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CHAPTER 12: Govinda
Govinda spends a night at the pleasure garden donated by Kamala to Gotama. He hears of a ferryman who is considered to be a sage by many. He arrives at the river and tells the ferryman, who is Siddhartha, to take him across. Govinda recognizes his friend although he has greatly changed. The two old friends talk briefly, and Govinda spends the night in Siddhartha's hut. In the morning when it is time for Govinda to leave, he asks Siddhartha whether he has some doctrine, belief, or knowledge that helps him live and do right. Siddhartha says that even as a young man he had distrusted doctrines and teachers. In his life, he has had many teachers, including a beautiful courtesan, a rich merchant, a dice player, and one of Buddha's wandering monks who sat beside him to guard him while he slept in the forest; he is grateful to them all, but feels he has not learned the important things in life from them. Instead, he has learned the most from the river and Vasudeva, a simple man who was no great philosopher.
Siddhartha tells Govinda that in order to teach about the world, Buddha had to divide it into Samsara and Nirvana, into illusion and truth, into suffering and salvation. But the world is not divided. It is neither wholly Samsara nor wholly Nirvana, just as man is never wholly a saint or wholly a sinner, nor is life wholly suffering or wholly salvation. A sinner can become Brahma and attain Nirvana. Siddhartha picks up a stone and tells Govinda that previously he would have considered it a thing of no value belonging to the world of Maya. Now he sees the rock as belonging to the cycle of change; within time, it may become a plant, animal, or man. The stone is part of the unity of the world, containing God and Buddha.
Siddhartha then tells Govinda about Vasudeva, who attached importance only to the river from which he learned about life. The river was like a god, which spoke to him. From the river he learned that every wind, cloud, bird, and beetle is divine. Though Siddhartha's ideas seem strange and foolish to Govinda, he sees that his face, skin, hands, and hair radiate purity, peace, gentleness, and saintliness. Govinda has not seen such serenity since the death of the Illustrious One, the Buddha. Govinda asks Siddhartha to tell him something that he can understand; that will help him to be reborn. Siddhartha answers by requesting that Govinda kiss his forehead.
At the moment of kissing, Govinda no longer knows whether time exists. He feels that a hundred years have passed. He does not know whether there is a Siddhartha or a Gotama. Siddhartha smiles peacefully at his friend, much like the Buddha had done. Govinda bows low before Siddhartha. Uncontrollable tears trickle down his old face. He is overwhelmed with love and humble veneration. Siddhartha's face reminds Govinda of everything that he has ever loved or that has ever been valuable and holy in his life.
In the last chapter, the novel has come full circle. Vasudeva has departed to live his life in contemplation and peace in the woods. Siddhartha has taken his place and is serving as the ferryman. Like Vasudeva, he is willing to share his knowledge of the river and his peace with anyone who is interested. The reader sees how Siddhartha, in perfect continuity, has taken up where Vasudeva left off, for his offer to Govinda is similar to ferryman's offer to Siddhartha many years ago.
The last chapter also establishes a new relationship between Govinda and Siddhartha in the roles of the seeker and the follower. Govinda asks the ferryman, who is now Siddhartha, to take him across the river. This incident is very symbolic, for in the Hindu scriptures life in the Samsara world is compared to a river of sorrow, which has to be crossed; at the same time, the river contains salvation. Siddhartha attempts to explain salvation, or Nirvana, to Govinda. When Govinda presses him to explain how he too can find salvation, Siddhartha says that a person cannot consciously seek Nirvana, for it will forever elude a seeker.
Siddhartha asks Govinda to come to his hut, where he spends the night in Vasudeva's bed. The next day, Siddhartha explains to Govinda that only knowledge (medha) can be communicated and learned from others; wisdom (pragna) must come from direct experience. Then he explains that truth is a unity of all things; the world cannot be divided into totally Samsara or totally Nirvana. He also says that people suffer from illusions, for they believe time to be important and real. According to Siddhartha, since time is not real, the dividing line between the present and eternity, between suffering and bliss, between good and evil is also not real. Govinda is puzzled by this explanation.
Siddhartha next elaborates on the unity of creation and the uniqueness of each created thing. He talks about the various spiritual changes a human being must goes through to attain Nirvana. Govinda finds his explanation to be very confusing and begs Siddhartha to help him find salvation. Siddhartha explains that Nirvana cannot be explained, for words distort; the important thing is experience. He concludes his discourse by extolling Buddha's greatest virtue -- his love for all things.
Siddhartha talks about Vasudeva, who though illiterate, was a wise, learned, and holy man and Siddhartha's only true teacher. The ferryman's knowledge came from listening to the river. In silence, Vasudeva was able to communicate his peace to Siddhartha. In the final key scene of the novel, Siddhartha, with non-verbal communication, has Govinda kiss him in order to receive knowledge from him. As Govinda kisses Siddhartha's brow, he sees various forms, including a new born child, an executioner, a criminal, corpses, heads of other animals, bears, crocodiles, elephants, oxen, birds, Krishna, Agni, and many others. They multiply, pass by, and merge into one another. In is an image very similar to the one that Siddhartha has earlier seen in the river. When Govinda expresses his amazement, Siddhartha smiles at him in the same manner as the Illustrious One. At that moment, Govinda does not know whether a second has passed or a hundred years, for he has experienced the timelessness and unity of life. He has felt what Siddhartha has been trying to explain. Siddhartha has successfully communicated the divine light and mystical presence of the collective unconscious. Govinda bows before the holy Siddhartha and cries tears of wonder and appreciation.