The river exists as the essence of life. Even in the driest of deserts, a solitary river brings sustenance for all living organisms; grass, animals, and humans all aggregate around its banks. However, the river's symbolism extends further beyond matters of geography. Herman Hesse evokes its deeper meaning in his beautiful work of literature, Siddhartha. Thirsty for knowledge, Siddhartha travels the Indian countryside in search of nirvana. Throughout his lifelong journey, this "one who seeks his goals" encounters the river several times. (Lachotta) Each encounter signifies a different phase of his self, and ultimately leads him to his salvation. The river presents itself in Siddhartha's spirituality, provides the path to his lust, and grants him true unity in the end. Indeed, the river holds great importance to the story.
The river presents itself in the very first chapter. As a youth, Siddhartha grows up alongside a riverbank. Born as the son of a Brahmin, he bathes and performs his ritual ablutions in the water. "Dreams" and "turbulent thoughts" flow to his soul from this "river water." However, Siddhartha grows unsatisfied with this simple life; it does not "quench his spiritual thirst." (Hesse) This "spiritual thirst" parallels a physical thirst, both of which become quenched by water. The thirst aspect throughout the novel preludes to the lessons the river offers. Failing to see the answers already in front of him, Siddhartha leaves against his father's wishes, and lives a life of asceticism with the samanas. Although he achieves the "peace of an emptied heart," he still thirsts for further spiritual knowledge. (Hesse) After three years, he and his close friend, Govinda, begin a different path, a path that leads to Gotama. After meeting the exalted Buddha, however, Siddhartha again becomes transfixed with a deeper spirituality. He believes that true peace cannot be taught; one must experience it themselves. He leaves Gotama and Govinda, beginning a new solitary path through nature. One night, he sleeps in the straw hut of a ferryman beside a river. In a foreshadowing dream, Siddhartha embraces Govinda, who then transforms into a woman. Describing this dream as "intoxicating," he begins to taste the breast of the woman. When he awakens, he first takes sight of the "pale river" shimmering in the doorway. (Hesse) This preludes to his next phase in life with Kamala. Upon daylight, the ferryman takes Siddhartha across the river, and informs him that "one can learn a great deal" from it. He also proclaims that "everything returns," and that Siddhartha himself will return to the river as well. (Hesse)
As Siddhartha physically crosses the river, he metaphorically crosses it, and unknowingly leaves his spirituality for a life of lust. He enters a city, and allows it to "drink him in." This exists as the binary opposition to himself quenching his thirst with the river. In an effort to impress the beautiful Kamala, he allows a barber to shave his beard, cut his hair, and rub it with fine scented oils - all of which he detests while amongst the samanas. He then goes to bathe in the river, which signifies the washing away of his old life, and rebirth of his new one. Kamala tells Siddhartha he must obtain money in order to learn the art of love from her. Thus, under Kamaswami's wing, he becomes a prosperous merchant. For twenty years he plays metaphorical samara "among the child people." (Hesse) As he makes love to Kamala, he becomes a prisoner to gambling, wine, and dancing girls; he becomes the bird in the golden cage. Lust and desire fulfill his soul instead of spirituality. Although he notices this transformation, he becomes paralyzed to act against it. He lives as the hollow men do in the "twilight kingdom." (Eliot) Once he realizes his mistakes, he leaves Kamala and the city to roam the forest. Upon his arrival to the river, he reminisces on his last visit as the young man leaving Gotama. Full of despair, he grasps a coconut palm on the riverbank, and lets himself plunge down into the river, "down toward death." All of the sudden, the "OM" of "perfect completion" penetrates his consciousness. (Hesse) He realizes the folly of his suicide attempt, and through the "OM," knows "again of everything divine." He gazes at the river, noting that the voice of its current speaks "strong and beautiful." In essence, Siddhartha dies in the water, but becomes reborn anew. Through this, he obtains his salvation.
The river separates the two sides of Siddhartha's persona. On one side lie his life with the Brahmin, samanas, and Gotama. The other side holds Kamala, Kamaswami, and the city. (Siddhartha, River) When Siddhartha attempts to drown himself, he stands on neither side of the river, but symbolically in the middle. This signifies the "OM" of perfect harmony that Siddhartha hears. Thus, he attains the unity of both worlds, and becomes one with the self. Up until this point, he only exists in the other two worlds as a shadow. After Siddhartha reaches this third phase of his journey, he achieves his harmonious relationship with the world; he achieves nirvana. Furthermore, Siddhartha learns to understand every aspect of life through his contemplation of the river. As he gazes upon its flowing water, he notices that "it always [runs], and yet it always [remains] there." It exists always the same and yet "at every moment new." (Hesse) This paradox symbolizes the circle of life, for both Siddhartha and mankind. There exists many smaller cycles in the circle of life itself, each representing obstacles one must overcome in the journey of understanding. Metaphorically, in each cycle, one dies and becomes reborn in order to grow, such as the snake that sheds its skin to grow. (Lachotta) However, throughout each new phase of one's life, they remain the same soul.
In further speculation, the river also stands to examine how everything in life comes full circle, just has Vasudeva the ferryman tells him in his first crossing of the river. Siddhartha contemplates how the river flows "to the waterfall, to the lake, to the rapids, to the sea," and after it reaches all of its goals, becomes water vapor in the heavens. From there, it plummets down from the sky as rain, from where it becomes a wellspring, then a brook, then a river again and thus, comes full circle. This at the same times references back to the paradox, for the river still exists as the same but comes back anew. The river also illustrates this lesson through little Siddhartha and Govinda; the river brought them both to Siddhartha. His son's defiance resembles his own towards his father in the beginning, and thus, demonstrates life's full circle. He and Govinda take separate roads, but become reunited by the river. Through this lesson, the river also teaches him that time has no existence, just as the river has neither a past nor a future; it just flows eternally. (Siddhartha, Metaphor) Siddhartha's soul, even after his physical death, shall continue to flow eternally.
The river symbolizes life, but in Siddhartha, Herman Hesse explores the deeper interconnected meanings of that life. Siddhartha seeks nirvana, but becomes stagnant in his journey, for he struggles to understand self. The river presents itself in his spiritual journey, provides the path to his journey of lust, and ultimately grants him salvation. It guides Siddhartha through the entirety of the story, enabling him to find unity among his experiences. Indeed, it stands as the single most important symbol of the story. Once Siddhartha achieves his unity through the river, he smiles as the perfect Buddha does, for he achieves true enlightenment.