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In the book Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse the significance of the river is displayed throughout the experiences that Siddhartha has next to the river and the things that by listening to the sound he comes to understand. Siddhartha is learning something from the moment he rides the ferry to the time when Govinda lays on the ground with tears flowing uncontrollably.
Siddhartha admits to having no money to pay for the voyage, but the Ferryman says that friendship is payment enough, and takes him into town. After leaving town, Siddhartha returns to the river where had met the Ferryman earlier. Intrigued by the river's beauty and silent wisdom, Siddhartha decides to stay by the river. Siddhartha soon meets the Ferryman Vasuveda, the same man who took him across the river earlier. Siddhartha offers to be Vasuveda's apprentice, an offer that the Ferryman graciously accepts. The two grow together as Siddhartha begins to learn the river's wisdom, and soon Siddhartha begins to emulate Vasuveda's demeanor, expressing a contented peace in the routine of daily life. Years pass. One day, the two Ferrymen hear that the Buddha is dying. Kamala, on hearing the news as well, travels with her son to be near Goatama. As she passes near the river, she is bitten by a snake and dies, but not before Vasuveda takes her to Siddhartha.
After Kamala dies, Siddhartha keeps his son with him by the river. The boy, though, refuses to accept Siddhartha as his father and consequently does nothing he is told. Many months pass, but the boy remains intransigent. Eventually the boy runs away. Vasuveda tells Siddhartha to let him go, but Siddhartha follows him. Upon reaching the town, Siddhartha recalls his own experiences there and admits to himself what he knew all along, that he could not help the boy. Siddhartha feels a great sorrow at this loss, and the happiness he had known as a Ferryman leaves him. Vasuveda soon arrives and leads the despondent Siddhartha to back to the river.
The pain of losing his son was long lasting for Siddhartha. It enabled him, however, to identify with ordinary people more than ever before. Though Siddhartha was beginning to understand what wisdom really is, the thought of son did not leave him. One day he sets off in search of his son, but stops as he heard the river laughing at him.
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Not long after Vasuveda's departure, Govinda hears rumors of a Ferryman who is a sage. Still restless and unsatisfied after all his years of searching, Govinda goes to speak to the Ferryman. The Ferryman, Siddhartha, recognizes Govinda immediately, though Govinda does not recognize him. When Siddhartha finally addresses Govinda by name, Govinda recognizes him. Happy to have reunited after so long, Govinda spends the night at Siddhartha's hut. Govinda asks Siddhartha what are the doctrines by which he lives. Siddhartha repeats his oft-mentioned refrain that he eschews teachers and doctrines, arguing that while knowledge is communicable, wisdom is not. He says that expressing love and admiration toward all things is the most important thing in the world. Govinda is confused by most of what Siddhartha says, but he feels certain that his old friend is a holy man. Preparing to leave, Govinda asks Siddhartha for something to help him along his path. Siddhartha tells Govinda to kiss his forehead. Doing so causes Govinda to see a continuous stream of different faces in place of Siddhartha's. Overwhelmed by this display of unity and timelessness, Govinda falls to ground, tears flowing uncontrollably.
Hesse also uses the symbolism of the river to unify Siddhartha's experiences. The river serves as a separation between the experiences of the mind and the spirit on the one side, and the experiences of the body and the senses on the other. However, while the river serves as a seeming separation between these two "lands", and "experiences", the river also serves as the unifying principle in that the experiences of the soul are located at the river's edge, "between life's two extremes". It is the river, which before served as an apparent division, which ultimately teaches Siddhartha the most important lesson of all - the unreality of time and the illusion of division