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Siddhartha, the son of a Brahmin, is the most popular child in the town, as he is the smartest and most spiritual of all of the students. However, one day a group of shramana enter the town, and Siddhartha joins them, followed by his best friend, Govinda. The two travel with the shramana for a long time until they hear of a man named Gautama, who is being called the Enlightened One. Siddhartha makes the decision that they should see him and they leave for Jetavana, the garden of the Buddha.

When they see the man, Siddhartha realizes that he is completely perfect and wants to be just like him. Govinda asks to be Gautama's disciple, without consulting Siddhartha first. Gautama accepts him, but when Govinda finds that Siddhartha is not going to also become Gautama's disciple, he is immediately regretful. Siddhartha talks to the Exalted One, telling him that there is no way to become enlightened by being taught, it must be experienced.

Siddhartha travels again, eventually meeting a famous courtesan named Kamala. He is intensely attracted to her and he asks to be taught in the ways of love by her. She agrees as long as he is able to show his resourcefulness.

Kamala arranges for Siddhartha to begin being taught by the city's richest merchant, named Kamiswami. Siddhartha very quickly learns the trade and becomes successful, even though he never takes it seriously. Siddhartha considers himself to be above most of the people who he trades with, but finds himself to be pulled into the trade. Eventually, Siddhartha realizes that he has forgotten his true goal and leaves without telling anyone. Kamala is pregnant with his child, but he does not know this.

Siddhartha becomes depressed and is about to kill himself by drowning in a swift river, when he meets Govinda again. Govinda does not recognize him at first, but when he does, they have a conversation about what Siddhartha has been doing in the past years.

When Govinda leaves, Siddhartha meets a ferryman, Vasudeva, and becomes his apprentice. Vasudeva teaches him very many things about life, using the river as his example.