Siddhartha is born into a Brahmin community. The young Indian, a devout student of his religion, performs ceremonies and offerings. He speaks the “om,” or word of words representing the supreme reality. He seeks to understand how Atman (the soul) is at one with the universe. His community loves him, and his friend Govinda vows to follow him because he sees something powerful and promising in Siddhartha.
Siddhartha begins to question what he’s been taught. He wonders if gods are not just human constructs and if anyone but Atman (whom he calls the “Only One”) should receive honor and sacrifice. He’s desperate to find the path to this deepest part of himself.
Despite his father’s objections, Siddhartha leaves his village and joins a group of wandering ascetics called the samanas. Govinda follows. Siddhartha learns to fast. He wears a loincloth, and his hair and nails grow as his stomach shrinks. He begins to look scornfully upon his fellow man. He feels life is bitter and none of the people in it are worthy of him.
His goal is to empty himself of every dream and desire, to become “unselfed.” He meditates and takes on the forms of various animals and other natural formations. His voluntary suffering enables him to overcome hunger, pain, thirst and fatigue and to linger in the “nonself” for a time. But eventually, he always comes back to himself and feels the torments of living.
He begins sharing his doubts with Govinda. They note even the oldest semana has not reached nirvana (or liberation from the endless cycle of birth and death). Siddhartha theorizes that words and learning are the enemies of true knowledge. Knowledge itself is all around and within the soul.
After three years with the samanas, Siddhartha and Govinda begin hearing of a man named Gautama. He’s also called the Sublime One or the Buddha. He has supposedly overcome all of the sorrow of the world within himself to achieve nirvana. He has worked miracles, destroyed the devil and spoken with gods. More and more disciples begin following him.
Siddhartha and Govinda leave the samanas to investigate. Siddhartha is skeptical, but even he finds himself in awe of the Buddha’s serene manner, full of peace and light. Govinda pledges himself to the Buddha as a follower. Although Siddhartha speaks to the Buddha and feels truth emanating from him, he still decides he must carry on in his search for Atman alone.
He believes the Buddha is everything people say he is. At the same time, Siddhartha still feels no amount of teaching can bring about the deliverance of a person’s soul. Meeting the Buddha shows him the only way one can discover the depths of his soul is through personal experience.
Siddhartha ponders the way he sought to lose his ego as a samana. He believes he was losing himself in the process. Now, he believes he must teach himself and become a pupil of himself to find Atman. He begins to purposefully take in the beauty of the world around him with childlike eyes. He shuns the rituals and self-sacrifice that previously guided him.
Siddhartha spends the night in a ferryman’s hut, and the man takes him across the river the next day. The beauty of the river and the ferryman’s friendly demeanor impress Siddhartha. He wanders on, flirting with a woman outside a village. He feels sexual desire toward her, but spurns her advances when he realizes he has no idea how to handle women.
When he enters the town, he learns of a courtesan named Kamala who owns her own grove. He watches a procession of servants bring the beautiful woman to her couch and begins to speak with her. He humbly asks her to be his teacher and friend in the ways of love.
She helps him clean himself up and gets him work with a wealthy merchant named Kamaswami. Siddhartha and Kamala become lovers, though they realize neither of them is able to give themselves wholly to another person. Others, whom Siddhartha refers to as “child people,” can do this because their minds are simpler.
To some degree, he envies them. Siddhartha’s samana training in thinking, waiting and fasting help him to become a successful businessman. As years pass, he becomes obsessed with the same things as the child people, yet he still can’t mirror their innocent joy. He begins drinking and gambling excessively.
After a while, even these things can’t keep him from feeling sluggish and discontented with life. Loathing himself and feeling like something has died inside of him, he abruptly leaves this life behind. Kamaswami thinks Siddhartha has been attacked and killed, but Kamala is not surprised by his disappearance. Soon afterward, she realizes she is carrying his child.
Siddhartha hangs over a tree near the river, contemplating suicide. He hears the “om” within himself that once reminded him to seek perfection and completeness. He sinks into a deep sleep and awakens refreshed and joyful. He has moved through a period of asceticism and a period of desire for worldly things. Now he has achieved the joy of being a child person. He believes these periods of wandering, and even his sinking to the point of suicidal thoughts, have grown him. He decides to embrace the circuitous path of life.
Siddhartha begins to find a particular beauty in the river. Once again, he encounters the ferryman, Vasudeva, who listens well as Siddhartha bears his soul. Siddhartha sees the ferryman’s joy and peace and realizes he can learn much by spending time in this man’s presence. He stays on to work for and live with the ferryman and to listen to the river speaking to him. People in the area begin talking about the two wise ferrymen.
One day, a sickly Kamala arrives with Siddhartha’s son. Siddhartha is overwhelmed with joy. Kamala dies shortly thereafter, and the rude, entitled boy behaves badly under his father’s care. Siddhartha is afraid to discipline the boy and lets him say and do as he pleases. Vasudeva gently urges Siddhartha to consider letting the boy return to his mother’s home to be cared for there. The boy eventually runs away, and Siddhartha, brokenhearted, lets him go. This act of loving and releasing takes Siddhartha a step closer to his “om.”
Siddhartha continues to learn from the river, and Vasudeva helps him see a vision that changes him. He sees and hears the faces and sounds of all people, sees their goodness and evil, tears and joy, all coming together at once. Within this, he discovers a wholeness that could be summed up in the word “om.” Happy that Siddhartha has finally discovered the meaning of perfection, Vasudeva disappears into the forest, beaming with peace and light.
Govinda and Siddhartha have a final meeting where Govinda, still perplexed by his old friend, tries to understand the peace Siddhartha has discovered. Siddhartha reiterates that experiences rather than the teachings of man have led him to this place. He says time itself is a human construct, and he now sees how the past, present and future flow together all at once.
He says he believes the key to all things is the ability to love himself and all beings with awe and admiration. He asks Govinda to kiss his forehead, and the man sees a vision of his own, filled with all of the good and evil, pain and beauty of life in faces, actions, and animals. He sees the perfect peace in Siddhartha that he once saw in the Buddha’s eyes, and he falls to his knees feeling deep love. Siddhartha has essentially taken over as ferryman, ferrying his friend into enlightenment.