Buddhist monks, for she made a direct inquiry about Gotama when Siddhartha was taking leave of the city. The father-son motif is soon to be re-established, and we are to realize that the boy is one of the child-people. We are, however, given little hints that this boy will eventually seek his own goals despite his current recalcitrance. The most substantial hint lies in the fact that the boy is called "little Siddhartha."
After the events of the day, Siddhartha has another of his visions of the mystical transcendence of the river and of its transcendence of time, experiencing again the simultaneity and unity of all life. The next morning, as preparations are made for Kamala's pyre, Siddhartha's hopes are directed toward his son.