BY THE RIVER
Siddhartha walked through the forest, was already far from the city, and
knew nothing but that one thing, that there was no going back for him,
that this life, as he had lived it for many years until now, was over
and done away with, and that he had tasted all of it, sucked everything
out of it until he was disgusted with it. Dead was the singing bird, he
had dreamt of. Dead was the bird in his heart. Deeply, he had been
entangled in Sansara, he had sucked up disgust and death from all sides
into his body, like a sponge sucks up water until it is full. And full
he was, full of the feeling of been sick of it, full of misery, full of
death, there was nothing left in this world which could have attracted
him, given him joy, given him comfort.
Passionately he wished to know nothing about himself anymore, to have
rest, to be dead. If there only was a lightning-bolt to strike him
dead! If there only was a tiger a devour him! If there only was a
wine, a poison which would numb his senses, bring him forgetfulness and
sleep, and no awakening from that! Was there still any kind of filth,
he had not soiled himself with, a sin or foolish act he had not
committed, a dreariness of the soul he had not brought upon himself?
Was it still at all possible to be alive? Was it possible, to breathe
in again and again, to breathe out, to feel hunger, to eat again, to
sleep again, to sleep with a woman again? Was this cycle not exhausted
and brought to a conclusion for him?
Siddhartha reached the large river in the forest, the same river over
which a long time ago, when he had still been a young man and came from
the town of Gotama, a ferryman had conducted him. By this river he
stopped, hesitantly he stood at the bank. Tiredness and hunger had
weakened him, and whatever for should he walk on, wherever to, to which
goal? No, there were no more goals, there was nothing left but the
deep, painful yearning to shake off this whole desolate dream, to spit
out this stale wine, to put an end to this miserable and shameful life.
A hang bent over the bank of the river, a coconut-tree; Siddhartha
leaned against its trunk with his shoulder, embraced the trunk with one
arm, and looked down into the green water, which ran and ran under him,
looked down and found himself to be entirely filled with the wish to
let go and to drown in these waters. A frightening emptiness was
reflected back at him by the water, answering to the terrible emptiness
in his soul. Yes, he had reached the end. There was nothing left for
him, except to annihilate himself, except to smash the failure into
which he had shaped his life, to throw it away, before the feet of
mockingly laughing gods. This was the great vomiting he had longed for:
death, the smashing to bits of the form he hated! Let him be food for
fishes, this dog Siddhartha, this lunatic, this depraved and rotten
body, this weakened and abused soul! Let him be food for fishes and
crocodiles, let him be chopped to bits by the daemons!
With a distorted face, he stared into the water, saw the reflection of
his face and spit at it. In deep tiredness, he took his arm away from
the trunk of the tree and turned a bit, in order to let himself fall
straight down, in order to finally drown. With his eyes closed, he
slipped towards death.
Then, out of remote areas of his soul, out of past times of his now
weary life, a sound stirred up. It was a word, a syllable, which he,
without thinking, with a slurred voice, spoke to himself, the old word
which is the beginning and the end of all prayers of the Brahmans, the
holy "Om", which roughly means "that what is perfect" or "the
completion". And in the moment when the sound of "Om" touched
Siddhartha's ear, his dormant spirit suddenly woke up and realized the
foolishness of his actions.
Siddhartha was deeply shocked. So this was how things were with him,
so doomed was he, so much he had lost his way and was forsaken by all
knowledge, that he had been able to seek death, that this wish, this
wish of a child, had been ale to grow in him: to find rest by
annihilating his body! What all agony of these recent times, all
sobering realizations, all desperation had not brought about, this was
brought on by this moment, when the Om entered his consciousness: he
became aware of himself in his misery and in his error.
Om! he spoke to himself: Om! and again he knew about Brahman, knew
about the indestructibility of life, knew about all that is divine,
which he had forgotten.
But this was only a moment, flash. By the foot of the coconut-tree,
Siddhartha collapsed, struck down by tiredness, mumbling Om, placed his
head on the root of the tree and fell into a deep sleep.
Deep was his sleep and without dreams, for a long time he had not known
such a sleep any more. When he woke up after many hours, he felt as if
ten years had passed, he heard the water quietly flowing, did not know
where he was and who had brought him here, opened his eyes, saw with
astonishment that there were trees and the sky above him, and he
remembered where he was and how he got here. But it took him a long
while for this, and the past seemed to him as if it had been covered by
a veil, infinitely distant, infinitely far away, infinitely meaningless.
He only knew that his previous life (in the first moment when he thought
about it, this past life seemed to him like a very old, previous
incarnation, like an early pre-birth of his present self)--that his
previous life had been abandoned by him, that, full of disgust and
wretchedness, he had even intended to throw his life away, but that by a
river, under a coconut-tree, he has come to his senses, the holy word
Om on his lips, that then he had fallen asleep and had now woken up and
was looking at the world as a new man. Quietly, he spoke the word Om to
himself, speaking which he had fallen asleep, and it seemed to him as if
his entire long sleep had been nothing but a long meditative recitation
of Om, a thinking of Om, a submergence and complete entering into Om,
into the nameless, the perfected.
What a wonderful sleep had this been! Never before by sleep, he had
been thus refreshed, thus renewed, thus rejuvenated! Perhaps, he had
really died, had drowned and was reborn in a new body? But no, he knew
himself, he knew his hand and his feet, knew the place where he lay,
knew this self in his chest, this Siddhartha, the eccentric, the weird
one, but this Siddhartha was nevertheless transformed, was renewed,
was strangely well rested, strangely awake, joyful and curious.
Siddhartha straightened up, then he saw a person sitting opposite to him,
an unknown man, a monk in a yellow robe with a shaven head, sitting in
the position of pondering. He observed the man, who had neither hair
on his head nor a beard, and he had not observed him for long when he
recognised this monk as Govinda, the friend of his youth, Govinda who
had taken his refuge with the exalted Buddha. Govinda had aged, he too,
but still his face bore the same features, expressed zeal, faithfulness,
searching, timidness. But when Govinda now, sensing his gaze, opened
his eyes and looked at him, Siddhartha saw that Govinda did not
recognise him. Govinda was happy to find him awake; apparently, he had
been sitting here for a long time and been waiting for him to wake up,
though he did not know him.
"I have been sleeping," said Siddhartha. "However did you get here?"
"You have been sleeping," answered Govinda. "It is not good to be
sleeping in such places, where snakes often are and the animals of the
forest have their paths. I, oh sir, am a follower of the exalted
Gotama, the Buddha, the Sakyamuni, and have been on a pilgrimage
together with several of us on this path, when I saw you lying and
sleeping in a place where it is dangerous to sleep. Therefore, I sought
to wake you up, oh sir, and since I saw that your sleep was very deep,
I stayed behind from my group and sat with you. And then, so it seems,
I have fallen asleep myself, I who wanted to guard your sleep. Badly,
I have served you, tiredness has overwhelmed me. But now that you're
awake, let me go to catch up with my brothers."
"I thank you, Samana, for watching out over my sleep," spoke Siddhartha.
"You're friendly, you followers of the exalted one. Now you may go
"I'm going, sir. May you, sir, always be in good health."
"I thank you, Samana."
Govinda made the gesture of a salutation and said: "Farewell."
"Farewell, Govinda," said Siddhartha.
The monk stopped.
"Permit me to ask, sir, from where do you know my name?"
Now, Siddhartha smiled.
"I know you, oh Govinda, from your father's hut, and from the school
of the Brahmans, and from the offerings, and from our walk to the
Samanas, and from that hour when you took your refuge with the exalted
one in the grove Jetavana."
"You're Siddhartha," Govinda exclaimed loudly. Now, I'm recognising
you, and don't comprehend any more how I couldn't recognise you right
away. Be welcome, Siddhartha, my joy is great, to see you again."
"It also gives me joy, to see you again. You've been the guard of my
sleep, again I thank you for this, though I wouldn't have required any
guard. Where are you going to, oh friend?"
"I'm going nowhere. We monks are always travelling, whenever it is not
the rainy season, we always move from one place to another, live
according to the rules if the teachings passed on to us, accept alms,
move on. It is always like this. But you, Siddhartha, where are you
Quoth Siddhartha: "With me too, friend, it is as it is with you. I'm
going nowhere. I'm just travelling. I'm on a pilgrimage."
Govinda spoke: "You're saying: you're on a pilgrimage, and I believe in
you. But, forgive me, oh Siddhartha, you do not look like a pilgrim.
You're wearing a rich man's garments, you're wearing the shoes of a
distinguished gentleman, and your hair, with the fragrance of perfume,
is not a pilgrim's hair, not the hair of a Samana."
"Right so, my dear, you have observed well, your keen eyes see
everything. But I haven't said to you that I was a Samana. I said:
I'm on a pilgrimage. And so it is: I'm on a pilgrimage."
"You're on a pilgrimage," said Govinda. "But few would go on a
pilgrimage in such clothes, few in such shoes, few with such hair.
Never I have met such a pilgrim, being a pilgrim myself for many years."
"I believe you, my dear Govinda. But now, today, you've met a pilgrim
just like this, wearing such shoes, such a garment. Remember, my dear:
Not eternal is the world of appearances, not eternal, anything but
eternal are our garments and the style of our hair, and our hair and
bodies themselves. I'm wearing a rich man's clothes, you've seen this
quite right. I'm wearing them, because I have been a rich man, and I'm
wearing my hair like the worldly and lustful people, for I have been
one of them."
"And now, Siddhartha, what are you now?"
"I don't know it, I don't know it just like you. I'm travelling. I was
a rich man and am no rich man any more, and what I'll be tomorrow, I
"You've lost your riches?"
"I've lost them or they me. They somehow happened to slip away from me.
The wheel of physical manifestations is turning quickly, Govinda. Where
is Siddhartha the Brahman? Where is Siddhartha the Samana? Where is
Siddhartha the rich man? Non-eternal things change quickly, Govinda,
you know it."
Govinda looked at the friend of his youth for a long time, with doubt in
his eyes. After that, he gave him the salutation which one would use
on a gentleman and went on his way.
With a smiling face, Siddhartha watched him leave, he loved him still,
this faithful man, this fearful man. And how could he not have loved
everybody and everything in this moment, in the glorious hour after his
wonderful sleep, filled with Om! The enchantment, which had happened
inside of him in his sleep and by means of the Om, was this very thing
that he loved everything, that he was full of joyful love for everything
he saw. And it was this very thing, so it seemed to him now, which had
been his sickness before, that he was not able to love anybody or
With a smiling face, Siddhartha watched the leaving monk. The sleep had
strengthened him much, but hunger gave him much pain, for by now he had
not eaten for two days, and the times were long past when he had been
tough against hunger. With sadness, and yet also with a smile, he
thought of that time. In those days, so he remembered, he had boasted
of three three things to Kamala, had been able to do three noble and
undefeatable feats: fasting--waiting--thinking. These had been his
possession, his power and strength, his solid staff; in the busy,
laborious years of his youth, he had learned these three feats, nothing
else. And now, they had abandoned him, none of them was his any more,
neither fasting, nor waiting, nor thinking. For the most wretched
things, he had given them up, for what fades most quickly, for sensual
lust, for the good life, for riches! His life had indeed been strange.
And now, so it seemed, now he had really become a childlike person.
Siddhartha thought about his situation. Thinking was hard on him, he
did not really feel like it, but he forced himself.
Now, he thought, since all theses most easily perishing things have
slipped from me again, now I'm standing here under the sun again just as
I have been standing here a little child, nothing is mine, I have no
abilities, there is nothing I could bring about, I have learned nothing.
How wondrous is this! Now, that I'm no longer young, that my hair is
already half gray, that my strength is fading, now I'm starting again
at the beginning and as a child! Again, he had to smile. Yes, his fate
had been strange! Things were going downhill with him, and now he was
again facing the world void and naked and stupid. But he could not feed
sad about this, no, he even felt a great urge to laugh, to laugh about
himself, to laugh about this strange, foolish world.
"Things are going downhill with you!" he said to himself, and laughed
about it, and as he was saying it, he happened to glance at the river,
and he also saw the river going downhill, always moving on downhill,
and singing and being happy through it all. He liked this well, kindly
he smiled at the river. Was this not the river in which he had intended
to drown himself, in past times, a hundred years ago, or had he dreamed
Wondrous indeed was my life, so he thought, wondrous detours it has
taken. As I boy, I had only to do with gods and offerings. As a youth,
I had only to do with asceticism, with thinking and meditation, was
searching for Brahman, worshipped the eternal in the Atman. But as a
young man, I followed the penitents, lived in the forest, suffered of
heat and frost, learned to hunger, taught my body to become dead.
Wonderfully, soon afterwards, insight came towards me in the form of the
great Buddha's teachings, I felt the knowledge of the oneness of the
world circling in me like my own blood. But I also had to leave Buddha
and the great knowledge. I went and learned the art of love with
Kamala, learned trading with Kamaswami, piled up money, wasted money,
learned to love my stomach, learned to please my senses. I had to spend
many years losing my spirit, to unlearn thinking again, to forget the
oneness. Isn't it just as if I had turned slowly and on a long detour
from a man into a child, from a thinker into a childlike person? And
yet, this path has been very good; and yet, the bird in my chest has
not died. But what a path has this been! I had to pass through so much
stupidity, through so much vices, through so many errors, through so
much disgust and disappointments and woe, just to become a child again
and to be able to start over. But it was right so, my heart says "Yes"
to it, my eyes smile to it. I've had to experience despair, I've had to
sink down to the most foolish one of all thoughts, to the thought of
suicide, in order to be able to experience divine grace, to hear Om
again, to be able to sleep properly and awake properly again. I had to
become a fool, to find Atman in me again. I had to sin, to be able to
live again. Where else might my path lead me to? It is foolish, this
path, it moves in loops, perhaps it is going around in a circle. Let
it go as it likes, I want to to take it.
Wonderfully, he felt joy rolling like waves in his chest.
Wherever from, he asked his heart, where from did you get this
happiness? Might it come from that long, good sleep, which has done me
so good? Or from the word Om, which I said? Or from the fact that I
have escaped, that I have completely fled, that I am finally free again
and am standing like a child under the sky? Oh how good is it to have
fled, to have become free! How clean and beautiful is the air here, how
good to breathe! There, where I ran away from, there everything smelled
of ointments, of spices, of wine, of excess, of sloth. How did I hate
this world of the rich, of those who revel in fine food, of the
gamblers! How did I hate myself for staying in this terrible world for
so long! How did I hate myself, have deprive, poisoned, tortured
myself, have made myself old and evil! No, never again I will, as I
used to like doing so much, delude myself into thinking that Siddhartha
was wise! But this one thing I have done well, this I like, this I must
praise, that there is now an end to that hatred against myself, to that
foolish and dreary life! I praise you, Siddhartha, after so many years
of foolishness, you have once again had an idea, have done something,
have heard the bird in your chest singing and have followed it!
Thus he praised himself, found joy in himself, listened curiously to his
stomach, which was rumbling with hunger. He had now, so he felt, in
these recent times and days, completely tasted and spit out, devoured up
to the point of desperation and death, a piece of suffering, a piece of
misery. Like this, it was good. For much longer, he could have stayed
with Kamaswami, made money, wasted money, filled his stomach, and let
his soul die of thirst; for much longer he could have lived in this
soft, well upholstered hell, if this had not happened: the moment of
complete hopelessness and despair, that most extreme moment, when he
hang over the rushing waters and was ready to destroy himself. That he
had felt this despair, this deep disgust, and that he had not succumbed
to it, that the bird, the joyful source and voice in him was still alive
after all, this was why he felt joy, this was why he laughed, this was
why his face was smiling brightly under his hair which had turned gray.
"It is good," he thought, "to get a taste of everything for oneself,
which one needs to know. That lust for the world and riches do not
belong to the good things, I have already learned as a child. I have
known it for a long time, but I have experienced only now. And now I
know it, don't just know it in my memory, but in my eyes, in my heart,
in my stomach. Good for me, to know this!"
For a long time, he pondered his transformation, listened to the bird,
as it sang for joy. Had not this bird died in him, had he not felt its
death? No, something else from within him had died, something which
already for a long time had yearned to die. Was it not this what he
used to intend to kill in his ardent years as a penitent? Was this not
his self, his small, frightened, and proud self, he had wrestled with
for so many years, which had defeated him again and again, which was
back again after every killing, prohibited joy, felt fear? Was it not
this, which today had finally come to its death, here in the forest, by
this lovely river? Was it not due to this death, that he was now like
a child, so full of trust, so without fear, so full of joy?
Now Siddhartha also got some idea of why he had fought this self in
vain as a Brahman, as a penitent. Too much knowledge had held him
back, too many holy verses, too many sacrificial rules, to much
self-castigation, so much doing and striving for that goal! Full of
arrogance, he had been, always the smartest, always working the most,
always one step ahead of all others, always the knowing and spiritual
one, always the priest or wise one. Into being a priest, into this
arrogance, into this spirituality, his self had retreated, there it sat
firmly and grew, while he thought he would kill it by fasting and
penance. Now he saw it and saw that the secret voice had been right,
that no teacher would ever have been able to bring about his salvation.
Therefore, he had to go out into the world, lose himself to lust and
power, to woman and money, had to become a merchant, a dice-gambler, a
drinker, and a greedy person, until the priest and Samana in him was
dead. Therefore, he had to continue bearing these ugly years, bearing
the disgust, the emptiness, the pointlessness of a dreary and
wasted life up to the end, up to bitter despair, until Siddhartha the
lustful, Siddhartha the greedy could also die. He had died, a new
Siddhartha had woken up from the sleep. He would also grow old, he
would also eventually have to die, mortal was Siddhartha, mortal was
every physical form. But today he was young, was a child, the new
Siddhartha, and was full of joy.
He thought these thoughts, listened with a smile to his stomach,
listened gratefully to a buzzing bee. Cheerfully, he looked into the
rushing river, never before he had like a water so well as this one,
never before he had perceived the voice and the parable of the moving
water thus strongly and beautifully. It seemed to him, as if the river
had something special to tell him, something he did not know yet, which
was still awaiting him. In this river, Siddhartha had intended to
drown himself, in it the old, tired, desperate Siddhartha had drowned
today. But the new Siddhartha felt a deep love for this rushing water,
and decided for himself, not to leave it very soon.
Siddhartha: Chapter VII
- Siddhartha: Chapter IX