Vivekananda’s Teachings on Character-Building

Vivekananda propounded ‘man-making education’ which involves the harmonious development of the body, mind and soul.

Vivekananda’s Teachings on Character-Building

Human existence is going through a crisis. The tremendous emphasis on material gain and power, and the overt dependence on science and technology, are fast resulting in the devaluation of humanity. Moral and spiritual values are being undermined. The fundamental principles of civilisation are being ignored. Conflicts of ideas, manners and habits pervade the atmosphere. In this situation, the way out, as Vivekananda emphasised is ‘education’. We need to first rework our system of education to make it more holistic and value-based. There has to be an education through which ethics, ideals and values can be developed among students so that they can conduct their life consciously and conscientiously. With the right education, they should be able to decide what is right or wrong, what is good or evil and what is justice or injustice.

Vivekananda was of the opinion that it was not sufficient to be able to distinguish between what is right and wrong, but that we also needed to develop the courage to execute ‘the right’. He stressed a ‘spiritual’ education, by which he meant education that can build good character.  More than this, we need ‘life-building, man-making …[and] nation-building’ education.  For this Vivekananda prepared an outline of an educational system in accordance with fundamental principles that he thought were critical to achieving this end. Without a proper education, he did not believe it would be possible to develop the nation. Education was needed to strengthen the mind, sharpened the intellect and provide the strength to stand on one’s own feet. With these strengths, he believed education could provide solutions to all social, political and global problems.

My purpose in this chapter is to explain Vivekananda’s basic philosophy of ‘man-making education’ and the central role of character-building in that process.

Vivekananda’s educational philosophy

Vivekananda was probably among the first Indian thinkers to give a psychological and spiritual orientation to education and nation-building. His ideas about education were based on Vedantic doctrine. According to Vivekananda education, like Yoga in its deeper sense, is a rapid psychological process towards perfection. ‘Manifesting the perfection already within man’ was the keynote in Vivekananda’s approach to education (CW, 1989, Vol. 4, p.358; Vol.3, p.224). This is rooted in the Vedantic idea of growing conscious of the ever-perfect nature of the Self and discovering the Self.  The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (2.4.5)[*] says:

atma vaa are drashtavyah, mantavyah, shrotavyah, nididhyasitavyah.

This means that the Self alone has to be seen, thought, heard and contemplated on. Education therefore must aim at true self-knowledge which can liberate humanity from all kinds of bondage:

sa vidya ya vimuktaye. 

True knowledge alone can liberate (Vishnu Purana, 1.19.41)[†].

According to Vivekananda, the lasting foundation for nation-building was not economics or politics but education. In Vivekananda’s words:

It is a man-making religion that we want. It is man-making theories that we want. It is man-making education all round that we want. And here is the test of truth — anything that makes you weak physically, intellectually, and spiritually, reject as poison; there is no life in it, it cannot be true. Truth is strengthening. Truth is purity, truth is all-knowledge; truth must be strengthening, must be enlightening, must be invigorating.” (CW, 1989, Vol.3, pp.224-225)

In other words, ‘man-making education’ involves the harmonious development of the body, mind and soul. For this to be achieved, education had to involve the integration of the different aspects of our personalities. However, the modern system of education in India and elsewhere, has largely ignored the development of personality. As a result, most of us emerge from the formal educational process with semi-formed personalities. The work we engage in often bears no correspondence with our real genius.  Thus we live in deep suffering, separated from ourselves. What we need is an educational process that helps us develop rounded personalities with strong mental and spiritual powers.  Education should instil us not only with intelligence but also self-confidence and self-reliance.  Vivekananda’s teachings on this reflect contemporary understandings of how a successful educational process should be evaluated.  In this sense, he was many decades ahead of his time. For Vivekananda, the principles of education matched and reinforced the principles of yoga. He said:

Yoga may be regarded as a means of compressing one’s evolution into a single life or a few months or even a few hours of bodily existence’ (Vivekananda cited by Aurobindo, 1999, Vol.23, pp. 23:6).

Such a compression made perfection accessible to all human beings for it did not require any special isolation from everyday life. The perfection of which Vivekananda spoke was veiled by the imperfections and impurities of the three faculties that constituted an individual: the body, mind and intellect. These needed to be honed for their full potential to be realised. That honing process was the true purpose of education, according to Vivekananda. For him the educational system needed to realise the Vedic dictum ‘manurbhavajanayadivyamjanam’ – Be a man and create a Divine population (CW, 1989, Vol.3, p.302; Kashyap and Sadagopan (Eds.), 1998, 10.53.6).

The contrast between Vivekananda’s vision and the modern educational system is stark: it is as if we are busy cutting trees with blunt instruments, chiselling away hoping to create perfect ‘trophies’. But the end product of our labours is that humans work and behave more like machines. The existing, conventional educational system is counterproductive to the wellbeing of individuals, the nation and humankind in general.

What is character?

The word ‘character’ first appeared in Western and European literature and self-improvement manuals around the 17th century CE. It became more popular and peaked around the 19th century CE. Susman writes that during the 1800s, ‘character was a key word in the vocabulary of Englishmen and Americans’, and men were spoken of as having strong or weak character, good or bad character, a great deal of character or no character at all (Susman, 1984 p. 273).Young people were told to cultivate real character, high character and noble character.  Character was the most priceless thing they would ever have. In the beginning of the 20th century, however, Susman found that the ideal of character began to be replaced by that of personality and the connotations of the word ‘character’ kept changing. In the course of time, character was defined not in terms of the cultivation of virtues, but in terms of people’s hobbies, dress, and material possessions, etc. This shift from ‘character’ to ‘personality’ was a shift from achievement to performance. A person who performed well was considered to be a man with a good personality irrespective of whether he held any high values or had any virtues. Further, it thus happened that while the notion of character was split into good and bad, personality was divided into the two dominant categories of, namely famous and infamous. The majority of people, however, did not rate a mention at all – presumably, they were without ‘personality’. In this culture of personality, you could become famous without having done anything to earn it. The words most associated with character in the 19th century were ‘citizenship, duty, democracy, work, building, golden deeds, outdoor life, conquest, honour, reputation, morals, manners, integrity, and above all, manhood’. By contrast, the words most associated with personality in the 20thcentury were ‘fascinating, stunning, attractive, magnetic, glowing, masterful, creative, dominant, and forceful’ (Susman, 1984, p.277).

These western notions of character and personality are far removed from conceptions expressed by Indian visionaries. Vivekananda, for example, saw human character as an aggregate of an individual’s tendencies. In this he echoed the Vedantic tradition: we are what our thoughts have made us. While speaking on Karma Yoga[‡] and especially about the Samskaras or ‘inherent tendencies’ within an individual, Swamiji explained what he meant by character:

Every work that we do, every movement of the body, every thought that we think, leaves such an impression on the mind-stuff, and even when such impressions are not obvious on the surface, they are sufficiently strong to work beneath the surface, subconsciously. What we are every moment is determined by the sum total of these impressions on the mind. What I am just at this moment is the effect of the sum total of all the impressions of my past life. This is really what is meant by character; each man’s character is determined by the sum total of these impressions. If good impressions prevail, the character becomes good; if bad, it becomes bad. (CW, 1989, Vol. 9, p.193)

If the sum total of these impressions is negative, then a person has a negative character; if the impressions are positive, then a positive character emerges. The aim of education is to build individuals into positive characters who exemplify uplifting qualities such as courage, compassion, kindness and other good values. Birth and upbringing play a role in character formation. In Vivekananda’s words: ‘One child is born of a divine nature, another of a human, others of lower character’ (CW, 1989, Vol. 9, p. 327).

Despite these influences, every human being has an opportunity to change themselves. One has a choice to transform oneself for better or for worse. The first step towards change is the personal conviction that change is necessary. After that, the person must have the will to change and be strong in their conviction till the change takes place. The foundation of character-building is this willpower, which needs to be trained so that one becomes the master of oneself instead of becoming a slave to senses, the mind or thoughts. This is inner training wherein the buddhi or the intelligence has to be strengthened and re-educated. Character-building is at the very core of this self-development.  According to Vivekananda the pre-requisites for the growth of character is freedom from attachment:

He who has succeeded in attaching or detaching his mind to or from the centres at will has succeeded in Pratyahara, which means, ‘gathering towards,’ checking the outgoing powers of the mind, freeing it from the thraldom of the senses. When we can do this, we shall really possess character; then alone we shall have taken a long step towards freedom; before that, we are mere machines (CW, 1989, Vol.1, pp.173-174).

The freedom of which Vivekananda speaks demands the inculcation of discipline. Yet at first sight, discipline and freedom appear to be opposing forces. Such contradictions are reconciled by self-discipline which also has to be nurtured. This nurturing is the process of building character. In nurturing nothing must be done as a result of compulsion: rather one takes into account an individual’s svabhava (innate nature) and svadharma (own law of being).

The role of karma in building character?

According to Vivekananda, character is shaped by karma which he described as follows:

Karma in its effect on character is the most tremendous power that man has to deal with. Man, as it were, is a centre, and is attracting all the powers of the universe, towards himself… Good and bad, misery and happiness, all are running towards him and clinging round him, and out of them he fashions the mighty stream of tendencies called character and throws it outwards (CW, 1989, Vol. 1, pp.29-30).

Vivekananda had a dualistic view of karma – the good vs the bad.  But, he was not fatalistic.  The kind of karma acquired by any individual was a matter of choice: to build a good character required one to imbibe the positive values that can build good character:

If a man continuously hears bad words, thinks bad thoughts, does bad actions, his mind will be full of bad impressions; and they will influence his thought and work without his being conscious of the fact. In fact, these bad impressions are always working, and their resultant must be evil, and that man will be a bad man; he cannot help it. The sum total of these impressions in him will create the strong motive power for doing bad actions. He will be like a machine in the hands of the impressions, and they will force him to do evil. Similarly, if a man thinks good thoughts and does good works, the sum total of these impressions will be good; and they, in a similar manner will force him to do good even in spite of himself. When a man has done so much good work and thought so many good thoughts there is an irresistible tendency in him to do good, in spite of himself and even if he wishes to do evil, his mind, as the sum total of his tendencies, will not allow him to do so; the tendencies will turn him back; he is completely under the influence of the good tendencies. When such is the case, a man’s good character is said to be established (CW, 1989, Vol.1, p.54).

The character-building process depended on the strengthening of an individual’s will (CW, 1989, Vol. 2, p.357)-  to be straightforward, fearless and honest, coupled with a sincerity to act and even to fight courageously.  In this way, one’s own life and the life of society could uphold all that is true, foster unity and uplift humanity.

Everyone’s willpower could grow through repeated practice (abhyaasa). Repetition ‘brings out’ the potential of the muscles and brain.  It involved a process of bringing the best to the front:  ‘manifesting the perfection already in man’ (CW, 1989, Vol. 4, p.358). Yet, willpower could become enfeebled when an individual yields to every inclination and fancy that occurs to him.  But such weakness could be fought and one’s faults could be countered by confronting the several enemies that exist within one’s own self.  Self-denial (vairaagya, or non-attachment) could be achieved through self-control and self-discipline so that over time, any determined individual could attain the power which enabled them to have ‘mastery over oneself’.

In building character it is necessary that one should learn to face the world, despite its many sorrows, troubles, pleasures and pains. It is very difficult to hide from these experiences. At the same time, a wise person is not meant to show all that they feels at every moment. The ordinary person, who is not mindful of these principles, is like a machine:  he reacts to every external influence and inner impulse.  As a result, he very often cannot follow the music of life.

According to Vivekananda, character formation required traits such as purity, a thirst for knowledge, hard work, perseverance, faith, humanity, submission and veneration. He sought to inspire youth to become heroes by developing these traits and setting aside fear.  Fear, said Vivekananda, was death, sin, hell, imprisonment and led to false choices. At the root of the world’s negativity was fear.  ‘Face the monster’ was the lesson that Vivekananda sought to convey. All the hardships of life could be defeated if we stood our ground courageously.  Such courage was a sign of a person’s mental and physical health. Vivekananda exhorted the youth by saying:

Be a hero. Always say, ‘I have no fear.’ Tell this to everyone—

Have no fear (CW, 1989, Vol. 7, p.136).

A strong, positive and fearless person was also one who had compassion and love for his fellow human beings. In Vivekananda’s words:

Religions of the world have become lifeless mockeries. What the world wants is character. The world is in need of those whose life is one burning love,selfless. That love will make every word tell like thunderbolt (CW, 1989, Vol. 7, p.501).

Such love was more important than fame or money and without it character building was not possible:  ‘it is character that cleaves its way through adamantine walls of difficulties’  (CW, 1989, Vol. 4, p.298). A man of character has to be a man of action, competent, skilled, someone who exerts untiring labour and of love for one and all. Character is built through a thousand stumbles. In his own words, a well-developed character took the form of an integrated and harmonious person:

…what we want is to see the man who is harmoniously developed…great in heart, great in mind, [great in deed]….We want the man whose heart feels intensely the miseries and sorrows of the world…..And [we want] the man who not only can feel but can find the meanings of things, who delves deeply into the heart of nature and understanding. [We want] the man who will not even stop there, [but] who wants to work out [the feeling and meaning by actual deeds]. Such a combination of head, heart, and hand is what we want. Ultimately what is needed is a perfect sincerity, holiness, gigantic intellect and an all-conquering will (CW, 1989, Vol. 6, p.49).

How education can promote character development

Independent self-learning within the context of a holistic educational system would lead to character development. A child should be encouraged to exercise his free will and develop at a pace suited to his needs.  These inner motivations needed to be accompanied by the educational institutions and teachers promoting the right values that would lead to the development of good character. The right values have already been discussed in the previous section of this chapter but they also included the power to observe beauty, forgiveness, and the persistent search for perfection (Joshi, 1997, pp. 41-61)

For Vivekananda, the teacher played a critical role as the guide and role model in inspiring students to place a high value on character development:

No one was ever really taught by another; each of us has to teach himself. The external teacher offers only the suggestion which rouses the internal teacher to work to understand things (CW, 1989, Vol.1, p.93).

The aim of education was to develop a balanced and well-rounded personality – ‘a combination of head, heart and hand’. Above all, education was a process of gaining self-knowledge by reflection and self-control.  This teaching by Vivekananda was the essence of his practical Vedanta:

You know but little of that which is within you. For behind you is the ocean of infinite power and blessedness. ‘This Atman is first to be heard of.’ Hear day and night that you are that Soul. Repeat it to yourselves day and night till it enters into your very veins, till it tingles in every drop of blood, till it is in your flesh and bone. (CW, 1989, Vol. 2, p.302)

It was this self-knowledge and self-confidence that released the enormous powers of the individual and enabled one to realise the integrated nature of the universe. Faith in yourself means ‘…faith in all because you are all. The love for yourself means love for all, love for animals, love for everything because you are all one’ (CW, 1989, Vol. 2, p.301).

Vivekananda’s worldview required mankind to focus on its inward motivations and development. Education played a critical role in this ‘man-making’ process. The inside spirit and personality of a man had to be polished not the outward appearances which were illusionary and deceptive:

The ideal of all education, all training, should be this man-making. But instead of that, we are always trying to polish up the outside. What use is polishing up the outside when there is no inside? The end and aim of all training are to make the man grow. The man who influences, who throws his magic, as it were, upon his fellow-beings, is a dynamo of power, and when that man is ready, he can do anything and everything he likes; that personality put upon anything will make it work (CW, 1989, Vol. 2, p.15).

For Vivekananda, it was through the rigours of character-building that the light of spirituality could shine.


Vivekananda’s teachings demonstrate a deep insight into the needs of modern man and the times in which we live. His focus on an educational system based on character building and encouraging all individuals to develop their inner spirit of goodwill and confidence speaks to the pressures of modern living. The educational system should not think of individuals are mere resources needed by economic systems.  The true function of any educational system is to take care of developing balanced, integrated personalities. Such character building was the true foundation of individual happiness and social order for it made it possible to achieve an equilibrium between the motivations of individuals and society.

Vivekananda’s vision of education was a noble one. The more selfless the individual the better their own welfare and that of the surrounding society. Through inspiring teachers and educational institutions that promoted positive values not only would man-building promote the inner growth of individuals but also the growth and strength of the nation and ultimately the well-being of all humanity.



CW (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda). 1989, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 9, Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama.

Aurobindo, Sri. 1999. Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol.23, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry.

Joshi, Kireet (Ed.). 1997. Education for character development, Delhi: Dharma Hinduja International Centre of Indic Research.

Kashyap, R. L. and Sadagopan. S (Eds.), Rigveda Samhita, (1998), Bangalore: Sri Aurobindo Kapali Sastry Institute of Vedic Culture.

Susman, Warren I. (1984), ‘ ‘Personality’ and the making of twentieth-century culture’, in Susman, Warren I. (ed.), Culture as history: The transformation of American society in the twentieth century, New York: Pantheon Books.

[*] The Brihadaranyaka Upanisad, one of the 10 principal Upanishads. The rest are: Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya and Chandogya.

[†]The Vishnu Purana is one of 18 medieaval Hindu texts known as the Mahapuranas.

[‡] For a discussion of Karma Yoga see Chapters 1 and 7 in this collection.

About Author: Sampadananda Mishra

Dr. Sampadananda Mishra is working as a Professor at the Rashtram School of Public Leadership, Rishihood University, Sonipat. Dr. Mishra, an eminent scholar of Sanskrit has spoken at various conferences, seminars, and literary & religious festivals, both nationally and internationally on Indian culture, Sanskrit, Yoga and Education. In addition Dr. Mishra, as a devotee of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, is familiar with their writings and feels comfortable in delivering lectures on Philosophy and practice of Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga. He has been to the USA several times for giving lectures, conducting workshops and participating in conferences and seminars. He was one of the keynote speakers in the Waves conference that took place in Trinidad and Tobago in the year 2010. In the year (2014) Dr. Mishra was invited to the Monash university, Melbourne for giving a talk on character development and service to humanity in a seminar on Swami Vivekananda. Dr. Mishra worked as the Associate Editor of the Collected Works of Vasishtha Kavyakantha Ganapati Muni published in twelve volumes. Dr. Mishra has founded and launched the first ever 24hours Sanskrit Radio called Divyavani Sanskrit Radio and is single handedly managing the entire content since its inception in 2013. In the year 2014 Dr. Mishra founded Samskrita Balasahitya Parishad with the aim of creating, evaluating and propagating children’s literature in Sanskrit. The Govt. of India has conferred the President’s award (Maharshi Badarayna Vyasa Samman 2011) on Dr. Mishra for his outstanding contribution to Sanskrit.In the year 2014 the Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India conferred the Senior Fellowship Award to Dr. Mishra for carrying out his research on the Vedic Art of Multiple Concentration. Dr. Mishra was conferred the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Bala Puraskar for 2018 for his book Shanaih Shanaih – A book of Rhyming songs in Sanskrit for children. Dr. Mishra has published several books on Sanskrit, Sri Aurobindo, Chandas etc.

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