A well-known Sanskrit verse lists four ways in which human beings and animals are alike: they need food, they need sleep, they have fear, and they desire to reproduce. Is there something that distinguishes a human being from animals? Yes, says the verse and underlines dharma as the unique human trait. Dharma has different shades of meaning, the most important being morality, or righteousness. Only human beings can observe their thoughts and actions and make sure that they are morally acceptable. Dharma means the power of discrimination — between the real and the unreal, good and bad, moral and immoral, and what leads to fulfillment and what leads to frustration.
The average human life is lived prompted by circumstances, or by the behavior of others. Most people react to events rather than act in accordance with an ideal they have set for themselves. They are good to others because others are good to them and bad because others are bad. That certainly is not a life of freedom, but a captive life without a direction or purpose.
That brings us to the need for an ideal. When we have an ideal in life and try to live up to it, we have something with which to evaluate our thoughts and actions. When we go wrong, we know it and try not to repeat our mistake. In the absence of an ideal, however, we have no reference point to guide us. We are not aware of our mistakes and keep repeating them. Such a life can only be a series of errors. That is why Swami Vivekananda says, "If a man with an ideal makes a thousand mistakes, I am sure that the man without an ideal makes fifty thousand. Therefore, it is better to have an ideal."
When we decide to live according to an ideal, our higher mind, or buddhi, helps us exercise discrimination, discipline the wayward mind, and march forward towards the ideal. Buddhi is the seat of willpower and decision-making. A person with an awakened buddhi has strong willpower, is more decisive and is endowed with discrimination. Our life becomes truly human to the extent this higher mind is awake in us. And that involves struggle with the lower mind, which habitually takes us for a ride. The lower mind does not like discipline and resists it. It is this struggle with the lower mind that makes human life meaningful. "Man is man so long as he struggles against nature," says Swami Vivekananda.
The highest ideal, according to Vedanta, is God-realization. The Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita point out that God is not someone who dwells above the clouds, but dwells right in our heart, as the core of our being. Says Sri Ramakrishna, "If you seek God, then seek Him in man; He manifests Himself more in man than in any other being." Glorifying human birth, Swami Vivekananda says, "Man is the highest, the Taj Mahal, of all temples."
But most of us are not aware of this divinity in us, nor do we feel God as the very core of our being. God-realization, or Self-realization, is the goal of human life, says Vedanta. In Sri Ramakrishna's words, "Man should possess dignity and alertness. Only he whose spiritual consciousness is awakened possesses this dignity and alertness, and can be called a man. Futile is the human birth without the awakening of spiritual consciousness."