Siddhartha recounts the quest of two men for a harmonious existence, for inner peace and for enlightenment but through different paths. Siddhartha and Govinda are childhood friends, brought up in devout Brahmin households, dutifully learning and practicing the Holy Scriptures and the prescribed customs.
Siddhartha has an individualistic streak that denies him blind faith in the powers of rituals and sacrifices as the only means of attaining salvation, or liberation from worldly attachments and cyclic reincarnation. Govinda is also a spiritual seeker at heart, but with the mental simplicity to accept prescriptive teachings. The childhood friends part ways early in the story; Govinda joins the Buddhist Sangha, while Siddhartha is pulled into a whirlpool of experimental living and seeking.
Giving up the sanctuary of a Brahmin student under his father’s tutelage, he plunges into the deprivations of an ascetic lifestyle. He meets the Buddha, and rejects a monastic life when he realizes that knowledge can be learnt and disseminated but wisdom can only be self-acquired. He retreats into the humdrum of daily existence, to experience the joys and sorrows of the common man, first as a detached onlooker, and later as a decadent pleasure-seeker. He learns the art of love from the courtesan Kamala, but doesn’t feel the real pangs of love; he acquires and squanders wealth, and with it he also dissipates the mental discipline and physical steadfastness of his youth.
Mortified by his growing self-indulgence, he comprehends that he has lost the path to self-realization. On the verge of losing all hope of redemption, he miraculously connects with nature, and finds a mentor in the ferryman, Vasudeva. He takes up residence by the river, and rediscovers the tranquility of simplistic living. In his childhood, he had learnt to pronounce Om with semantic precision; now he can hear the Om, in all its purity, from the depths of the river, and he bonds with the elements of Nature.
Life has more lessons in store for Siddhartha. He has experienced the love of family, friends, lover, mentors, and even of nature, but his experience is incomplete because he has not loved and lost. It is the pain of a father that brings his life full circle; only when he has experienced the agony of separation does he realize the true ecstasy, the real meaning of the ultimate union, of the Self with the Universe.
The story culminates with the reunion of the bosom friends. Siddhartha is now a wise man radiating the glow of a Buddha, aware and enlightened, at peace with the self and the cosmic forces that modulate the ebb and flow of life; Govinda is still a seeker. As a follower of prescribed religion and not a self-seeker of true wisdom, it is the destiny of Govinda to attain salvation, to achieve self-realization, only by the grace of the now enlightened Siddhartha.