A.T. Ariyaratne’s published writings cover a period of nearly two decades and touch a variety of subjects directly associated with community development and social welfare. His early writings in Sinhala have in them an idealism and romanticism of a poet and this quality is traced even in his early English writings. Few people are aware that Ariyaratne himself is a poet of merit. An assorted collection of Sinhala poems, among which love poems predominate, is available with him. The majority of the popular songs which are sung by Sarvodians on different occasions owe their origin to Ariyaratne’s poetic imagination. Young Ariyaratne when he moved into that historic village of Kanatoluwa in 1958 was undoubtedly fired by a poetic vision of a new social order. His Poetry, made available to me off and on, is lyrical, sensuous and fired with an irresistible idealism. No doubt his philosophy owes much to this romantic idealism which has to be understood if we are to understand the philoso-phical development of Ariyaratne and measure his subsequent maturity.

I spoke about Ariyaratne’s Sinhala poetry and his romantic idealism because it enables one to understand young Ariyaratne at the time he took the initial step in 1958 which later on led to the birth of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement. It was his poetic imagination, his sensitivity to problems around him, his love of idealism and romance that in a way inspired him to move into an under-privileged village with a band of select volunteers. It was an idealistic approach although much in tune with the prevalent thinking of the times which emphasized the exploitation of the rural villagers by the urban people and the pressing need to assist and help the villagers.

Young Ariyaratne may very well have been a utopian in his thinking. Even today traces of utopianism are discernible in his writings. He speaks fervently of change, the state that society could reach through such changes, the state that society could reach through such changes and why one should strive to achieve that state through change. When he speaks of a Society where everyone practises the principle of loving kindness and equality one wonders whether in a human world replete with innumerable weaknesses man ever could reach such a dimension where at least loving kindness and equality could prevail. His utopianism no doubt had its origin in the current thinking of the time when our novelists and poets often spoke of such utopian dreams. But the main difference between Ariyaratne’s utopian-idealism and those of others is the fact that Ariyaratne speaks with a utopian ardour and enthusiasm with his feet firmly planted in the solid ground. He confronts reality and through that confrontation has developed a strategy to solve problems and through the solution of such problems attempts to arrive at the desired state of development. It is not wrong to say that his enthusiasm and ardour are that of a Utopian idealist, the passion to strive for what he wants and needs is that of a romanticist; yet notwithstanding this, he is a grass-root realist whose feet never soar above the ground they touch.

In addition to his idealism and romanticism Ariyaratne in his young days had also flirted with radical political philosophies. He was once a Candidate Member of the Communist Party. While he was in school he had formed an organization to fight for the rights of the poor people in his village who made a living out of the production of coir. He had many a time clashed with his elders and this revolutionary zeal to oppose what he felt unjust had been the hallmark of his indomitable spirit. Revolutionary ardour was boundless in his young days and in the early years of the Movement one could discern this unbridled spirit of revolution in his writings. Marching to the village of Kanatholuwa was revolutionary in itself because whoever could fancy a band of educated and elitist men moving into a village a part of which was inhabited by the Rodiya Community (untouchables)?

If one carefully peruses Ariyaratne’s writings this revolutio-nary spirit could be seen raising its head at every turn. One could say that the entire Sarvodaya Movement was based on such re-volutionary action. Go to the under-privileged villages, choose the most deserving of help, begin with the poorest. These were the slogans utilised in the early decade. Ariyaratne parted company with the radical politicos on two important issues: (1) He believed that the mere advocacy of a political philosophy through pamphlets, speeches and other media would not bring in the desired revolution. Unlike the politicos who wanted to persuade the people to grant them power through which they desired to change society, Ariyaratne began to envisage a change in the individual man reciprocated by a similar change in society. (2) Violent Revolution cannot usher in the desired welfare of Society because violence only begets violence. If one could eschew violence and resort to non-violence, through it a fundamental change could be achieved.

His revolutionary zeal has not left him even after two decades of grass-root experience in the rural arena. Even today he considers his mature philosophy a revolutionary one.

‘Firstly I believe that the problems are so vast that a re-volutionary change is necessary. I mean the dictionary meaning of ‘revolution’, not the meaning given by various people with the connotation implied in it, because I personally believe that bloodshed is not necessary in this country to bring about a re-volutionary change’.
Thereafter he goes on to explain the fundamental and simultaneous change that should take place in three areas.
‘Firstly in the area of ideas, of values, of ideologies. Secondly in the area of methods and techniques that our people adopt in their day-to-day life, whether in the field of education, in the field of agriculture, in the field of cottage industries or in anything else. Thirdly, a change in the institutions beginning from village level to the national and international level. I say that there should be a simultaneous change, a change at the same time in the three spheres – of ideas, ideologies and values; a change in the methods and techniques; a change in the organizations and institutions’.

This belief in revolution has permeated the entire gamut of Ariyaratne’s thinking. As he matured through grass-root experiences he found that the ideal of a revolution could never be imparted from and transplanted in an alien soil. If a revolution is to take place the seeds have to be planted in a soil that would help them to germinate. Such a soil and seeds are found in one’s own culture or tradition. In Buddhism he found the seeds and in Sinhala culture the appropriate soil. He found and learned how the Buddhistic way of life has in it a revolutionary potential which could be harnessed to change man and community. This revolutionary strategy was discovered and tested by him
Revolution without violence is inconceivable in modern times. Although some would refer to Gandhi’s non-violent campaign even here as such, campaigns were conducted at a time when a colonial power was occupying India, some dismissed the Gandhian non-violent strategies as ineffective in modern times. Ariyaratne receiving his inspiration from Buddhistic tradition underscores the effectiveness of non-violent strategy in meeting modern problems.
‘Non-violence could be utilized as a very effective weapon more than violence to bring about lasting structural changes without demeaning the dignity and worth of the human being. What Sarvodaya is attempting to do is to apply the Buddhist principles in development-action including an effort to eradicate social, economic and political evils and injustices that plague our societies’.

Ariyaratne is concerned not only with changing the social, political or economic structure. He is equally concerned with the dignity and worth of the human being. It is here that the importance of Ariyaratne’s philosophy is best noticed. If one reads through his miscellaneous writings one would discern a common thread running through all his thoughts. The thread is nothing but his repeated emphasis on human worth and dignity. In his public speeches delivered over the country he has again and again underscored the value of man. The four basic principles of loving – kindness, equanimity, compassion and equality – the corner-stones of Sarvodaya Philosophy are the results of this often reiterated emphasis on human dignity.

It is this preconcern with human dignity and human worth that led him to believe in the popular participation in all aspects of development. His idealism inspired him to view the development of the village into a Grama-Swaraj State or Village Republic State where each village would be self-sufficing and independent. In order to achieve this effectively he visualized that popular participation in the decision-making process has to take place. Man should control and shape his own destiny. In order to do this man should realize his own worth and strength. This realization can only be achieved by popular participation in all matters that pertain to the village or community in which he lives.

What strategy could one utilize in order to make human beings realize their own enormous strength? For Ariyaratne one need not speculate or theorize in order to devise such strategies. As human dignity is best asserted in action, man must be active. Action when indulged in by a group surfaces the value of human beings at its best. Such group-action for self-help could be motivated by resorting to simple means. For Ariyaratne no problem man faces externally is grand. Every problem is simple if you view it in the correct perspective. Simple problems need simple solutions. It is our failure to see the simplicity of the problem that makes us posit grandiose solutions for such simple problems.

Ariyaratne gives us an example of a simple solution to a simple problem.* Once, when he was convalescing in a village he happened to meet a group of villagers who were in great need to get their tank bund repaired. The villagers showed a thick file which contained their correspondence with the government on the matter.

‘I got the people to analyse their problems themselves assuming that there was nobody except themselves capable of solving this problem. ‘How many cubes of earth’? 200. ‘From where do you get this earth’? From the tank bed. ‘What implements do you need to dig this earth and make the bund’? Some mammoties, earth pans. Except earth pans, other equipment could be found in the village. ‘Can you suggest a substitute for earth pans’? Yes, sheaves of Arecanut leaves and gunny bags. ‘Who can find them’? (one offered to find them). ‘How many people hope to work and for how many days to have this job done’? Two hundred people working for four days. ‘Tell me, each of you, how many volunteers can you organize for this work’? One, two, five, ten, fifteen …….. ‘All right, who is going to feed these two hundred people’? (A rich land owner gets up). I will feed all of them for two days – ‘Thank you’. ‘But let me see, who can feed one man by sharing his meal with another’? Several hands went up. ‘Who can feed two, three, four, five’ ‘Well, now we have enough food without the first offer, for all four days’. But let us accept the first offer also and organize a Shramadana Camp (camp to share labour) because I am sure two hundred more will join when they hear that one has started the work on Shramadana’ …

Ariyaratne is a firm believer in instant solutions. According to him there is no necessity to have ready made solutions to problems. In the Rural Community the problem creating conditions do themselves contain the ingredients necessary to work out a solution. Ariyaratne is wary of experts and for him the solicitation of the help and assistance of so called ‘experts’ to solve our rural village problems is a useless effort. Our expert should be the rural villager himself. Let us educate him, make him revolutionize his personality and think of others around him, make him feel the strength of the united community and he would himself find the instant solution. So far what we have been doing is to introduce our solutions to him.

According to Ariyaratne ‘Asia lived and lives in the villages. But today she is tutored by the city. For many years to come Asia will remain ‘rural’. In the past the city was but a refined version of rural values, prosperity and aspirations. Today it is the reverse. The Asian city, whose value reflects more the remains of a colonial past and which displays the condition of an imported confused industrial mass consumption, civilization dominates the rural communities’.

To Ariyaratne who speaks ‘his people’s language’ the rural tradition of the past nurtured by the living examples of saints and respected leaders has in it much to teach us how to devise strategies to meet the present problems. In the rural past there was a ‘harmonious integration of objectives and methods pertaining to the organization of man and matter, the final common goal of which exercise was to ensure the joy of living for all’.

The worship of the past for its sake is not Ariyaratne’s purpose and goal. He finds a continuum in time in which traditions of the past handed down from one generation to the other enabled the community to strengthen its cohesiveness and fortify the spirit of self-reliance. He divides what one could discern in tradition to main groups like: (1) the traditional aspects such as norms, folkways, mores, customs, beliefs, attitudes ect. which are positive in character and which contribute to the strengthening of the cohesion in a given Community by underscoring the value of popular participation. (2) Those traditional aspects such as norms etc. which are either consciously or unconsciously contributing their share to divide man thus loosening the community cohesion, eroding man’s spirit and belief in self-reliance. These two groups have to be identified and the first encouraged and promoted, if necessary modified, to suit present contingencies. It is the second group that we have to be wary of, eschew and teach others to refrain from practising it. Tradition thus if understood correctly has a tremendous and dynamic role to play in development. Ariyaratne by far is the only thinker known to me in Sri Lanka working in the field of community development who has thus advanced a theory of this nature pin-pointing the value of tradition.

The Rural Community has inherited traditional methods of ‘group effort’ and ‘self-help’. No one needs to teach them these methods.

One has only to work with them, learn their methods, and encourage their constant use. Take for example the practice of ‘Dana’ of ‘giving’. It is a traditional Buddhist practice from which the giver experiences joy and also accumulates merit for his future well-being. Every aspect of village life permeates with this spirit of ‘Dana’. Ariyaratne identifies this practice, gives it an operational connotation ‘sharing’. He conceives ‘Dana’ as the practice of sharing where people share not only material things but also labour, knowledge, health etc. It is this rare insight of Ariyaratne by which he devised the operational connotations of such concepts that endear his philosophy to the common rustic villager.

Speaking the language of the common man and operating on the same grass-root wave-length Ariyaratne works even today in the village. In Sri Lanka, except for the few days one sees him at his Meth Medura Headquarters, other days of the year he travels from village to village giving utterance to rural values which the villager cherishes. In a week he meets thousands of people from all walks of life and of all ages ranging from pre-school children to village elders. He teaches them not a new philosophy but the simple rural philosophy and strategy he had learned while working with them. His philosophy and work-plan are eclectic because it is ready to change when he discovers that a particular plan does not work. He solves problems through working with the rural people and this work enhances his experience and knowledge. His writings have grown into maturity through such experiences of learning from the people by working together with them.

Ariyaratne’s energy and writings are totally dedicated to the promotion of the rise of a grass-root leadership from the village. His ideal of the village leader is the villager with a mammoty in his hand, fortified by the simple philosophy of Buddhism which encourages one to treat human beings on an equal footing regardless of race, caste or religion and strives for the ‘well being of all’ (mind you not the well-being of the majority or an elitist group).
‘The political power elite, if they are seriously concerned about solving people’s basic problems, should realize that for development an inspired and dedicated leadership is needed at all levels, from the village upwards …

In evolving a philosophy of development Ariyaratne sees the hollowness of the elitist philosophy whether these philosophies and plans emanate at different levels from managers of political, educational, commercial, military, administrative, technocratic and national or international planning institutions. The elitist strategy, their unintelligible jargon that confuses the common man, their elusive and luxurious patterns of life, their ivory-tower isolation – all these are heavily criticised by Ariyaratne. In short, if he has his own way, he would compel the elitist class to learn from the village. De-educate yourself from the ‘rubbish’ you have put into your heads and begin re-educating by working with the common man. That is what Ariyaratne says and feels about the elite class.
It is a common criticism of Ariyaratne to accuse him of evolving a philosophy and strategy for the creation of a welfare state through non-political means. In other words the accusation is that Ariyaratne’s philosophy and strategy never challenges the existing social, economic and political order but only helps to sustain it. Ariyaratne does not encourage people to rebel and overthrow a corrupt regime or society.

If one carefully reads Ariyaratne’s writings it is difficult to understand how he is ‘not political’ in his strategy and philosophy. He advocates popular participation at the lowest or grass-root level. He has devised strategies such as interest-groups varying according to age, sex, occupation etc. and devises such as family-gatherings to motivate people to participate in the decision-making process. it is true that he has not taken any part either overtly or covertly in party politics. But in attempting to mobilize public participation at all levels, by encouraging the people to realize the value of human dignity and the nobleness of man and his inviolable rights as well as privileges, by constantly releasing processes of action to minimize social injustices such as caste, he is politically more alive and active than for example the politicians whose actions are limited to the few weeks spent on electioneering and who thereafter embedded in power are never seen among the people. For Ariyaratne political power does not emerge out of a barrel of a gun; nor does it come forth from the seasonal ballot you tediously cast in great hope. It comes out of mobilizing popular participation to the fullest at all levels and encouraging people to realize the dignity of human beings striving for the well-being of all.

What is Ariyaratne’s contribution to the present development philosophy? For him human development has two dimensions (i) Personal and (ii) Communal. Man must enlighten himself realizing the great potential in him, awakening himself to his rights and privileges and dignity as a human being. He must be economically self-sufficient and socio-psychologically contented and happy, his basic human needs being satisfied. That is the personal or individual side of it. Then his community should be economically viable and self-sufficient; socio-psychologically useful and contented. This contentment arising out of the satisfaction of the basic needs (of which he has identified ten) is the first step towards development. Thus development means the harnessing of all available material and non-material forces for the betterment and contentment of all human beings.

Surveying the scene in Asia and Africa Ariyaratne believes that the first step towards such development lies in identifying these basic human needs and their satisfaction through conscientisation and self-reliance. Such a step is necessary because the majority of these unfortunate human beings do lack primary basic necessities while a microscopic minority enjoys all the material comforts available. This step to satisfy their basic needs by motivating them to become self-reliant is the core of Ariyaratne’s philosophy and plan of action. In order to achieve this he visualizes a fruitful marriage of modern technology and yearlong tradition. Technology however powerful it is, cannot thrive on a soil inimical to it where, for example, ignorance or meaningful superstition thrives. On the other hand technology may need modification to suit a particular society and this modification once effected gives one what one calls appropriate technology. The pith of this belief is that whatever the technology is, it should be introduced to strengthen man’s faith and reliance on himself and his fellow beings. Technology thus introduced should not in any way become an instrument capable of disintegrating the forces of cohesion existing in a community.

Education both formal and non-formal is Ariyaratne’s most effective weapon to be used in mobilising people and motivating them to participate in their own decision-making processes. For him economic, political, social or whatever other powers there be, should emanate from the grass-roots and come upward. He is more a believer in horizontal power-structure than the modern vertical power structure which necessarily collects and deposits power at the top. It percolates from above and when it comes to the grass-roots nothing remains to be seen. This monolithic and unjustifiable power-structure should be replaced by a horizontal power structure where the people – not a section but the people as a totality – share power and utilize it for the well-being of all.
Education for Ariyaratne is a two way process. You teach, while you learn. He has educated himself following this process. Education is action-bound and you have to realize what you have learned in action and you learn while engaged in action. Education is not only knowledge but also wisdom which comes with the constant action in which one is engaged. It gives one pleasure by the mere engagement in it and also by the help and assistance one could give others. It is in short, according to Ariyaratne’s philosophy a re-awakening, a personality development leading to a re-awakening of the entire community.

‘How far has Ariyaratne’s philosophy permeated in the rural villages’? if one is to count the number of villages (nearly 2,300) [_Update: Now over 15,000_] where Sarvodaya activity in one form or another is existent, the sheer number would indicate the nature and extent of the spread of the fruitful message. As I said earlier it is not novel message; but a message people have heard for 2,500 years. Ariyaratne ‘echoes’ it and its echo understandably finds its counterpart in the hearts of the rural folk. To them what Ariyaratne ‘preaches’ had been a remarkable and harmonious way of life. Ariyaratne’s genius lies in being able to identify this dormant philosophy and plan of action giving it new flesh and blood. He has been able to do it in a manner no other contemporary of his has been able to do and the echo of his ‘message’ would undoubtedly reverberate through decades into the future.