The River is Everywhere

An allegory about life.

Siddhartha is a 1922 novel by Hermann Hesse that deals with the spiritual journey of self-discovery of a man named Siddhartha during the time of the Gautama Buddha.

Surely it must take a fool to meet Buddha in the flesh and reject his teachings. Surely, only a madman would do this — to see the perfected one, the venerable one, the one to whom everyone flocked from faraway lands in search of refuge, the one who had reached the goal of all goals, attained nirvana, and then simply walk away from him seeking other lands.

But that’s just what Siddhartha did.

Long before he ever met the Buddha, Siddhartha, along with his dear friend Govinda, left home, much to the dismay of his Brahmin father, to go and join the Samanas, a band of traveling ascetics.

Deep was in him the thirst to learn, to know, to understand, and to transcend reality. He wanted to be free from desire, from suffering, from the things that plague all mortals. He learned much in his time with the Samanas—he learned how to stop his breath, how to slow down his heart, how to inhabit the living and non-living, how to hypnotise and make other people do his bidding; but eventually he came to see everything he learned as some sort of cheap trickery stopping him from gaining real knowledge.

Once again, he set his sights somewhere else, towards a higher goal. Together, with his trusted friend Govinda, he set out to meet Gotama, the Buddha, the perfected one. He saw his perfect walk, noticed his perfect eyes, heard his perfect speech, learnt his perfect teachings, but by now, Siddhartha had developed a deep distrust of all teachers and teachings.

He told the Buddha that while he didn’t mistrust him, he was not sure if his words and teachings could lead Siddhartha towards his personal salvation. To this, the Buddha replied:

“You know how to talk like a wise man. Beware of too much wisdom, my friend!”

And so Siddhartha carried on, even though his friend Govinda stayed back and became one of Buddha’s disciples. For a moment, Siddhartha entertained the thought of going back to his father, but he decided that he has to keep moving forward on his path of self-discovery instead of looking back. He entered a city and found a beautiful courtesan named Kamala. He requested Kamala to teach him the art of love. Looking at this ragged Samana, Kamala told him that if he wants her to teach him anything, first he has to become like the other men she knew… he has to buy fine clothes, fancy shoes, and have money in his pockets. Kamala then introduced Siddhartha to a wealthy merchant called Kamaswami. Since Siddhartha could read and write, he proved to be of much use to Kamaswami and himself turned into quite a wealthy man himself. Wealth, however, brought with it more disillusionment in Siddhartha’s mind than ever before. Slowly, he forgot everything that he thought was valuable and the excesses of his new life gradually eroded all that was good about him. So yet again, he left.

On his way out of the city, Siddhartha came across a river, the same one that he crossed when he first arrived in the city. For a moment, he thought of jumping in and ending his life, but being unable to do so, he fell into a deep slumber from which he woke up feeling completely renewed. This is where he would learn from now, he then decided, the river would teach him all that he needed to know about life. He sought the ferryman — Vasudeva—who had once transported him across the river a long time ago. Vasudeva was pleased to meet Siddhartha once again and offered to let him stay with him in his hut by the river. Vasudeva was a man of few words but together they worked, lived simply, and contemplated what the river speaks.

“Did you,” Siddhartha asked Vasudeva at one time, “did you too learn that secret from the river: that there is no time?”
Vasudeva’s face was filled with a bright smile.
“Yes, Siddhartha,” he spoke. “It is this that you mean, isn’t it: That the river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and that there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future?”
“This is it,” said Siddhartha. “And when I had learned it, I looked at my life, and it was also a river, and the boy Siddhartha was only separated from the man Siddhartha and the old man Siddhartha by a shadow, not by something real. Also, Siddhartha’s previous births were not in the past, and his death and his return to Brahman was not in the future. Nothing was, nothing will be; everything is, everything has existence and is present.”

Such were the talks that Siddhartha and Vasudeva used to have. Word quickly spread around that two wise men lived here by the river, but whenever someone used to come to see them—they would just quietly go about doing their work, leading others to think that they were just two foolish old men. This continued until one day Kamala happened to come across the river, trying to cross it with her son, whom she had named Siddhartha after his father. On her way, Kamala was bit by a snake and soon passed away, leaving the young boy with her father. Young Siddhartha was not used to living like this, he was used to her mother’s pleasure garden with servants and an opulent life in the city. He started resenting his father for keeping him in this hut, the more Siddhartha tried to be patient and kind with his son, the more he rebelled against him, until one day, he ran away. This brought much agony to Siddhartha’s heart. Vasudeva sensed this.

Brightly, the ferryman’s smile lit up; softly, he touched Siddhartha’s arm and said: “Ask the river about it, my friend! Hear it laugh about it! Would you actually believe that you had committed your foolish acts in order to spare your son from committing them too? And could you in any way protect your son from Sansara? How could you? By means of teachings, prayers, admonition? My dear, have you entirely forgotten that story, that story containing so many lessons, that story about Siddhartha, a Brahman’s son, which you once told me here on this very spot? Who has kept the Samana Siddhartha safe from Sansara, from sin, from greed, from foolishness? Were his father’s religious devotions, his teacher’s warnings, his own knowledge, his own search able to keep him safe? Which father, which teacher had been able to protect him from living his life for himself, from soiling himself with life, from burdening himself with guilt, from drinking the bitter drink for himself, from finding the path for himself? Would you think, my dear, anybody might be spared from taking this path? That perhaps your little son would be spared, because you love him, because you would like to keep him from suffering and pain and disappointment? But even if you die ten times for him, you would not be able to take the slightest part of his destiny upon yourself.”

With time, Siddhartha made peace with his son running away from him, he remember how a long time, he too had run away from his father—never to see him again in this lifetime. He even laughed at the absurdity of things coming back full circle in a manner like this.

By now, Vasudeva had left his life as a ferryman to go live in the forest, leaving Siddhartha alone to ferry the passengers across the river. One day, his old friend Govinda, now a disciple of the Buddha, happened to cross the river. At first he didn’t recognise his old friend, and asked Siddhartha what wisdom he could dispense as a ferryman, as a searcher of the right path.

“What should I possibly have to tell you, O venerable one? Perhaps that you are searching far too much? That in all that searching, you don’t find the time for finding?”
“How come?” asked, Govinda.
“When someone is searching,” said Siddhartha, “then it might easily happen that the only thing his eyes still see is that what he searches for, that he is unable to find anything, to let anything enter his mind, because he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed by the goal. Searching means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, having no goal. You, O venerable one, are perhaps indeed a searcher, because, striving for your goal, there are many things you don’t see, which are directly in front of your eyes.”

Then Siddhartha revealed himself to be his old friend. Govinda was overjoyed. He knew that Siddhartha never accepted a teacher and set out to find his own path in life, he wanted to know what wisdom he had acquired.

“Look, my dear Govinda, this is one of my thoughts, which I have found: wisdom cannot be passed on. Wisdom which a wise man tries to pass on to someone always sounds like foolishness.”

Not satisfied with the response, Govinda asked Siddhartha whether he was joking. But Siddhartha wasn’t joking. These were the things he had learnt. He goes on to say:

“The world, my dear Govinda, is not imperfect, or on a slow path towards perfection: no, it is perfect in every moment, all sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself, all small children already have the old person in themselves, all infants already have death, all dying people the eternal life.”

Finally, Govinda relented—he now saw in Siddhartha a man who had found the peace he had always been seeking. This brought along with it a certain kind of sadness in him, for he too, had been searching peace all his life in the form of Buddha’s teachings. He desperately asked his friend to give him something, to tell him something, that would make his path easier. Siddhartha asked his friend to bow down and kiss his forehead. In that moment, Govinda saw in Siddhartha’s face the face of every man that ever lived in the world, he saw the past, the present, the future, he saw all animals, he saw all non-living things, in his face, he saw everything manifested and unmanifested taking and dissolving form. With tears in his eyes, Govinda bowed before his old friend Siddhartha—the enlightened one.