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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
CHAPTER 1: The Brahmin's Son
Siddhartha grows up in a serene natural atmosphere of dense woods on a pleasant riverbank. He is a handsome boy who has been taught spiritual matters by his father. He converses with religious men and practices the art of contemplation and meditation, engaging in debates with his friend Govinda, who loves everything about Siddhartha, including his actions, thoughts, and physical being. Govinda knows that his friend will not become an ordinary Brahmin indulging merely in sacrificial rites or conceited oratory. Govinda also hopes that he himself does not become like an ordinary Brahmin, just one among ten thousand others of their kind.
Siddhartha is basically not happy. Although he carries on with the usual rituals, such as bathing and offering sacrifices, restlessness overpowers him. He wants to find a source of peace within himself. As usual, Siddhartha and Govinda go to the banyan tree where they practice meditation. When the customary time for meditation is over, Govinda calls out to his friend. Siddhartha does not reply, for he is absorbed in deep meditation or "Om." His soul is aimed at Brahman.
One day the Samanas pass by Siddhartha's village. Indigent and nearly naked, they practice severe self-denial. Siddhartha tells Govinda that he will join the Samanas the next day. Govinda's face turns pale because Siddhartha has decided to go his own way and make his own destiny. Siddhartha then goes to his father to seek his permission. His father initially expresses displeasure. Finally, he gives him permission to join the Samanas. Siddhartha bids his mother good-bye. As Siddhartha leaves at daybreak, Govinda too joins him.
"The Brahmin's Son" is the opening chapter of the novel. It is set in a Brahmin household amidst natural beauty and quiet surroundings. Part of the setting is the river, which the protagonist visits regularly for bathing and for making holy sacrifices that a Brahmin ought to perform. The river is an important motif in this book and has many meanings. In this first chapter, the river is a place of symbolic cleansing and ritual, yet later it will act as a metaphor for boundary crossing or traversing two worlds. At the end of the book, the river becomes a symbol of oneness and unity.
In this chapter, two of the novel's major characters, Siddhartha and Govinda, are introduced. The Brahmin's son, as announced by the title of this chapter, is Siddhartha, the protagonist, after whom the book is named. The Brahmin is the highest caste in the hierarchy of the Hindu caste system rigidly practiced in India. The ancient Hindu society was divided into four classes: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. "The Brahmin's duties were purely religious: he must study and teach the Veda and the shrutis (scriptures to be recited and remembered) and he must perform sacrifice both for himself and others. He must engage himself in sacred rites." (R. C. Zaehner, Hinduism, p.144). The rituals prescribed for a Brahmin, however, do not interest Siddhartha. He is a rebel.
As custodians of the Veda, one of the duties of the Brahmins was to instruct the other two "twice-born" classes, the Kshatriyas and the Vaishyas, in Vedic lore. The Kshatriyas were the warrior class, and at the head of them stood the king. The duty of the Kshatriya was to take part in war, to kill or be killed while facing the enemy. The Vaishyas were engaged in lawful occupations such as trade and agriculture.
Though Siddhartha is very educated, as a Brahmin's son ought to be, he is dissatisfied with all that he has learned. He feels that the religious texts teach everything, but do not say anything about seeking truth within oneself. Without that, he feels everything is useless. The reader sees within Siddhartha a tremendous conflict that plays itself out throughout the novel. The love of his father and mother and that of his friend Govinda is not enough to make him happy. Instead, he is a restless seeker who wishes to go in quest of spiritual experiences, especially to find spiritual peace. Through Govinda's eyes, the reader learns about Siddhartha's character. He loves Siddhartha more than anybody else. He is fascinated with everything Siddhartha does and says. He admires Siddhartha for not wanting to be an ordinary Brahmin. Govinda too does not want to become "a lazy sacrificial official, an avaricious dealer in magic sayings, a conceited worthless orator, a wicked sly priest, or just a good stupid sheep amongst a large herd." Govinda really wants to follow Siddhartha, for he is sure that some day his friend will scale heights never dreamed of before, and Govinda wants to be "his friend, his companion, his servant, his lance-bearer, his shadow." The shadow becomes an important motif throughout the book.
Siddhartha's father is a typical Brahmin, a learned man who performs religious rituals as a matter of joy, pride, and duty. He has passed on his learning to his son, whom he loves dearly. He tries to stop Siddhartha from going with the Samanas, yet after he realizes that Siddhartha is adamant, he grants him permission to go. He also wants him to come home and tell him what he has learned. "If you find bliss in the forest, come back and teach it to me," his father tells his son. He also tells Siddhartha that he will be welcome at home if he becomes disappointed or disillusioned with the Samanas. Siddhartha's mother also loves her son deeply. She sees him as extremely handsome and graceful, a young man who is attractive to the Brahmin young ladies. The mother feels great pride in having Siddhartha as her son.
This opening chapter sets out the first stage of Siddhartha's spiritual quest. In the tradition of a quest romance, some of the characters support Siddhartha, while others, like his father, are against it. To prove his commitment to his quest, Siddhartha, with passive resistance, stands up all night to show his father how committed he is to join the Samanas. The quest of Siddhartha really begins with a number of questions that he poses to himself: "Did the sacrifices give happiness? And what about the gods? Was it really Prajapati who had created the world? . . . where was this Self, this innermost?" In his search, he hopes to find the answer. The key to his quest is to be found in the primordial sound Om which is uttered in the course of his meditations described in this chapter. Siddhartha recites the verse from Mundaka Upanishad which reads: "Om is the bow, the arrow is the soul, / Brahman is the arrow's goal / At which one aims unflinchingly."