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CHAPTER 9: The Ferryman
Siddhartha looks at the flowing water of the river with its varied hue; he is enchanted by and grateful to it. A voice within him tells him to love and learn from it. He then remembers the friendly ferryman who had taken him across the river when he first crossed to begin his Samsara life and seeks him out. The ferryman recognizes Siddhartha as the Samana who had slept in his hut. He invites him to be his guest again and gives him food and water. As the sun begins to set, the two men sit and talk on a tree trunk by the river. Siddhartha tells him about the origin of his life and his recent despair.
Vasudeva says that it seems as though the river has spoken to Siddhartha and suggests that he stay with him beside the water. Siddhartha accepts the invitation and states his appreciation to the ferryman for being a good listener. When Siddhartha says that he has a lot to learn, Vasudeva says the river will be a good teacher. Soon he is helping the ferryman with the boat, working in the rice fields, picking fruit from the banana tree, and gathering wood. Both Vasudeva and the river become his teachers.
Siddhartha learns from the river that there is no such thing as time; it is a discovery that makes him very happy, for it is time that causes sorrow and difficulty. When Siddhartha discusses his new knowledge with Vasudeva, the ferryman smiles radiantly and nods in agreement. Siddhartha find that the two of them often think the same thoughts.
One day a group of monks come by. They are going to pay homage to the Buddha who is seriously ill. Among the pilgrims is Kamala with her son, who wonders why his mother is going to see a dying man. Kamala has grown old, given up her old way of life, and taken refuge in the Buddha's teachings. When she lays down to rest, she is bitten by a snake.
Although Kamala's wound is washed and cleaned, the poison has already taken effect and she slips in and out of consciousness. Siddhartha stays by her and puts his hand on hers. She is glad to see him smiling and feels he has attained peace. She tells him she was going to Gotama to find peace, but instead she found Siddhartha. She tries to tell him that she too feels at peace, but she cannot speak any more and soon dies. Vasudeva says that they will light Kamala's funeral pyre on the same hill where he had cremated his own wife. The two men prepare the fire while the Kamala and Siddhartha's son sleeps.
This chapter largely deals with the meeting between Siddhartha and the ferryman, establishes the spiritual kinship felt between the two, and emphasizes the importance of the river to Siddhartha's development. Although Vasudeva is a minor character through his infrequent presence in the novel, he is essential to Siddhartha's fulfillment of his quest. It is through Vasudeva that Siddhartha understands how the river will become the agent of his symbiosis with life. It is from the river that Siddhartha will understand the simultaneity of life--its permanence as well as its flow through all things. Siddhartha comes to realize that his life holds childhood, adulthood, and old age within it and that it is reality which separates these aspects of life. This revelation brings Siddhartha close to Nirvana.
Vasudeva's earlier spoken philosophy that everything returns to the river is seen to be true as Siddhartha himself has returned to the river after twenty years of being among ordinary people and material things. It is significant that from this chapter forward most of the setting of the novel will be on the river, which represents oneness and unity. It is here where Siddhartha will reach the final stage of his quest and find the inner peace, which he seeks.
Siddhartha looks at the transparent, green water of the river and rejoices over its bubbles and beauty. He loves the river and learns from it. Like life, the river flows and flows; yet it is continually there. Vasudeva teaches Siddhartha that the voices of the river are the voices of all living creatures. Soon they can both hear the holy Om in the sound of the water and become one with it. They also become one with themselves and each other.
It is significant that Siddhartha is reunited with Kamala and meets their son shortly after his own rebirth. Kamala, who has given up her old way of life, is on a pilgrimage to the dying Buddha; she has a personal need to see him. Siddhartha is touched by the sight of her and her inability to understand true inner peace. Kamala thinks that happiness is found by gazing on the countenance of someone who has reached inner contentment, such as Buddha. It is significant that she recognizes that Siddhartha has found true inner peace, and she seems to be content to have gazed upon his face before she dies.
The tragic death of Kamala symbolically represents Siddhartha's total freedom from bondage to the material life, in the same way in which the death of Vasudeva's wife prepared the way for his release from earthly bondage. Her death also recalls the earlier freeing of the songbird from the cage. Most importantly, her death gives Siddhartha his son, who will teach him how to love.
The approaching death of Gotama Buddha is a significant contrast to Siddhartha's own rebirth and renewal. He recalls his own interaction with the Buddha and realizes how little he knew then and yet how much the Buddha affected him. Siddhartha realizes that it was not through Gotama's teachings but through his being that Siddhartha understood that inner peace could be achieved.
The chapter presents the feelings of some of the visitors to the river. A few feel that there is something odd about the ferryman and his companion, and it is rumored that the two are either magicians, wise men, or fools. Some travelers ask them questions; others ask for permission to spend an evening with them in order to listen to the sounds of the rivers and the two of them as they talk. The ferryman, like many mythical figures such as Charon who ferried the souls across the river Styx, attempts to dispense salvation to those travelers who are amenable, but the real lesson that he teaches is that inner peace can only be found in relation to the river.