The Lost Final Chapter of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha
Govinda had not stayed.
Wandering had become a way of life for the old monk, if not an addiction, and he found that he could not put it down. Siddhartha merely smiled his gracious and impenetrable smile, made namaste to his friend, and turned to the river.
Siddhartha spent his days ferrying travelers. Most paid him little mind, but more than infrequently Siddhartha would notice the eyes of a weary workman or a well-dressed maven trained upon him, watching the effortless effort with which he allowed pole, ferry, and stream to become one route, one possibility of leaving and arriving. Not for many centuries to come would anyone speak of wave function and collapse, of infinite possibilities folding into one actuality under the watchful gaze of an intender. All these travelers knew was that there was something smoothly magical, soothingly graceful about the way the ferry and its ferryman seemed to depart, traverse, and arrive, as if results were coming of their own accord.
Siddhartha spent his nights on his mat in the hut he had shared with Vasudeva, his predecessor and friend, and for a brief while with his son and with Govinda. Siddhartha felt no loneliness; the voice of the river filled him constantly with the demandless companionship of its word, rippling in and through him like breath – Om. In the morning, his feet would walk these ripples like flagstones of peace down to the mooring where the travelers waited.
Then, one morning Siddhartha was awakened especially early by a sound he did not remember hearing before – or rather a variation on a theme that he both recognized and did not. In the ascending mist of the already warm day, Siddhartha made his way to the riverside. He sat with both knees pulled to his chin like a child and watched the layers of light appear over the river’s far shore. Everything was very still, and then Siddhartha heard it again – a variance familiar but yet entirely new. The river still spoke the sacred Om, but the tone seemed to be enshrined in a beginning and a departure, as between two doors of entrance and furtherance.
Siddhartha approached right to the water’s lip; there it was again! A word that encompassed Om, centered on it, at the same time as it beckoned and released.
Without hesitation, Siddhartha pressed his bare feet into the river’s edge. The water was cold but still incredibly inviting. Siddhartha realized that he had never actually stepped into the river; although he had listened to it intently for years, he had only ferried across it, only skimmed its surface. As a boy, he had accompanied his Brahmin father on his morning ablutions, but even then, they had ventured only ankle-deep, cupped and returned water to its sacred currents, and withdrawn.
Siddhartha heard once more the variation on the river’s theme: Come. The invitation, a soft imperative, seemed to travel like energy up from his submersed ankles to his calf muscles, knees, and thighs; to move up, vertebra by vertebra, his spine, before coming to rest at the very rim of his brain, ready to spill over in the same way that mind overflows thought, will, and impression.
Almost unconsciously but never so conscious, Siddhartha waded deeper into the river. Like so many in his land, he had never learned to swim, but he soon found himself waist-deep in the soft, supportive current, and lay back, allowing it to uphold him, to secure his breath above its surface.
“How lovely!” Siddhartha thought to himself. “For years we have courted each other, the river and I. Its voice rang through me like that of a lover. Now we hold each other. What had been idea is now touch; the distance that was no-distance enfolds.” And Siddhartha immersed himself, head, shoulders and all, beneath the surface of the water. He bobbed back up like a cormorant or an otter, and laughed out loud!
Siddhartha surrendered himself entirely to the river. He began to float leisurely down its stream. Where would it take him? He did not know; it was not even a question he could form. Life was this, had always been this, and it was no more possible to separate oneself and ask “Where?” or “Why?” than it was to divide breath from breath.
Siddharth did not know – could not conceive of knowing – how long he had been floating past luxurious trees dipping the tips of their hair into the river or by the little huts and drying nets raised oh-so deferentially along its banks. He was accompanied only by the water bugs that walked like miraculous gurus across the surface of the stream, and by an orange-spotted turtle or two, sunning themselves on islands of temporality, subject to the river’s flux.
As the line across the lowering sky began to match the turtles’ spots, the river seemed to gently steer Siddhartha into shallower and shallower waters near the shore, until he felt the cushion of a thousand tiny, smooth-worn stones upon his back, and he knew it was time to stand. Effortlessly, Siddhartha came to the river’s sandy shore, each impression of his steps immediately filled from within by the saturation of fluid solidity. A few steps into the beach grass, which bore Siddhartha no sharpness, and he could easily pick a fruit of the banana tree from its cascading clusters. He ate. The afterglow of wandering sun coming to know sensuous stability was fading now, as if behind a discreetly drawn shade. Siddhartha pulled a banana frond over himself and slept.
He awoke to the sound of laughter and scurrying. A group of young people was spreading blankets by the riverside, preparing to picnic and to swim before the day became too hot. Baskets of roti and small earthenware bowls of various chutneys were placed about. The girls giggled and chatted with each other, while the boys tried to look unflappable and very adult.
Siddhartha did not want to startle them; he rolled a bit from side to side beneath his banana frond, stretched out his arms and yawned. The small crowd of teenagers became very quiet; slowly Siddhartha stood up and smiled at them. Clothed only in a loincloth, still such figures were not unfamiliar in his land, where Samanas wandered in and out of the forests. Siddhartha made namaste to the young people and proceeded to the river, where he cupped his hands and drank.
“Swamiji,” a young woman addressed him, “would you like to eat with us?”
Siddhartha shared his thanks and sat on his haunches at the end of the blanket, nibbling at a bit of the thin flat bread.
No one seemed to know what to say, until one young man piped up. “I know you,” he said. “Aren’t you the ferryman from the crossing upstream?”
“I was,” Siddhartha smiled benignly. “Once I crossed the river back and forth many times a day. Now I live within it, and we follow its course together.”
And Siddhartha proceeded to speak about the voice of Om, of the countless days and nights in which he had heard it, proclaiming the Oneness of all things, the non-existence of Time, the approval of every Path.
“When I had listened long enough, when the Voice of the river had become my Voice, I felt in my depths one final invitation. From ‘Om’ emerged ‘Come.’ I stepped into the river, as one with it in the body as I was in my essence, my Atman. Since then, we have flowed along together, the river and I — such had it always been, although I had not known it, and often had attempted to pass over or plow upstream against its currents. After this joined meal, I will reenter the river and we will be on our Way.”
“But . . . but it’s dangerous!” another young man sputtered. “There are crocodiles and rocks! You could drown out there?!”
Siddhartha merely smiled his wise, perhaps mocking, delicate smile. “Oh, I have drowned many times already, my friends. The person you see before you is and is not Siddhartha; he has been and will yet be again. The river has already and always been everything, and so have I. Many times have I crossed over; now I immerse within and among. I thank you for your hospitality. Om Shanti.”
And with that, Siddhartha waded back into the river until he reached its depth and floated off beyond a bend in its course.
The young people merely stood there stunned, except for one. The young lady who had invited him to eat said to herself, “There is an opening for a ferryman — or ferrywoman,” and without a further word began to walk toward the crossing.
Once more, Siddhartha settled himself into the watery assurance of the river, although, truth be told, he felt he had never left it. Slowly and leisurely he began to drift downstream; at a particularly wide bend, Siddhartha enjoyed a vista stretching many miles ahead of him. He thought he saw mountainous islands lush in voluptuous patterns off in the far distance.
Soon, the pace of the river began to increase. Siddhartha moved faster and faster; rocks began to break the surface more often and the voice of the river became a roar. Siddhartha was one with the rapids.
The river raced and dove and swirled, and Siddhartha did the same. But panic seemed something completely foreign to him. Equanimity rode these waves and he submerged into an even deeper peace each time the river pulled him into itself. His surface and the river’s surface were one in the same; his depths were its depths; the whorl of current and counter-current saturating his senses were that of his own life and all the lives he had ever lived, all that any ever could.
Thrust back into the air like a glistening newborn, Siddhartha’s body would bounce upon rocks and outcroppings in the river, but he felt no pain. It was if his entire being travelled in a way akin to light itself. He was wave-Siddhartha, his energy flooding over and past any obstacle; at the same time each gleaming particle of Siddhartha passed through all it encountered like energy yielding to itself.
Soon enough, this part of the ride was over; the river calmed itself, and Siddhartha once more emerged from its bank onto dry land. He felt tired and exhilarated and exalted as he stepped into the forest, his back to the sunset as it turned the air to blush.
As he walked mindfully on, he heard a rustling and a sighing, a catching of the breath and a tumbling like rock upon water. Through the trees, he could see a couple in the postures and transport of passionate love.
“How much like the river-rapids this is!” he thought to himself. “The lovers, too, swirl upon and dive deep into each other. Hardness and fluidity are as much one for them as are the rocks and waves. And the eternal Om flows through it all; it is simultaneously all Love and these two specific lovers alone.”
Not wanting to startle, Siddhartha began to softly chant a song he recalled hearing in his youth,
We travelled down the still river in the evening.
The acacia stood in the color of rose, casting its light,
The clouds cast down rose light, but I scarcely saw
All I saw were the plum blossoms in your hair. *
Siddhartha kept his eyes averted, but smiled to himself at the frantic stirring of clothes, legs, and escape! Reaching the spot, he found the blanket the two had left behind in their haste. He wrapped himself in it like night sky and proceeded to sleep.
Morning followed night, and evening, day; phrases such as “How long?” and “How far?” lost all meaning for Siddhartha. The river seemed interminable and immediate, and so did he.
At one point, Siddhartha was pulled from his reverie by the sound of loud and frantic voices. Looking to his left and right, he saw men and women waving their arms at him, shouting; some were jumping up and down. Siddhartha merely smiled peacefully and continued to trust the river.
Soon the shouts from the shore were drowned out by a rumbling like a hundred angry bulls. The river’s speed increased tenfold and Siddhartha could no longer see the horizon; all was angry mist, a fog that seemed to rise from some enraged, watery depth to which even Siddhartha was not held privy. For a moment, the mists parted and Siddhartha saw before him nothing but sky. The river had reached its falls.
In an instant, Siddhartha was flying through the air, exploding cascades pouring at his back. The Brahmin’s son felt completely free, of earth and water, of gravity and mass. For the first time since entering the river, everything stood still and he was suspended in an Eternal Moment, in the Now that was Definition Point and No Point at All, Everything and No Thing.
Did Siddhartha slice through the basin of the falls like a thin blade of grass, so accelerated, so exhilarated it was as one dimension bisecting three? Or did the plunge-pool rise to meet Siddhartha, suspended in mountain pose, legs together, shoulders aligned, crown balanced over karma? In either case or both, Siddhartha buoyed up from the falls, shook the droplets from his hair and eyes, and looked.
The river had widened interminably, majestically; Siddhartha could no longer see either shore. Across and around him stretched entire fluidity, infinite potential. Waves became more pronounced now, their whitecaps matching and completing Siddhartha’s own hair and beard. The water tasted of salt, and although he had never felt any sinking danger, Siddhartha’s surety of uplift was now complete.
“I am a wave,” Siddhartha said to himself, like invocation, like an article of faith.
The river laughed – or rather, Siddhartha was himself the laughter of the river, the delight of Om.
“You’re not a wave!” the laughter rechristened him from the inside out, the liquidity of Siddhartha. “You’re water!”
Siddhartha could see that what he had once thought were islands were truly clouds, piled high upon each other. Billows of possibility.
One final iteration, one last and opening variation on the Sacred Sound filled Siddhartha’s being. It enfolded Om and released it; it was invitation and destination, Self and Sea.
Siddhartha heard it. Siddhartha was it.
* From Hesse’s poem, “An eine chinesische Sängerin,” “To a Chinese Girl Singing, translated by James Wright, 1970.
Wayne-Daniel Berard, PhD, teaches Humanities at Nichols College, Dudley, MA. He publishes broadly in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. His poetry chapbook, The Man Who Remembered Heaven, received the New Eden Award in 2003. His non-fiction When Christians Were Jews (That Is, Now), subtitled Recovering the Lost Jewishness of Christianity with the Gospel of Mark, was published in 2006 by Cowley Publications. A novel The Retreatants, was published in 2012 (Smashwords). A chapbook, Christine Day, Love Poems, was published in 2016 (Kittatuck Press). His novella, Everything We Want, was published in 2018 by Bloodstone Press. A poetry collection, The Realm of Blessing, was published in 2020 by Unsolicited Press.