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Swami Vivekananda and Human Excellence

A Book Summary
Presented by Devatanu Banerjee


Swami Ranganathananandji, the Vice President of the Ramakrishna Mission, delivers

a memorable lecture on ‘Swami Vivekananda and Human Excellence’ at the Harvard
University in 1985. This paperback published by the Advaita Ashram compiles his
speech into ten chapters that, in the most lucid way, capture the essence of what
Swami Vivekanada’s synthesized view of Human Excellence. In this paper, our group
hopes to summarize each chapter in an effort to learn from the lecture and
Vivekananda’s message as a whole.

Chapter 1: Introduction

In a quick acknowledge, Swami Ranganathananandji thanks the organizers of the

lecture and his excitement at the prospect of dealing with the subject of ‘human
excellence’ especially with reference to Swami Vivekananda’s teachings.

Chapter 2: Vivekananda – The Harmony of All Human Energy

The chapter talks of the influence of the four yogas as well as the ancient
Greeko Roman essence of philosophy on Swami Vivekananda’s and goes on to
trace a brief biography of Swamiji.

Under the tutelage of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda not only conveyed
something unique, but went on to propound the synthesis of Indian and Western
excellence, calling it ‘Human Excellence’. Swami Vivekananda is projected is
equated to the Buddha and Sankaracharya in that at the very young age he was able
to make a lasting impact on the minds of both the East and the West.

The chapter also introduces the importance of education on not only knowledge
but also character development. Vivekananda is also referred to as the harmony
of all human energy because he identified that neither western nor eastern
culture were perfect and that both had a lot to offer. Therefore he chose to
assimilate both their ‘excellences’.

Chapter 3: The Upanishads on Efficiency

1 2 3
Vidya Shradha Upanishad
Knowledge Faith / Conviction Deep thinking

Supreme Excellence

Figure 1: Constituents of Supreme Excellence

By combining knowledge (Vidya) with the other two virtues, one can build character.

Quoting from the lecture, “The educated citizen is the source from which a modern
democratic society receives nourishment”. He believed that knowledge seeking in
educational institutions and social interactions, leads to character building,
which he terms – Manliness.

Vivekanada seems to be especially impressed by the west’s tremendous inner

faith and daring to overcome all odds – called the Promethean Spirit. This he
compares to the story of Bhagiratha who brings down the Ganges from heaven.

Based on Aristotle saying – “Man is a social animal”, he goes on to suggest western

philosophy’s political view of man, which has both positive and negative sides.

Positive societal goals Permitted negative behavior

Political Aggressive
Achievements Political view of man wars
Educated citizen (who has)
Economic Promethean spirit (but is) Colonial
Achievements Ethically limited mentality
Sense bound (and is)
Social Communal Social
Achievements exploitation

Figure 2: Political view of man

Chapter 4: Greek Specialization in Human Excellence: Its

In this chapter, we find the Greek emphasis on external political dimension of


In spite of this, the crucial drawback of Greek philosophy is that it does not
address the finality of death. This is where the Indian thought process has been
able to develop an inward spiritual dimension of man that addresses the concept
of death.

He concludes the chapter by sympathizing with Socrates, whose attempt to bring

the higher level into the thought process of the Greeks led to him being declared a
corruptor of youth and eventually his death. He also goes on to suggest that the
individual and society was left unsatisfied by this stagnation of human
creative energy at the sensate level. He tries to further bolster this point by
attributing a similar treatment of Jesus by the Jews.

Chapter 5: Indian Specialization in Human Excellence: It’s


Vivekananda suggests that lured by divine dimension, India steadily neglected

the political and sensorial dimension of man.

Thus, he urges Indians to wake up from the sleep of centuries and to act with
courage and achieve total human development. He encourages us to be filled with
an intense spirit of activity (Rajas), and adopting the Bhagiratha spirit (India’s
equivalent of the Promethean spirit).

Chapter 6: Vivekananda’s Education in Total Human Excellence

under Sri Ramakrishna

The author talks about the relationship between Narendra (Vivekananda) and Sri
Ramakrishna, and how Vivekanada is urged to seek the higher in not just
samadhi but in every day life.

It is also mentioned that people’s convictions lead to their character fruits,

which range in quality from sweetness to bitterness. However, in stead of viewing

this as a duality, Sri Ramakrishna coins a new term – Vijnana for the
comprehensive philosophical and view of Advaita (the philosophy of duality existing
as one).

The author goes on to reveal how Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda created a
philosophic symphony and evolved a message that would have a great impact on the
east as well as the west.

The meeting of these two seemingly opposite individuals and creation of such
a unity is also used as a symbolic justification of the unity that they

Chapter 7: Vivekananda’s Message of Man’s Spiritual Dept


While western thought sought control over the environment, Indian though placed
emphasis on the organism. So while the west set out to conquer the
environment, India set out to strengthen the inner to endure the environment.
Vivekanada talks about the virtues of both and how they are both needed for
completed human development.

Intrinsic Value of Man
Complete excellence model
Higher value of
1 spiritual freedom
Lower positional and equality
value for society (Indian concept)

(Western concept)

Figure 3: Complete excellence model based on intrinsic value

Vivekananda also mentions that the goal of life is to manifest the divine within by
controlling nature (using science, technology, politics) and internally (ethics / arts /
spiritualism/ inward thought).

He goes on to suggest that true freedom emanating from the manifestation of
the divine can be done using one, many or all of the following –

1. Work
2. Worship
3. Physic control

Chapter 8: Vivekananda Educates India to Achieve Total Human


When he says “Today the ancient Greek is meeting the ancient Hindu on the soil of
India”, Vivekanada places the utmost importance on both positivistic thought and
spiritual development shaping character. He believes that India has strayed away
by years of neglecting the external development and hence sinking into
poverty, injustice, sham religiosity, illiteracy and other ills.

Quoting Vivekananda – “Education is the manifestation of the perfection that is

already in man… The end of all education and all training should be man-
making”. Thus he emphasizes that it is strong external development and deep
internal growth simultaneously that will allow Indians to “accomplish their purpose in
any fashion”.

Chapter 9: Vivekananda on India’s Scientific Approach to

Religion and Its Sweet Fruits

Here Vivekanada stresses that there are two aspects of human excellence –

1. Harmony and peace - Being able to tolerate other regions and views
2. Strength and fearlessness – One who is feared (respected by others)

While we have come to except that these two aspects are exclusive, Vivekananda
believes that we should strive to combine strength and gentleness to achieve
human excellence.

Vivekananda also urges the world to follow India’s example and separate religious
dogma and intolerance from faith and tolerance. He uses the example of India being
alone (with the exception of the British and Mughal rule) in not having an
aggressive / expansionist past. It is also stated this India is the only country where

all religions are tolerated. (This can be debated however does not form part of the
scope of this paper).

Swami Ranganathananandji also quotes many examples from Jewish and Greco
Roman history to drive home the point that there are many forms in which God is
worshiped; however there is only one God.

Chapter 10: Conclusion

Vivekananda believed that human excellence was the harmony of all human energy.
He personified this himself. Focusing on “learning to do” (Greek / Western ideal of
character excellence) as well “learning to be” (Indian ideal of excellence) is what
his synthesis is about.

Vivekanada stresses that modern society educate itself productive efficiencies of

externals life as well as spiritual efficiencies of the inner being.

Awakening both powers was Vivekananda’s message of the means of

achieving total human excellence.

Thank you.