Gotama the Buddha is a great spiritual teacher who travels around the country instructing his followers how to find salvation. Spiritual seekers go on pilgrimages to see him, and rumors of his sanctity and wisdom spread throughout the land. He is sometimes referred to as the Illustrious One. As Samanas, Siddhartha and Govinda go to see the Buddha, and listen to him preach about the path that leads to a release from suffering. The Buddha has a stillness and peacefulness about him, and Govinda immediately becomes his disciple. Siddhartha is more skeptical, however, and decides to seek his own path of salvation.
Govinda is Siddhartha’s devoted boyhood friend. Govinda is a follower, not a leader. He follows Siddhartha when his friend joins the Samanas, but the two part company when Govinda becomes a disciple of the Buddha. Govinda is an ideal disciple, since he enjoys having a teacher and a doctrine to assist him in his spiritual quest. In this respect he is the opposite of Siddhartha. Govinda meets Siddhartha twice more, many years later. The first occasion is near the river, just after Siddhartha has abandoned his worldly life. The last time the two men meet is when they are both old. Govinda is still a follower of the Buddha, but he has not attained enlightenment. His moment of illumination comes when Siddhartha kisses him on the forehead, and he experiences the unchanging unity at the heart of all changing phenomena.
Kamala is a beautiful courtesan who teaches Siddhartha the art of love. She arranges for Siddhartha to gain employment with Kamaswami, and as Siddhartha begins to earn money, he brings her the many expensive gifts she expects. Kamala eventually grows tired of her way of life and becomes a follower of the Buddha. She dies of a snake bite while on a pilgrimage to see the great teacher. Siddhartha cares for her in her last moments, and as she gazes on his face, she attains peace.
Kamaswami is a rich merchant who takes Siddhartha into his service. He quickly learns to trust Siddhartha, and he gives him much responsibility in his business.
Siddhartha is the son of a learned Brahmin. As a youth, he excels in every way. He is handsome and intelligent, and a great future is predicted for him. Siddhartha also has a highly developed spiritual longing. But he soon becomes disillusioned with the teachings of the Brahmins, which seem to him to lack the ability to give direct experience of the divine. Anxious to try a new approach, he becomes a Samana, a wandering ascetic. He also has a meeting with Gotama the Buddha. But once more he becomes impatient with teachers and established ways of seeking spiritual fulfilment. He ceases to be an ascetic and gets involved in worldly life. He has a long relationship with Kamala, a beautiful courtesan, and he becomes rich through his employment in the business of the merchant, Kamaswami. But after many years Siddhartha tires of his lifestyle, and abandons it all to once more seek spiritual enlightenment. He becomes an apprentice to Vasudeva the ferryman, whose quiet wisdom helps him to understand and experience the unity of all life amidst its great diversity. After staying for many years with Vasudeva, Siddhartha attains enlightenment.
Siddhartha’s father is a learned Brahmin, a quiet and noble man. He disapproves of his son’s desire to become a Samana, but accedes to Siddhartha’s wishes when he sees he can do nothing to alter them.
Siddhartha’s son is the child Siddhartha fathers with Kamala. When Kamala dies of a snake bite, the eleven-year-old boy lives with Siddhartha and Vasudeva in their humble hut by the river. But having been used to a life of luxury, the boy is unhappy living with his father. He is restless and becomes rude and unmanageable, despite Siddhartha’s best efforts to win him over. Eventually the boy runs away. Siddhartha goes looking for him but does not find him.
Vasudeva is the ferryman who conveys the young Siddhartha across the river for his first visit to the town where Kamala lives. Siddhartha likes him because he is friendly. Many years later, when Siddhartha abandons his worldly life, he meets Vasudeva again and becomes his apprentice. Vasudeva is a man of few words but great wisdom. It is he who encourages Siddhartha to listen to the river, that is, to develop his understanding of timelessness and unity. It is Vasudeva who gives Siddhartha sound advice about letting his restless son go his own way. Siddhartha appreciates Vasudeva’s wisdom and after many years reveres him almost as a god. Vasudeva patiently waits for the moment of Siddhartha’s enlightenment, after which he leaves his hut and goes to live in the woods.