The Eastern vision of our political future is not a dictatorship of the intellectual, a bourgeois oligarchy, or a proletariat autocracy, jealous of its class privileges and superimposed upon passive and inarticulate millions, but of a peasant democracy rising layer after layer from the old and essential local and functional groupings, growing from district to provincial dimensions and federated into a national assembly—a democracy which will revive the vitality of the village shrine and sacred tree under which it had a seat of old, and yet breathing a new and fresher spirit of active citizenship and sociality.
Radhakamal Mukerjee, Democracies of the East, pp. 363-4
Quoted in: Shriman Narayan, Relevance of Gandhian Economics, pp. 86-7
I am honoured to have been invited to be a special guest at the Fourth International Conference of the Chief Justices of the World. I like to thank Mr Jagdeeesh Gandhi, the founder- manager of the City Montessori School and the convener of the conference, for inviting a rural worker like myself to address this august assembly. At the outset of my remarks I like to tell you that my only qualification to be present here with you is my lifelong endeavour to try and help rural communities in Sri Lanka and elsewhere aspire to and build a non-violent, just and egalitarian society based on the teachings of the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders dedicated to the Well-Being of All. With this in mind I should make some remarks on the theme Peace and Justice for All.
For nearly half a century, with my colleagues, I have tried to transform rural societies into Dharmic (righteous) societies bringing into their consciousness in very simple language a philosophy that embraces all life, simple methodologies and technologies that work for all, and, appropriate structures pertaining to their social, economic and political development that enable the ordinary people to understand and participate in their own development and welfare to ensure Peace and Justice for All in their communities. With this experience in working in 15,000 villages, I gained some insights into why current legislative, judicial and executive systems do not bring about satisfactory and adequate protection and well being for all in an equal measure. I will try to share with you some of these thoughts along with the correctional methods of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement which, I believe, will be useful in your deliberations.
It is my belief that in almost all countries including mine, the judiciary is held in very high respect. In Sri Lanka, a recent attempt by legislators to infringe upon the independence of the judiciary was resisted by the judiciary as a whole, lawyers and the general public. Even under dictatorial regimes the independence of the judiciary and the trust and faith that is prevailing in the consciousness of the people on the judiciary cannot be underestimated. So, even dictators have been compelled to change their ways due to this reverence people in general have for the righteous laws and justice in a country. I believe what I am saying will have a more sympathetic comprehension by Honourable Chief Justices and the other legal luminaries who are present here than by professional politicians.
Life and Teachings of the Buddha
Prince Siddhartha, the son of King Suddhodana of Kapialvasthu in ancient Nepal came to India having renounced his kingdom as well as his household life in search of the ultimate truth of life. After six years of strict meditational practices as a recluse he attained the highest level of human enlightenment. He became a ‘Buddha’ which means One who has attained Supreme Enlightenment. For forty five years, starting from Buddhagaya where He attained Enlightenment, He walked all over India including Lucknow where we are meeting now, teaching the Dhamma, the Truth, He discovered, to all the people including kings, queens, nobles, religious people and the ordinary men and women. He blessed the people of Sri Lanka in three visits He made which we celebrate to this day with great devotion.
I was born and bred in Sri Lanka where for nearly 2,500 years the teachings of the Buddha, the Buddha Dhamma, was practiced both by the rulers and the ruled. There were exceptions where some deviated from the Path taught by the Buddha and created chaos in our country. But whenever the rulers and the ruled adhered to the Path shown by the Buddha the country was peaceful and prosperous. Sri Lanka during those times was called the Dharmadweepa and Dhanyagara, an Island of Righteousness and Economic Prosperity.
What I have been doing in Sri Lanka with my colleagues and tens and thousands of rural and urban people was to try and see where, to suit into our modern complicated materialistic society, we can introduce the concepts taught by the Buddha so that we can build a more just society. The Buddha admonished us to work for the Well being of All Sentient Life. He urged us to devote our lives to help human beings as well as other sentient beings to overcome their physical and mental suffering and fear.
The Buddha recognized certain universal laws in the context of which all man-made laws should be formulated. These universal or cosmic laws are applicable in the formulation laws both in the context of national as well as international situations. Unfortunately, due to ignorance these universal laws have been ignored when framing laws even in my own country which is popularly called a Buddhist country. I am not going to elaborate on this except to say that there are higher universal laws which have to be seriously considered to supplement the existing man-made laws during present times when we have become very materialistic.
I will briefly mention the five cosmic laws Buddha taught us. Firstly, Bija Niyama, biological laws pertaining to all life forms; secondly, Uthu Niyama, physical laws pertaining to the seasons; thirdly, Kamma Niyama, moral laws pertaining to cause and effect; fourthly, Citta Niyama, psychological laws pertaining to the functions of one’s mind; and fifthly, Dhamma Niyama, spiritual laws pertaining to Dhamma or all phenomena in general.
In the Karaniya Metta Sutra, the Discourse on Loving Kindness preached by the Buddha, He taught His followers, if they were to understand reality as it was and reach a supreme state of happiness, they should practice this meditation of extending loving kindness towards all sentient beings. In this Sutra the Buddha states ‘In the same manner a mother loves and protects her only child even at the risk of her own life’ humans should learn to love and protect all living beings. It is in this state of mind a human being can overcome his/her ego-centricity or self-conceit, which is at the root of all craving, ill-will and ignorance. All personal, family, communal, national and international conflicts arise from these three evils that dominate the human mind. In actual fact, the Karaniya Metta Sutra which was preached nearly 2600 years ago can be considered as the first Declaration on Sanctity of All Sentient Life.
Applications of Universal Laws Leading to Justice and Peace
The principles above should be grasped with great care by the custodians of law and justice. This means that legislators should be of a very high mental caliber to understand and apply these cosmic laws when they pass legislation and see to it that they do not contravene them. In the case of judges they have to base their decisions according to the existing laws. Of course progressive judges make use the little discretionary space they have to interpret old laws in new ways in the light of universal laws that operate above those man-made. To do this they need great courage, fearlessness and innovative minds. I strongly believe that judges, if they are to uphold the independence and dignity of the judiciary, need to inculcate in their personalities a Universalist worldview which they can follow when dispensing justice. The general public will always stand by the judiciary as they intuitively know and feel when the judiciary is righteous. In fact in ancient times they always spoke about the ‘Dharmadhikaranaya’ – Righteous Judiciary.
This conference is focusing on the Article 51 of the Constitution of India, which states that the State shall endeavour to: (a) promote international peace and security (b) maintain just and honourable relations between nations (c) foster respect for international law and (d) encourage settlement of international disputes by arbitration. To my understanding this Article is in complete conformity with the UN Charter which is the supreme document on which all other international laws are based.
The Buddha advocated us to avoid dependence upon ideologies (Dittinca Anupagamma), to cultivate discipline (Sila), and to be equipped with a universal vision (Dassanena Sampanno). Ideologies always divide people, bring about dissensions and conflicts. On the other hand a universal vision which is always founded on universally applicable values unite people and bring about understanding and unity among people and nations. The UN Charter is the foremost instrument of international law that is closest to this kind of Universal Vision. It has declared war illegal except under very exceptional situations of self-defence of a nation.
India’s Emperor Ashoka practiced the concept of working for the well being of all in a large measure during the 3rd century BC. The great historian H.G. Wells called him ‘the greatest of all kings.’ After Dharmashoka, Ashoka the Righteous, who transformed the normative principle of Ahimsa or non-violence into the practice of good governance, Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated to the world that non-violence is the greatest weapon that could be used to defend oneself against even the most powerful empires.
Violations of Universal Laws Leading to Disaster
The recent war in Iraq, declared and executed without UN Security Council sanction, is a clear example of a violation of international law by the only super power left in the world. In a very serious global situation like this, what leadership role can the judiciary play in awakening the consciousness of small nations about their rightful place as equals in the community of nations as guaranteed by the UN Charter?
World reputed jurist and scholar on international law Judge C.G. Weeramanthri stated in his book ‘Armageddon or Brave New World?: Reflections on the hostilities in Iraq,’
The basic principle of the illegality of war, never known before, was thus established for the first time, after 3000 years of struggles, tribulations and sacrifice. This is an achievement which, if denigrated or destroyed, can scarcely be repeated except at the cost of another world war. That is the principle that is now in danger as a result of the actions of the United States and the United Kingdom in going to war on their own responsibility and in defiance of the UN Charter.
Governments have become so powerful it is not easy to change the arrogant thinking and attitudes of the people who have grasped the levers of power. Their self-conceit is an emotional attitude greatly inflated by the centralized power they wield. Nowadays, some of them are willing and eager to destroy international laws that took 3000 years to evolve, as Judge Weeramanthri has pointed out in his book. No one can predict when such arbitrary acts by powerful governments in violation of the UN Charter might be repeated. Therefore, while trying to bring pressure on governments, not to repeat such actions, we, as civilians, as a global community of people, should do everything possible within our power to transform the consciousness of humanity as a whole from violence to non-violence, from war to peace.
At the national level, there are cases in democracies where the judiciary may nearly cease to function. In a parliamentary system, if a political party is able, by hook or crook, to dominate legislative elections for decades, that party also dominates the executive and judiciary branches. This greatly limits the independence of the judiciary, even to the point where it might cease to function according to its sacred mandate.
Gandhi’s Vision of Sarvodaya Society
Mahatma Gandhi coined the word Sarvodaya, meaning the Welfare of All. He believed this should be the guiding philosophy of post-independence India. It was a vision of decentralized society based upon a Commonwealth of Village Republics. The core principles were simplicity, sanctity of labour and non-violence. His familiar saying, ‘Plain living and high thinking’ has evolved worldwide in the expression of green democracy, ‘Think global, act local’.
Sarvodaya Society: Current Achievements
We adopted the word Sarvodaya from Mahatma Gandhi, who coined it to mean the Welfare of All. In addition we learned from the thoughts and practices of his successors, especially Acharya Vinoba Bhave and Shri Jayaprakash Narayan. With this inspiration, we built the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka, a people’s movement dedicated to Awaken All Through Sharing. Today, in my country, in India and some other countries, this concept of working for all, transcending the considerations based on caste, race, colour, religion, political or other divisive factors, is accepted and programmes are devised in the context of local conditions.
The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement is working towards economic and political institutions where power is totally decentralized to rural and human-scale urban communities—what Mahatma Gandhi called a Sarvodaya Social Order. This concept guides our Movement. At this time, we are concentrating on communities where the Sarvodaya Movement is active to some degree—15,000 communities in all.
In the villages joining the Sarvodaya Movement, the people are inspired, encouraged and educated to have unwavering faith in Simplicity, Truth and Non-violence. The teachings of the Buddha and other saints who founded great religions are taught to them to create a spiritual atmosphere in which they can work like one large family. They themselves do an appraisal of their basic human needs with the guidance of village workers trained by Sarvodaya. Then they try to satisfy their needs through self-reliance, community participation and sharing. They share their labour, skills, lands, and other material and non-material resources to satisfy these needs. In this way a people’s participatory village programme is initiated with the goal of achieving human and group development through individual, family and village awakening.
Based upon extensive field experience and experiments since 1958, the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement has established a Five-Stage Model of Village Community Development. These stages, one leading to the other, are:
(1) Psychological infrastructure building,
(2) Social infrastructure building,
(3) Formation of a legally incorporate society in the village,
(4) Access to economic development services, and
(5) Assisting other villages with their upliftment.
It may be appropriate here to give a brief description of each of these stages.
Stage 1: In the beginning, the community is loose knit, without any organization or sense of direction. Villagers from the village itself and Sarvodaya volunteers from neighbouring villages participate in Shramadana Camps to provide the village with essential services such as roads, wells, irrigation canals, ect., with an emphasis on the mutual benefit of the community. The experience of Shramadana is often expressed by the saying, ‘we build the road, the road builds us’.
The initial self-help work, inspired and supported by the organizational structure of Sarvodaya, brings the community together and demonstrates its power in collective and constructive activities. This establishes the psychological infrastructure for the subsequent stages. Also, at this point, individuals with leadership talent can be recognized.
Stage 2: Peer groups are formed, including mothers, children, youth, farmers and elders. Mothers’ and children’s groups tend to be the most active. Foremost members of peer groups are given leadership training on child-care, health, nutrition and sanitation so that they can effectively participate in basic needs satisfaction programmes. A village child-care centre/community kitchen generally arises during this stage. Nearly 7000 preschools take care of the needs of about 160,000 children daily. Similarly in every village, children of school-going age are formed into groups where they meet after school hours and are engaged in learning about non-violence, peace and justice through non-formal educational programmes where song and dance, art and drama, and community meditation are widely used. So are the Youth and Women’s groups.
Stage 3: Through self-reliance and community participation, basic needs in the village are satisfied and a village level Sarvodaya Shramadana Society is formed, registered under government regulation. This entity gives organized leadership to all village-level activities that lead to the improvement of living standards. The Society, as a legal entity, can hold property, open bank accounts and enter into written contracts of other kinds.
Stage 4: Sarvodaya Economic Enterprise Development Services (SEEDS) is introduced to the village, progressively developing the capacity of villagers to save, invest, borrow, improve existing enterprises, start new ones, repay loans and evolve their own village development bank. Technical services are also available for infra-structural development work such as village roads, water services schemes, sanitary facilities, housing, irrigation and so on.
Stage 5: The village is both able to meet the costs of its own services and extend help to weaker neighbouring villages. In addition, it is able to co-operate with other villages in mutually beneficial tasks.
Currently, more than 5,000 villages have access to the services of SEEDS and about 900 villages now have their own Sarvodaya Development Bank—an awesome achievement when you consider the steep mountain the villagers had to climb to get to that point. Annually, the Social Division of Sarvodaya prepares about 100 villages to qualify for the much-valued services of SEEDS.
SEEDS itself is based upon the principle of Economic Science with Ethical Foundation. Its mission statement reads: ‘To eradicate poverty by promoting economic empowerment for a sustainable livelihood’. This permeates all three of its divisions: Banking, Enterprise Services and Training Services.
Sarvodaya Society: The Next Phase
Sarvodaya received a big boost when, in 1972, an Act of Parliament authorized the establishment of Sarvodaya Shramadana Societies as legal entities. With more than a generation of experience behind us under the terms of that law, we believe the time has come to move closer to the Gandhian ideal of a Commonwealth of Village Republics. In the next phase of the evolution of Sarvodaya, we intend to establish Grama-Swaraj, Village Self-Governance as an essential ingredient for Deshodaya, National Awakening.
Deshodaya implies the continuation and deepening of our work enhanced by a new initiative to build power alliances between and among communities. We envision a system of independent village/urban communities working in concert with each other, specially to bring about a new political culture—from the village level up. Modern communications technologies have developed to the point where this Gandhian dream can become a reality. In fact Sarvodaya has a specialized division helping the advanced villages to establish their own Tele Centres.
Deshodaya has two main features: non-violent methods of action and full direct participation of people in decision-making. Such political culture can specialize in the satisfaction of basic human needs, guarantee basic human rights and ensure sustainable development of life.
It is clear that a full participatory political system may be established only by basing it upon a relatively small unit of power. When one considers the theoretical, historical, sociological, cultural and geographic aspects of the problem, one comes to the conclusion that the village in Sri Lanka is the best level to be regarded as the primary unit of power.
Grama-Swaraj will have to be established by the people themselves through a non-violent and consensual political process. Routine and extraordinary affairs will have to proceed through the same method. A Grama-swaraj will be characterized by all the basic attributes defining a government: decision-making, executing and monitoring. We can learn very much from the ancient Gram Sabha systems we had in Sri Lanka as well as from the ancient village republics of India (such as Licchavis and Vajjins) where not only advanced legislative and executive systems functioned but there was a very just and efficient system to dispense justice equally for all.
A Grama-Swaraj will not be an isolated power unit. While enjoying the autonomy to run community affairs on its own terms, clusters of Grama-swarajs will form functioning networks. We anticipate significant synergy effects from this arrangement.
This can be understood as the inverse of the top-down model dominant in the world today. Since the village will be the basic political unit, they will delegate powers to upper units when functions can be accomplished more successfully at those levels. Shri Jayaprakash Narayan, the great socialist and Sarvodaya leader, has spoken and written very widely on this system of people’s participatory system of governance.
With the spreading of Grama-Swaraj Networks across the nation, democratic norms can take root and human awakening can proceed much more effectively than under current political and cultural conditions. Perhaps this may be a concept valid for all nations where people’s participatory power, if tried successfully, can enhance the spirit of the UN Charter and check any big powers from repeating the kind of unilateral action they took in Iraq resulting in such human suffering.
We have coined the word Vishvodaya, meaning Awakening of the Global Community, as our vision for the world. We believe that the re-awakening of the spiritual potential of humanity, the full utilization of the available communication technologies to link the self-governing communities in the world and the devolution of economic and political power to the level of people
can transform our world.
As Lewis Mumford points out [in his Transformation of Man, p. 182], in the process of transforming man and the society, the new world culture may bring about “a fresh release of spiritual energy that will unveil new potentialities, no more visible in the human self today than radium was in the physical world a century ago, though always present.
[Shriman Narayan, Relevance of Gandhian Economics, p. 183]
With this vision in mind, we hope to cultivate 1,000 existing Sarvodaya Shramadana Villages to pioneer along these lines. What better tribute could we pay to Mahatma Gandhi? What better service could we provide to Sri Lanka and the world? What better future can we offer the children of the world than their survival with Justice and Peace?
Talk delivered at the
Fourth International Conference of Chief Justices of the World
From 12-14th December 2003 held in Lucknow, India