Pursuit of excellence: Build on strength
by N S Rajaram on 15 Aug 2018 1 Comment

Vivekananda on education: build on strength


Indian thinkers have not been blind to the idea of building strength through proper education. Swami Vivekananda had profound insight into the needs of national education. Probably the greatest insight that he brought to the problem was the recognition that education must focus on strength, which alone builds self-confidence. This is the exact opposite of Macaulay’s vision, which was to make Indians weak and dependent on the West by making them feel inferior. Vivekananda would have none of it. For him the purpose of education was to create strong and independent men and women who in turn would create a strong society and a strong nation. He wanted everyone to be physically, mentally, and above all spiritually strong. His follower Sister Christine (Christina Greenstidel) put it this way:


“He refused to solve our problem for us. Principles he laid down, but we ourselves must find the application. He encouraged no spineless dependence upon him in any form, no bid for sympathy. ‘Stand upon your own feet. You have the power within you!’ he thundered. His whole purpose was not to make things easy for us, but to teach us how to develop our innate strength. ‘Strength! Strength!’ He cried, ‘I preach nothing but strength…’”


For this reason he called education ‘man-making’, though by ‘man’ he meant a spiritually strong human being rather than a mere male. (In Sanskrit, purusha is one who has paurusha - heroic quality). Again, in the words of Sister Christine:


“From men he demanded manliness and from women the corresponding quality for which there is no word. Whatever it is, it is the opposite of self-pity, the enemy of weakness and indulgence. This attitude had the effect of a tonic. Something long dormant was aroused and with it came strength of freedom… We were taught to think things through, to reject the false and hold to the true fearlessly. In this process much that had seemed worthwhile and of value was cast aside. Perhaps our purposes and our aims had been small and scattered. In time we learnt to lift them into a higher purer region, and to unite all these little aims into one great aim, the goal of which is the real purpose of life, for which we come to this earth again and again.”


This is what the goal of education should be - not to produce emotional and spiritual weaklings that throng the courts of anyone who has a few crumbs to throw from the table. It is worth recalling what the great historian Edward Gibbon said, speaking of the fall of the Greeks to the Romans: “Greeks valued security more than freedom. In the end they lost both - security and freedom.”


This is what is happening with the courtiers who are clinging desperately to their colonial umbilical cord - from Sonia Gandhi’s court to the few crumbs thrown at them by Western institutions. They have sold their freedom for the sake of security, but they will end up losing both. Worse, seen as the elite, they have brought national life down to their own level and thinking.


It is time that India, her educational system in particular, came out of this spiritual prison and made itself a proud and free nation. To achieve this goal, we have before us the teachings and the example of intellectual warriors like Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda. As Sister Nivedita wrote of the presence of Vivekananda before the great Chicago Parliament of Religions: “Monk, they called him, not unwarrantably, but warrior monk he was, and the first impression was the warrior rather than the monk, …and his figure was instinct with pride,…”


Our goal should be strength through excellence, not patronage through pity. But this debilitating culture that values birth, be it as caste or ‘dynasty’, over achievement is what dominates the national scene today. This has deprived the nation of true heroes as role models.


Krishna’s message: Yoga is excellence


Everyone knows or should know Krishna’s famous teaching to Arjuna in the Gita: “Your right is to your duty, never ever to its fruits. Let not the fruits of (your labour) distract you from the discharge of your duties, not let them allow you to desist from performing your duty.” What is not sufficiently recognised is that this is a formula for excellence at the highest level.


This means that a highly accomplished person (like Arjuna) should set his sights high and strive for more than success - pursuing excellence for its own sake. Working for profit, though not inherently wrong, is unworthy of a great man like Arjuna. This is made explicit in the succeeding shlokas. “Absorbed in yoga and abandoning self-interest, occupy yourself in performing your duty (to the best of your ability). Keeping an equable state of mind while holding success and failure the same - this state is called yoga.”


This defines yoga as pursuit of excellence, with focus on the task rather than the result, undisturbed by the prospect of success and failure. It means not allowing the fear of failure to make one retreat from a challenging task. Krishna next points out that even the act itself is inferior to this perfectionist attitude that one brings to its performance. In Krishna’s words, “Those motivated by fruits alone are to be pitied.” In the next shloka (50) Krishna points out how this leads to excellence.


Krishna’s exact words (in Sanskrit) are: tasmad yogaya yujyasva yogah karmasu kausalam, meaning, “Act with this singleness of purpose, for this yoga leads to excellence.” The last phrase karmasu kausalam means excellence in performance. By this Krishna identifies yoga with pursuit of excellence.


At the time of the Mahabharata War, when Krishna acted as the advisor to the Pandavas, he had everything - wealth, power and fame; he had no desire for position. Yet he saw his responsibility as an example that others would seek to follow. This was his message to Arjuna when he said, “You see Arjuna, there is nothing in the three worlds that I need or want. Yet I never cease acting. If I stop acting, others will follow me and I will be the cause of degeneracy in the world. For, as leaders do, so will others follow.”


In short, Krishna was telling Arjuna that as a leader he had to show that he should aim to be a worthy role model to the world. And this was to be through ‘excellence in action’ (karmasu kaushalam) and not rhetoric. Deeds always speak louder than words.


Excellence can only be achieved


Since dynastic leadership is common in India and even justified by its beneficiaries, it is said: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness while others have greatness thrust on them”. But this does not hold for excellence. It can only be achieved. Also, many great men grew up in poverty but rose through the dint of talent and hard work. Two of the most inspiring heroes of that era were Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Dr B.R. Ambedkar. Both rose from humble origins to reach highest standards of achievement to become national icons.


Reservations act in reverse also, especially in India - with those of privileged birth or the right colour of skin claiming leadership as a birthright and being held up as role models regardless of achievement. This attitude, which should be repugnant to every educated person and an insult to one’s intelligence, is the situation that prevails in Indian politics today.


Rahul Gandhi is constantly held up as a ‘leader’ and a role model because of his ‘youth’. At 48, he is more middle aged than young, unless we regard him as a 48 year-old child prodigy about to blossom. (Swami Vivekananda was 39 when he died.) Rahul Gandhi’s achievement consists of being a member of the ‘dynasty’; privilege of birth. The message seems to be - your character and achievement mean nothing, only the right parentage matters.


Achievers as heroes


Let us compare this youthful dynastic warrior with an authentic Indian hero, Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar. Born into an impoverished depressed class family, he was an exceptionally gifted student who went on to “earn law degrees and multiple doctorates for his study and research in law, economics and political science from Columbia University and the London School of Economics.” All this before he was thirty! He didn’t just sit on his laurels. He went on to become an “Indian jurist, political leader, philosopher, anthropologist, historian, orator, economist, editor. He was also the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of Indian Constitution.”


How is that for a role model? But going by the Rahul Gandhi criterion, Ambedkar was unfit for high office. Here is another.


Every year America celebrates the birth anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King, a true American hero. King like Ambedkar dedicated his life to help the oppressed. How old was he when he fell to an assassin’s bullet? Thirty-nine, nearly ten years younger than the ‘youthful’ Rahul Gandhi today. Where can one find words more inspiring than his famous “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” uttered by the 34 year-old Martin Luther King?


And who was Dr King’s hero? Gandhi, the Mahatma, not the ‘youthful’ pseudo-icon whose followers stand this noble message on its head by propping up a mama’s boy as hero and role model to the youth because of his privileged birth.

(Visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V57lotnKGF8&feature=related to hear the inspiring words in Dr King’s own deep and resonant bass.)


Unless reversed by placing excellence and achievement in place, these false values (and heroes) will take India sliding into the cesspool of non-achievement. The way to reverse it is by honoring true heroes for their achievement and pursuit of excellence. Young people are inspired by achievers, be it Sachin Tendulkar, Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar or Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Dynasty or privilege is never a substitute for excellence. It becomes an obscenity when held up as a qualification to be admired.

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