What Does the River Symbolize in Siddhartha?

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby
One of the most important symbols in ''Siddhartha'' is the river. In this lesson, we will see how, through its eternalness and interconnectedness, it helps to symbolize a great deal about enlightenment.

The Power of the River

In Siddhartha, the river is one of the most potent symbols in the entire book. It symbolizes not only the journey towards enlightenment, which is the entire goal of Siddhartha throughout his life, but also the realization of enlightenment itself. Throw in some talk about the river offering a sense of interconnectedness and eternity, and suddenly we've got one of the most powerful symbols in philosophical literature. In this lesson, we're going to learn more about Siddhartha's river in hopes that we can better understand the story.

Which River?

Throughout much of part two of Siddhartha, the river plays an important role in the plot of the story. In fact, it ultimately provides Siddhartha with the lessons necessary in order to gain enlightenment. However, before we go off packing our bags for a bit of a literary vacation, we should know that the river itself is unidentified in the book. However, we can use some context and historical clues to figure out a bit more about it. We know that it is somewhere in India that was frequented by the Buddha during his life. Given those clues, we can safely assume that it is somewhere in northern and northeastern India. That means that it is either the Ganges River or one of its tributaries. I say all that not so we can impress others with our geographical knowledge, but to underscore the role the river actually does play. The Ganges, in particular, is holy to a number of Indian faith traditions, which makes the idea of the river leading towards enlightenment all the more tantalizing.


The river is also a powerful symbol for eternity. It is there at different points of Siddhartha's life, and we know that it will be there long after he is gone, just as it was there long before he was. This idea of being able to interact with such a powerful part of nature that is clearly eternal makes a powerful impression on Siddhartha. While the river's course may change, its depths swell or shrink, or even if it be dammed for agricultural use, the fact is that the river will always be there.

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