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BY THE RIVER
Siddhartha has wandered far from the city, back to the river that he crossed from the other side long ago. He is weak with hunger and fatigue, deep in disgust with himself, longing for death. He is leaning toward the river, about to throw himself in, when a word comes to him: Om. It is the word of meditation with which Brahmin prayers begin and end, the sacred word meaning "Perfection." He is horrified to realize that he was about to commit the ultimate crime, the destruction of divine life. He sinks to the ground amid the roots of a coconut tree and falls deeply, dreamlessly asleep.
He awakens refreshed, a new man, the sickening old life far behind as though it had been a previous incarnation. A monk is sitting nearby, watching over him. He recognizes Govinda, but his friend doesn't recognize him until Siddhartha calls him by name. He tells Govinda that he is a pilgrim. Govinda leaves, to continue his endless wandering as a monk.
Siddhartha is full of love for everything he sees. He is beginning life again, like a child. He has rid himself of his self-hate and self-disgust. Each of his previous lives was necessary in order for him to find his own way. Now the Brahmin priest, the Samana, and the man of pleasure and property have all died within him. Siddhartha himself must one day grow old and die, but today he is young, a new Siddhartha, and he is happy.
This is Siddhartha's second awakening. His first came when he rejected all teaching and discovered the beauty of nature and the need to know himself. That was when he crossed the river the first time. Now he will cross back again.
These pages illustrate how Hesse deals with the passage of time in this novel. Although the story moves chronologically, time itself is elastic. Twenty years went by in a few pages, during which Siddhartha changed from a youth just entering manhood to a man in his middle years, his hair already graying. Then, in a night, a day, and another night, the story followed him hour by hour, step by step, through another transformation-but this time from despair and near-suicide to new life and joy. What other passages in the novel contract and expand time?
Siddhartha has decided that he will not leave the river. It is beautiful and it can teach him. The river is now changing its function in the novel. When Siddhartha crossed it the first time, it was a symbolic as well as a physical boundary, a crossing from the spiritual to the sensual and materialistic experiences in his life. Now it is becoming a source of new wisdom-in effect, a character in the story. It begins to speak to Siddhartha. Is it the river that is speaking, or is it Siddhartha's growing inner awareness? From here on, watch for the succession of truths that he seems to hear the river telling him, eternal truths that are illustrated in the river. One of these he has already learned-that the river is constantly changing and yet always the same. What other truths does he learn, and how does the river illustrate them?
Folk and fairy tales were an important aspect of the German Romantic period and of Hesse's educational background. In these tales, inanimate, natural objects such as trees and rocks often speak to the hero. Here the river speaks to Siddhartha. Can you find other analogies to fairy tales in the novel?
The ferryman remembers Siddhartha and tells him his own name is Vasudeva. Siddhartha is moved to confide in Vasudeva, telling him of his childhood, his experiences, his despair and his awakening to new life and love of the river. Vasudeva invites him to stay and share the ferryman's life.
Siddhartha learns to care for the boat. He gathers wood and fruit, works in the rice field, weaves baskets. He learns from the river that time does not pass, that past and future exist together with the present. He hears the voices of all living creatures in the river's voice.
He and Vasudeva come to share their thoughts without speaking. The rumor spreads that two wise or holy men-or magicians-live at the ferry, but travelers who are merely curious find only what they see as two friendly, stupid old men. Years pass.
Followers of the Buddha, hurrying to the side of the dying leader, come to be ferried across the river. Kamala goes on the same pilgrimage with her son, little Siddhartha. She is bitten by a poisonous snake, and Siddhartha cares for her. She dies, leaving the eleven-year-old boy with his father.
The meeting of the two lovers of long ago is tender and moving, but also revealing. Both have reached a new level in their lives. Kamala came this way on a pilgrimage to the Buddha, hoping to find peace in the holy man's presence. She finds it in the presence of Siddhartha, who by now has also found peace.
What do you think is meant by peace? Siddhartha has sought a goal that has been called wisdom, understanding, or losing the self in the universal being. The novel has mentioned bliss, and occasionally salvation, which in Indian religion means being saved from the repetitious life cycle (not from hell and eternal punishment as in Christian belief).
The explanation of peace may come in the passage where Siddhartha reaffirms what the river has told him: that past and future coexist with the present, that every moment is eternal, and that all life is one. The peace that Kamala-and Siddhartha-experience may be an acceptance of the loss of one's individuality in the unity of life.
Unity is a basic principle of both Hinduism and Buddhism. Some Hindu sects are so aware of the unity of all life, as well as of its divinity, that they take steps to avoid killing even the tiniest insect. How does this belief in the unity of life compare-as bringing peace of mind-with the Christian and Moslem beliefs in a heavenly life after death for those who earn it?