With the Samanas
Siddhartha and Govinda join the Samanas and learn their ascetic practices. Siddhartha fasts until he grows thin, and he develops a contempt for the things of the world. His aim is to conquer desire and experience the innermost core of being. He tries to overcome pain, hunger, thirst and fatigue by experiencing all of them to extreme degrees. He also practices stilling the breath through meditation. But he is dissatisfied with what he learns. He has not found out how to permanently lose his small, individual self. In a discussion with Govinda, he points out that the oldest Samana is about sixty, and he has still not attained the liberated condition known as Nirvana. Siddhartha doubts whether any of the Samanas will attain Nirvana. Govinda is shocked, and is even more distressed when Siddhartha says that he will soon be leaving the Samanas.
After being with the Samanas for three years, Siddhartha and Govinda hear rumors about a man named Gotama, the Buddha. It was said that he had attained Nirvana and no longer experienced the sorrows of the world. Govinda is keen for them both to go and see the Buddha. Siddhartha, however, has learned to mistrust spiritual teachers, but Govinda persuades him to visit the Buddha. The leader of the Samanas is angry that the two young men want to leave him, but Siddhartha imposes his will on the old man, who then gives them his blessings.
Ascetic practices can be found at some point in the history of almost every religion. They rest on the belief that there is a dichotomy between the body and the soul, the flesh and the spirit. If the body can be denied the fulfillment of its desires, then it will be conquered, and the individual will have attained a spiritual state. In such a condition, the passions and desires of the small, individual self will not interfere with the serenity of the innermost being, which is stillness, not passion. But Siddhartha finds that the techniques of asceticism do not work. The Samanas do not gain enlightenment, however hard they try. Once Siddhartha has decided to leave them, he never again practices such mortification of the body.
The word Nirvana Siddhartha uses in this chapter to describe the condition of liberation is slightly anachronistic, since the term is usually associated with Buddhism, which Siddhartha has not yet encountered. Nirvana is a term that is difficult to translate or define accurately. It refers to the realization of the ultimate reality, but it should not be confused with the Christian concept of heaven.
Siddhartha: Novel Summary: Part 1 - With the Samanas