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CHAPTER 11: Om
Because of the depth of the love he had for his son, Siddhartha's pain over his loss does not quickly subside. One day, when his pain seems unbearable, he rows across the river to go to town to seek his son. As he crosses the river, its voice appears to be distinctly laughing at Siddhartha. When he bends down close to the river to hear it better, he notices his own reflection and realizes it resembles the face of his father of whom he was once afraid and from whom he ran away.
Suddenly Siddhartha wants to tell Vasudeva everything about his past, even things he has never mentioned before. He returns to the hut and tells him how the river laughed at him. Vasudeva listens with a serene face and tells Siddhartha to listen to the river harder. When Siddhartha returns to the river, he sees the images of his father, himself, and his son flowing into each other. The images of Kamala and Govinda also appear and flow on without merging.
Siddhartha listens intently to the river, completely absorbed as Vasudeva has taught him. He hears voices which he has heard before, but now they sound different. All of them together form a stream of events. When he hears the whole in unity, the great song of a thousand voices consists of one word: Om. The serenity of knowledge shines on his face. It is the serenity attained when one no longer has to face the conflict between desires. Siddhartha has found his salvation. He is in harmony with the stream of life. Full of sympathy and compassion, he surrenders himself and becomes one with all things.
Vasudeva recognizes the serenity that shines in Siddhartha's eyes and touches his shoulder gently. The ferryman tells his friend that he has long awaited this hour of enlightenment for Siddhartha. Vasudeva tells him that he is going to the woods. Siddhartha watches his friend walk away with great joy; he sees that Vasudeva is full of peace, for his face glows and his body is filled with light.
This chapter begins with Siddhartha still feeling the pain of his son's departure. When he sees travelers with their children, he wants to experience the joy and love of his own child. He wonders why he is deprived of such happiness when other people experience it. He yearns for reconciliation with the boy. This need for an outcome leads to his recovery, his enlightenment, and his final understanding of the river's expression, Om. For both Hindus and Buddhists, this single syllable is sacred and filled with spiritual energy.
The setting of this lyrical chapter is still the river, but it takes on a whole new meaning for Siddhartha. The river becomes a symbol of the stream of life, and it teaches Siddhartha the unity and simultaneity of life's events. It makes him see the continuity of his father, his son, and himself. When Siddhartha peers into the river, he notices that he resembles his father in appearance; he also knows that they have mutually suffered. Just as Siddhartha is hurt by the loss of his son, his father must have suffered in the same way when Siddhartha left him. By communing with the river, Siddhartha begins to realize that everything that has not been concluded recurs, and the same sorrows have to be experienced again and again. This is a great psychological truth.
In this chapter, the importance of Vasudeva becomes apparent. He has been a wonderful teacher for Siddhartha. He has guided him to open his soul to the river, from where peace flows. The peaceful and serene Vasudeva is also a wonderful listener, concentrating on Siddhartha's words almost like a god. As Siddhartha talks to him, he is led to an even deeper understanding of life, and Vasudeva becomes part of the river and eternity itself. Vasudeva has had a totally therapeutic effect on Siddhartha. He is now healed and able to merge with the world around him into the essential oneness of all things.
It is significant that at the moment of fulfillment, Siddhartha is left by the ferryman who has been his guide through the "narrow passage." Having done his duty towards Siddhartha, Vasudeva is free to go to the woods to live in unity with all things and leave Siddhartha behind. As he departs, he is radiant and full of bliss and peace, for he knows that his friend has reached enlightenment. Vasudeva's leave-taking is a glorious event, a total contrast to the departures of Siddhartha earlier in the novel.