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At the beginning of the novel, Siddhartha is the handsome and learned son of a Brahmin who has studied the Hindu scriptures thoroughly and often enters into discussions with elders. He is well-versed in the Upanishads and the Sama Veda and is qualified to be a respectable Brahmin teacher. He is also handsome, strong, and supple-limbed, and many Brahmin girls admire his physical beauty. In fact, everybody loves Siddhartha, especially his father. But Siddhartha, as a young man, is discontented and restless. He questions all that has been taught to him and wonders whether the sacrifices prescribed in the religious texts really bring happiness. He thinks that the texts discuss everything except the one and most important thing -- the source of peace within oneself. It is this which he must discover on his own and which compels him to leave his family and home.
Siddhartha goes through drastic changes in his quest to discover himself. He starts off as an intelligent but impudent young man who openly seeks to attain Nirvana; since salvation cannot be found, only experienced, the young Siddhartha is always frustrated in his search, which takes him down many paths. As a Samana, he practices the art of self-denial, but finds no peace. He enters Samsara, the world of material things, but true happiness escapes him. Eventually he rejects both the world of the spirit and the world of the senses, and goes to live with the ferryman, Vasudeva. Beside the river, Siddhartha experiences Nirvana, where the unity of life allows everything to co-exist. In the last stage of his life, when he is old and nearing death, Siddhartha comes to the understanding that time is illusory, for life flows on in continuity, the present become eternity.
From the river, Siddhartha learns the meaning of the holy syllable of Om; as a result, he finds supreme peace. He can blend all of his experiences in life into a unity that offers continuity and serenity. Like Vasudeva before him, he is also able to communicate the peace of the river to others. In the last scene, Siddhartha is seen facilitating Govinda's passage into a state of Nirvana.
Kamala plays an important role in the novel. She is a symbol of Samsara, characterized by her breathtaking physical beauty, her love of material possession, and her lovemaking skills. Through Kamala, Siddhartha is initiated into the world of the senses and materialism and learns of the time-bound world. She facilitates his journey through Samsara by finding him work with Kamaswami and teaching him about physical love; she also makes him aware of his inability to express real love. When Siddhartha leaves her, she is carrying his child.
Later in the novel, after Siddhartha has departed, Kamala undergoes her own metamorphosis. She turns from her life as a courtesan and becomes a follower of Gotama Buddha; she denounces her worldly ways, opens up her garden to Buddha's followers, and cares for her son. On a pilgrimage to see the dying Buddha, she again encounters Siddhartha. She sees in him the serenity of Buddha himself and dies a happy person. She leaves behind a great gift for Siddhartha in the person of their son. Siddhartha finally learns to love through this child. Although her role is minor, Kamala is shown to be a great influence on Siddhartha, both directly and indirectly. She also goes through a significant change in life as she ages, gaining a wisdom that her youth did not grant her.
Vasudeva is a ferryman who lives in solitude and takes people back and forth across the river, symbolizing their initiation into a new life. He acts as a facilitator to Siddhartha's quest for Nirvana. Although he is illiterate, he is a great thinker and leans about life the through his communion with the river. Through his actions rather than words, he reveals to Siddhartha the secrets of life, teaching him not only how to listen but how to love. Without Vasudeva, Siddhartha could not have reached his state of resolution and inner peace. The, like the Illustrious One, acts as a model for Siddhartha, one who has achieved wisdom through reflection, attentiveness to life's every detail, and direct experience.
Kamaswami, unlike Kamala, does not change at all in the novel. He remains a sharp businessman who is completely puzzled by Siddhartha's passive attitude towards money and material things. But he plays a key role in seducing Siddhartha into Samsara although Siddhartha disdains him and his child-like behavior towards material things; he eventually ends up like Kamaswami until he is awakened from his state of idleness.
Govinda plays an important role in the book as a close friend of Siddhartha; he takes a different path from his friend, but in the end achieves his goal of Nirvana through his encounter with Siddhartha in later life. Through Govinda, Hesse shows that there are many ways to achieve salvation, some taking longer than others. Govinda spends his life seeking Nirvana through doctrines and teachers. It is in old age and through Siddhartha that he learns that Nirvana cannot be achieved through doctrine, but must be found through direct experience with the world. After many years of being a monk, Govinda finds his way to the river where Siddhartha serves as the ferryman and a model of contemplation and inner peace, much like Vasudeva was before him.
Siddhartha attempts to explain Nirvana to Govinda, but he cannot comprehend Siddhartha's words, which are inadequate to express the state of salvation. In the end, Siddhartha facilitates Govinda's entrance into Nirvana through a kiss, a giving of himself, that makes Govinda sees the continuity of life and the unity of all things. Because of his newfound happiness, Govinda falls down in front of Siddhartha and weeps tears of appreciation for his newfound knowledge.
Siddhartha's son plays a small but important role in the novel. His interaction with his father, though slight, fosters a deep and genuine love in Siddhartha. It is the first time that he has experienced such an emotion. Unfortunately, the son, who is arrogant and spoiled, is unable to return his father's love. Still, the love Siddhartha feels for his son makes him realize the continuity of life. His father must have loved him, just as Siddhartha loves his own son. When the son steals the ferryman's boat and runs away from his father, Siddhartha is in great pain. This helps him to realize that love and pain, two strong but somewhat opposite emotions, are both part of the unity of existence.
Gotama Buddha is based on the Buddha himself. He is a very peaceful person who exudes the serenity that Nirvana can bring. Seeking and imitating nothing, the Illustrious One has no external distractions. In his state of Nirvana, he has completely renounced the world of the life-death cycle and has freed himself of the constraints of time. Rather than being of this world, he becomes one with the world by eliminating his ego and transcending all earthly desires.
Siddhartha expresses his dissatisfaction that Gotama is unable to teach his disciples about salvation, for at that stage of his development, Siddhartha still thinks he can simply seek and find Nirvana. He expects the Buddha to show him the way through sharing his knowledge. The Buddha quietly explains to him that his aim is to free people from suffering and to help them experience life. He does not teach people who are thirsty for knowledge; instead he tries to impart wisdom. He tells Siddhartha not to be clever, for that is a sign that his ego is still intact. Although the Buddha is not a god, he serves as a model for others and Siddhartha is greatly influenced by him.