The Sarvodaya Research Institute began collecting Mr. A.T. Ariyaratne’s writings most of which published either as pamphlets or in local and international journals are not readily available to those interested in his philosophy that gave rise to the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement. The numerous pamphlets and articles depict the seeds of Sarvodaya philosophy and its gradual maturation with the progress of time. As Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka has become synonymous with A.T. Ariyaratne, an understanding of his writings is necessary to understand the rapid growth of this formidable people’s Movement in rural Sri Lanka.
We at the Sarvodaya Research Institute hope to collect all what Mr. Ariyaratne has written, and publish them volume by volume for the benefit of all those interested in this unique philosophy and grass-root technology which Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka brought into being. In this first volume Ariyaratne’s foremost articles written at different times beginning from the sixties are represented. They were selected carefully with an idea to give the reader an assortment of Ariyaratne’s philosophical writings that would enable even a reader not conversant with Sarvodaya to ‘taste’ Sarvodaya’s basic concepts.
The contribution made by Ariyaratne, judging from any modern academic standards, surpasses both in quality and quantity the contribution made by any other individual in the field of Community Development and Social Work not only in Sri Lanka, but may be in entire Asia. He has undoubtedly brought in “New thinking” into the field of Community Development. What distinguishes Ariyaratne here from other contemporary philosophers is the fact that he, unlike most others, never built his philosophy only on an academic foundation. In other words he is not an armchair philosopher who dreamed about problems and probable solutions to them. He is, (as it is often unashamedly given utterance by him), a rugged villager who worked with the rural people and working thus, gained experience learning from the common man in order to form his philosophy. It was not a strategy and a philosophy that was fashioned by him through intellectual labour but a strategy and a philosophy born out of his grass-root work among simple people. Ariyaratne says that his philosophy is still growing amending itself to suit experience and modifying itself when practical necessities dictate it so.
As the Director of Sarvodaya Research Institute, I am particu-larly glad that we are able to bring out this first volume with the help of NOVIB – the Netherlands Organization for International Development Co-operation, our partners in Development. We hope this volume will present both readers in Sri Lanka and outside, a representative but varied collection of Ariyaratne’s writings. My introduction is for the purpose of providing a guide line of Ariyaratne’s thinking to those not conversant with it. I have taken the rare liberty to analyse his writings in the light of his personal experiences which I believe has been instrumental in shaping the total personality that is A.T. Ariyaratne. In the subsequent volumes we hope to collect the rest of his writings, so that all what he has written will be there for easy reference to all those interested in him and the Sarvodaya Movement.
I am personally grateful to Mr. A.T. Ariyaratne, who never interfered at any time with my selections or with the ideas that I have expressed about him or the Movement, although sometimes I was extremely critical in my outlook. This attitude of his endears him to me and I am happy that a people’s leader of his type and stature is still amenable to criticism – even when it is scathingly hostile to him. May be the Buddhist Philosophy where one is taught to regard both “Blame and Praise” with an equanimous frame of mind has tremendously influenced him. Sarvodaya Movement’s future as well as the maturation of Ariyaratne’s eclectic philosophy owes much to this attitude of mind which if maintained as during the last two decades, would undoubtedly sustain the Movement in the foreseeable future.
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The Sarvodaya Movement came into being as a result of an experiment carried out by a group of pioneers in a remote under-privileged village in Sri Lanka. From its inception in 1958 to this day the people’s character of the Movement has been distinctly retained. Working for the Common Man’s benefit, securing the Common Man’s participation to its maximum possible level in the developmental exercise had been Sarvodaya’s aim.
Sarvodaya’s identification of the Common Man as one who is at the receiving end of grand plans from bureaucrats and policy makers, sermons from moralisers and, goods and services from a market economy made it a Movement dedicated to the resurgence of human values. It not only identified common man correctly but also evolved strategies fashioned on age-old Socio-Cultural practices to secure the participation of the Common Man in Sarvodaya’s development programmes. These strategies perfected after two decades of intense experimentation provided Sarvodaya with the correct tools to implement its Community Development philosophy at the village level.
One of the remarkable finds in Sarvodaya Rural Development Strategy is the discovery of an intelligible language to open up the development dialogue with the people. The planners who came from above whether with the seal of authority and power of the Central Government in their hands or of other accredited representatives from International and National Organisations never understood what the rural people meant by the term Development. The Planners had their own definitions which the Common Villager did not understand. The language of the rustic villagers, on the other hand, was not understood by the planners and administrators. In the words of Ariyaratne a serious attempt to discover an intelligible language common to both was never made.
Liberation of the Common man became the Sarvodaya objective. This liberation was spelled out in (1) the liberation of the personality and then (2) of the group or Community to which one belongs. The liberation concept was inherent in the activities of the early pioneers who went to the historic village of Kanatholuwa in 1958. * These pioneers wanted to liberate the under-privileged Rodiyas both from the social and economic bondage by which they were tied down for centuries. In order to achieve this liberation each individual in that Community should realize that he is a human being possessed of the same physical characteristics and psychological inheritance common to all men. Thereafter the entire community should realize their own potential, share their experience with each other helping others to help themselves. Liberation in its fullest and widest sense meant such freedom.
Sarvodaya’s first step in developing a village thus rests in making the villagers realize the reality of the village situation. They should be made to understand, each one individually and then as a group, the central problems of the village. Understanding the reality of the village in Sarvodaya parlance means the ability to take stock of the material and non-material resources of the village, the extent of their utilization and the realization of the potentiality of such resources. Without such a realization, that is without understanding the first basic truth of Sarvodaya that explains the cause of the present economic, social and cultural poverty or stagnation of the village, no development effort is ever possible.
It is not easy to make people realize this basic truth. On the other hand without a proper realization of that truth, it is well-nigh impossible to make them evolve plans and programmes of development or carry-out such plans into effective action. Nor could people realize what exploitation is without understanding the reality of the village situation. During the last fifty years the radical left as well as the traditional left parties have been carrying on intensive propaganda in villages pin-pointing exploitation on the economic level. The language that these people spoke was not understood by the villagers although the exploitation that they defined was nothing new to them. What the villagers lacked was the realization of how that exploitation affects them i.e. not exactly what they have lost in general terms but the extent of this loss in meaningful statistical terms. In other words to point to the fact that the villagers are being exploited by a rich merchant is meaningless because they know it already. May be that the merchant has secured the mortgages of their land in return for the produce which they are bound to give to him at the time of harvest. In such a context the term exploitation attached to the rich merchant may very well become a meaningless term to them. But if we attempt to translate the entire process into the language of the people while making them realize that there is a way out of this exploitative process that comes to fruition through their own effort, the entire process becomes meaningful and relevant.
Take the case of a Sarvodaya village where the farmers were in the majority. These farmers were poor and almost every one of them had mortgaged their land to the rich merchant who lived in the nearby town. They cultivated the land from the money secured from the mortgage and in return handed over the fruits of the harvest to the merchant. The process had been going on for a long time so that for the villagers it was nothing new or unusual. The term exploitation used to denote the role of the rich merchant failed to create a favourable echo in the minds of the people.
But when the people were motivated to come together in small groups discussing alternative ways and means of how they could raise the capital necessary to carry on their cultivation without going to the rich merchant they gradually began to understand that even in a small way an alternative could be found. Little savings when encouraged in the group enabled them to utilize credit facilities made available to the rural villages. Through constant discussions in small groups they began to realize that instead of mortgaging their land they could themselves initiate action to secure the necessary capital. The real nature of exploitation came as a realization when alternative ways and means to raise the capital necessary to cultivate the paddy fields became apparent With each practical step they look to realize this alternative, they came to understand the exploitation carried on by the rich merchant. With the realization of this alternative through practical action and practical terms they came to perceive the reality of the village situation.
Another example of how this realization of the village situation dawned on the people via practical action could be explained in the following manner. In a village it was found that the people’s staple diet consisted of rice and a curry without any leafy vegetables. Ariyaratne happened to visit this village which was earlier surveyed and where such surveys showed that the people were grossly under-nourished. Ariyaratne by living in the village found that the main cause for the under-nourishment was the lack of green vegetables in their diet. Having understood it he got them to prepare rice and included lot of leaf vegetables or curries, in the meal. He gradually ate it with the villagers without openly showing or indicating that it was a part of a prepared plan. The first few days he invited two or three families, next a few more men and women, and as all of them got involved in shramadanas all of them began to partake of leafy vegetables with meals. The process was continued for months and this experience gradually changed the dietary pattern of the people. Green vegetables became part of their diet and some time afterwards when nutrition surveys were made, under-nourishment which was prevalent earlier was considerably reduced. By the correct understanding of the village situation and by the introduction of a series of actions in a practical and meaningful way Ariyaratne was able to solve a challenging problem.
Sarvodaya’s understanding of the village in its totality marks its approach to rural development which is different from the approach of the Government or even other developmental agencies. The problems of the village are tackled by Sarvodaya in their economic, social, cultural and religious dimensions. This integrated approach to rural problems is a unique legacy that Sarvodaya has inherited from its own experiences. The integration of activities in different fields at the village level is not the strategy of Sarvodaya. On the contrary while accepting that different activities at the village level should be integrated, Sarvodaya underscores the importance of approaching village problems with an integrated dimensional approach. The economic problem for example cannot be isolated from social and cultural problems. Educational problems when tackled need to be viewed from social, political, economic or cultural dimensions.
This approach of Sarvodaya leaves room for many a critic to criticise Sarvodaya’s activities in regard to those which do not contribute to the quick economic development of the village. In a village once the Government started a farm where animals were reared for food. Pigs were reared and killed in the farm. As the village youths who were taken to the farm had to kill pigs the villagers did not like their children to join the farm. The few youths who came there,when they left the farm, found pig breeding could not be done in their home areas. Although the Government depending on a feasibility report thought that the farm would help the unemployed youth to free themselves economically by becoming pig-breeders the hope of the Government did not materialize. The capital spent on the farm went astray due to the inability of the Government to take into consideration the social or cultural dimensions of the village.
The strategies of Sarvodaya as mentioned earlier are born out of hard experience. Herein lies the strength of Sarvodaya’s developmental strategy. The hard experiences have their roots in Sri Lankan Culture and Society. Strategies picked up from elsewhere and imported have very often failed to bring out the desired results because when they were transplanted here, they lacked the social and cultural soil necessary for their successful growth in Sri Lanka. Sarvodaya’s strategies had their roots here and the soil was not alien to their fertile growth. Take the concept shramadana or the gift of one’s labour and intellectual energy to the welfare of all. This was a socio-cultural practice of the ancient and medieval Sinhalese which had its root in their rural agricultural life.
Ariyaratne borrowed this concept from tradition, gave it a wider meaning in practice and made it the main tool in Sarvodaya’s development strategy,. He goes on to say that the Shramadana Concept was introduced to this country by the Sarvodaya Shramadana Workers of Sri Lanka with the objective of removing social and economic injustice, ensuring increased economic growth, freeing society from all forms of exploitation of man by man, establishing an equitable distribution system of goods and services, liberating the human being so that he may be able to participate in decision-making as a person, as a subject, to such a development process in which he is the master and not the slave.
Shramadana for Sarvodaya is not a means of providing cheap labour as it has now turned out to be in the hands of certain Governmental and Voluntary Agencies. Sarvodaya considers such an equation of Shramadana with cheap labour as a form of mental and physical degradation . Unless Shramadana involves concerted, deliberate and purposeful individual and community action directed to transform society it has no value at all from Sarvodaya’s point of view.
Sarvodaya takes pride in equating its definition of development with that provided by the rural people. It involves primarily the activization of human and national resources of a country for increased production of goods and services which finally leads to satisfaction of the basic needs of all. In other words it should not be confined only to the production of goods and services primarily for the benefit of a selected few or only in the increased material benefits to the society. It should emphasise the spiritual, cultural and ethical components leading to the total liberation of man.
People’s power or Jana Shakthi is Sarvodaya’s ultimate aim. Sarvodaya views political and economic power today as entrenched in the hands of a selected elite. Theoretically however democratic a Government is, if economic, political and social power are not always with the people, the democratic ideal fails to function. Democracy is functional in a Community where decision-making power rests in small communities and where all power comes from bottom -up,. Observing the absence of such a people’s power in modern society, Ariyaratne states that in planning and implementation of development, people have been left out as distant onlookers. If we are to get into the business of rural development seriously there is no gainsaying the fact that we have to involve the very people for whom development programmes are directed.
In involving the people Sarvodaya emphasises that all people, whatever their age or sex is and irrespective of their social or economic positions, should be involved fully in such developmental exercise. The pride of place should however be given to youth. Sarvodaya philosophy believes that the youth should be geared to revolution. This revolution is expected to overhaul the existing social and economic order. The revolution is essentially a non-violent one. The first principle in this revolution is the recognition of this equality of man disregarding all differences in colour, creed, race or caste. As Sarvodaya values every life, whether it is organic or inorganic, emphasising the value of human life above all, the loss of human life or injuring human life is always regarded as something inconsistent with Sarvodaya Philosophy.
The future of the world, Sarvodaya asserts rests with its young people. That is why Sarvodaya is totally dedicated to the cause of the youth both here and elsewhere. The restive youth of the world are replete with visions of a New World Order that could only be won over by the utilization of guns and bombs. The injustices perpetrated by the present system with its vicious economic, social and political systems had inspired the youth to resort to violence as the only foreseeable and effective means to redress such injustices. While recognising the existence of such social, political and economic injustices Sarvodaya dedicated itself to the total annihilation of such injustices and exploitation by non-violent means, that is by organising people to realize the potentiality inherent in their united power or Jana Shakti.
For some non-violence has lost its significance as a strategy that could be used to change or transform society. They do not see the manner in which it was used as an effective weapon against Colonial Masters by Mahatma Gandhi and how non-violence is still utilized by freedom fighters and fighters against social, political and economic injustices all over the world. Those who assert that the only strategy available to us today is the use of weapons forget the fact that as an alternative to violence resulting in the loss of valuable human lives there is Sarvodaya’s non-violent strategy. Sarvodaya believes that violence begets violence and it is only in revolutionary non-violence that man can place his faith and confidence as a strategy capable of transforming human beings and the world in which he lives.
The organisation of human beings in every sphere in small groups is Sarvodaya’s strategy to generate Jana Shakti or people’s power. These groups meet often, discuss together and strive to arrive at decisions together. The unity of the group is fostered by such strategies as Shramadanas and family gatherings. The decision-making power rests with the group and so does the power of carrying out such decisions into effective action. These groups share the joy of working together and living together. They organise themselves to fight against ignorance, disease and hunger. Each group is thus organised and highly active ensuring people’s direct participation and when they join together helps to build a people’s power that could act as a countervailing power to any existing political, social or economic system that seeks to exploit man.
Small communities teaching themselves to help each other to help themselves create a discipline that inspires them to initiate their own decision-making process and also the ability to carry out such decisions into effective action. Such a process as often believed by some is not directed towards providing the greatest good for the greatest number. It is directed to the welfare of all and to the creation of a society that strives for the attainment of the greatest good for every one of its members. The complete awakening of every single individual in society in body, mind,intellect and in spirit to his maximum potentiality is Sarvodaya’s aim.
Some equate Sarvodaya with an organisation basically directed to the provision of social welfare. Although social welfare activities are included in Sarvodaya Programmes, Sarvodaya’s objectives are not primarily associated only with welfare activities. It is true that when human beings undergo suffering Sarvodaya attempt to alleviate such suffering. When a man is hungry, he obviously needs food immediately; when he is sick, medicament is necessary. Sarvodaya recognises these basic needs that have to be satisfied before man could be helped to stand on his own feet and taught to grapple with his gigantic problems by himself.
Basic needs, their identification and satisfaction is part of Sarvodaya’s overall programme. But Sarvodaya while attempting to satisfy such immediate needs also strives to make man realize why such hunger, why such illness or why such ignorance persists. When a contagious disease spreads in the village Sarvodaya goes there bringing medicament and providing relief immediately. Then once the disease is contained, Sarvodaya attempts to make people realize the cause of such an illness. When cyclones devastated the country recently Sarvodaya was there with relief for the afflicted. Thereafter when the immediate danger is appreciably contained, the process of self-help begins. Education comes in, both formal and informal, enabling people to dispel their ignorance, and understand the causes of the illnesses in order to control them better in the future. Shramadana joins people, each one helping the other to re-build their devastated houses, to cultivate their fields, and eventually helping them to share with each other all what they have, both material and non- material resources.
Sarvodaya, as Ariyaratne succinctly states, is Not a religion even though the best in all religious teachings, as found applicable to the above mentioned social goals, are imbibed in Sarvodaya thought. On the other hand it is not a materialistic dogma where all spiritual tenets are ruled out for the sake of achieving material goods. It is a harmonious integration of spiritual teachings and modern science where man and society are viewed from a nobler perspective and with confidence. Sarvodaya’s approach to life and living is eclectic, continuously enriched by the fund of newly acquired knowledge, growing with changing times.
Ariyaratne states that Sarvodaya is dedicated to changing society from below, that is from the grass roots. The village society where the majority of human beings live today is the primary object of this radical change. This change or revolutionary transformation can be brought about when people are mobilised to satisfy their basic needs through their own efforts. Self-education is a basic tenet in Sarvodaya’s philosophy and the full awakening of man starts with his education of himself. This education involves the understanding of man’s relationship with other human beings, man and animals, and those between man and all inanimate things. The harmonious relationship between man and his ecology is always and at all times emphasised by Sarvodaya. The art of right living consists of the correct understanding of this relationship between man and society and finally between man and his environment.
What is Sarvodaya’s economic theory? Ariyaratne is being criticised for the lack of a sound economic theory of his own. The Sarvodaya Movement is further being criticised for covertly protecting the existing order and conveniently avoiding conflict wherever possible and always siding with the stronger against the weak. In the case of economic exploitation, Sarvodaya pays only lip service to the cause of the exploited while toeing the line of the exploiter often covertly approving his course of conduct.
It is interesting to examine the above criticism in the light of Sarvodaya’s experiences within the last two decades. From the day of its inception Sarvodaya activities were confined to the villages where poor and underprivileged communities lived. At the outset they were Rodiya villages and then other poor villages, often inhabited by underprivileged castes or communities. Even today more than two-third of Sarvodaya villages or sometimes even more are poverty-stricken localities where people of underprivileged classes or castes or communities live.
When Sarvodaya is introduced into a village it is usual to initiate activities with the poorest of the poor living there. When you go to a village or when you desire to work in your own village select the poorest first. Start work with them and next go to the others moving gradually upwards. Ariyaratne’s cardinal principle of working with the poorest of the poor and with lowest of the lowest is still being proudly maintained by Sarvodaya workers.
The charge that Sarvodaya strives covertly to maintain the status quo avoiding conflict and seeking refuge in religious belief is belied by Sarvodaya’s own experience. The people of the village known as Atulugamkanda, when they needed a road, came into conflict with a rich man living in the village. The rich man who was also in the village was not agreeable to allow the road to be constructed through his land. The villagers got together and started the construction of the road. The rich man came there with a gun in his hand threatening them and also called the police to help him. When the Police came there the villagers who were united explained to the Police their objectives. The road was necessary for the village and the villagers were united in constructing it. When the Police understood the motives of the people and saw how united they were, they warned the rich man that his objections were not tenable. Finally the rich man gave in, obviously as a concession to the mounting people’s pressure or Jana Shakti.
Conflict is never avoided by Sarvodaya. Nor does Sarvodaya adopt a naive attitude towards social or economic conflict giving its current assent to the status quo. Even in 1958 when Sarvodaya pioneers moved to Kanatholuwa they were in the throes of a deep social and economic conflict. The Rodiyas who lived in these Sarvodaya villages were treated as outcasts, not allowed to wear clothes to cover the upper parts their body or live in houses of their choice or follow vocations they preferred. In going to these villages Sarvodaya hit at the root of the nefarious caste- system. They lived with the Rodiyas, ate the food, sharing it with them and occupying their quarters. Instead of begging to which the Rodiyas were accustomed for centuries they introduced other skills through which the Rodiyas could earn their living. This was indeed a social revolution and ever since then this revolutionary attitude had been Sarvodaya’s hallmark.
The correctness of Sarvodaya’s attitudes to conflict is borne out on a number of occasions from recent history. When in 1971 the famous Insurrection of Youth involving the loss of thousands of lives took place the youth associated with Sarvodaya were not associated with it. It i remarkable to notice that in none of the villages where Sarvodaya activities were current, was any sort of insurgent activities observed.The Insurgents were fighting for an equitable and justifiable social order with bombs and guns and Sarvodaya is also fighting to achieve the same goal but with different means. It is because of this identity in objectives that soon after the Insurgency vast numbers of youth joined the Sarvodaya Movement realizing that the change in society by violent means inevitably leads to endless destruction. Society has to be changed by a transformation in individual men and as individual beings change reciprocal change in the society should take place.
Sarvodaya is dedicated to fight conflict always and not to avoid them. When some of the Indian Tamils were repatriated to India after the mutual agreement between India and Sri Lanka, it was Sarvodaya that came to help the repatriates to smoothen their task of uprooting themselves from a soil into which they were born or tied to and move into another country. If not for Sarvodaya’s dedicated work the lot of many a repatriate from Sri Lanka would have been one of endless suffering. When the communal riots broke up recently in 1977 Sarvodaya moved in attempting to quench the racial flame and extending its benevolent hand to those in need. Once the immediate basic needs of the unfortunate ones were satisfied Sarvodaya undertook the task of helping them to rehabilitate themselves. In all such social conflicts, Sarvodaya, with its basic belief in the equality of all human beings irrespective of the caste or creed to which one belongs, always played a constructive role which is now recorded in history.
Sarvodaya it must be mentioned, does not go to create unnecessary conflict or conflict that ends in violence. Once conflict begets violence, Sarvodaya knows that all foreseeable avenues of resolving it are lost for ever. As human life is sacred to Sarvodaya and injuring human life even by a thought is not Sarvodaya’s way, as Sarvodaya has an alternative to resolve conflict in non-violent revolution, it always attempts to meet conflicts with this meaningful strategy.
Sarvodaya’s entire philosophy is aimed at the revolutionary overhauling of society and as such there is no question of Sarvodaya striving to maintain the status quo in society. It is often said that the Sarvodaya revolution is a benevolent one i.e Sarvodaya attempts to win over powerful economic, social or political forces to ally themselves with the Movement rather than identify their exploitative nature and work against them by mobilising people. In a village one finds a few rich men associating themselves with Sarvodaya contributing money to Sarvodaya activities while at the same time engaged in exploiting people. Such examples are often quoted to label Sarvodaya as an Organisation devoted to the maintenance of the status quo by siding with the establishment.
Such criticism arises due to the inability or the refusal of the critics to understand Sarvodaya’s basic philosophy. It may be so that in a given village certain powerful political or economic figures do exist. Such figures may also associate themselves with Sarvodaya. Their association does not mean that Sarvodaya is concurring with them or sharing their attitudes of exploitation. In the first place what Sarvodaya emphasises is the deed and not the doer. The rich man who exploits the people may have some good qualities. In his association with Sarvodaya it is hoped that these qualities would gradually develop leading to the doing of more and more good deeds finally contributing to a personality awakening in the individual himself which enables him to realize the extent of his own exploitation of others. At the same time the rich man’s relationship with the other villagers may be such that even if one explains his policy of exploitation, the other villagers may not realize it. Until and unless the others realize the nature of this exploitation paying lip services to the freedom that the villagers could earn by putting an end to such an exploitative process is not at all practical. When people realize the nature of such exploitation, they reawaken their personalities and thereby in the concerted and united action that emanates from the realization, the people power or Jana Shakti is born.
Exploitation, whether indulged in by individuals, groups, societies, organisations or governments, has to be realized by the people in practical terms before an attempt is made to end such exploitative processes. However much one may persuade others through speeches, harangues, pamphlets etc. the nature of the exploitation for ever eludes the people until such a realization should gradually take place. The language of the political platform orator, the party man, the preacher, the educationist thus eludes the grasp of the people. The Language of the people finds its expression in practical work. Sarvodaya attempts to make people understand the nature of exploitation by making them share a series of activities through which the exploitative process becomes a reality to them and through which the path to end such a process becomes discernible.
Economic activity according to Sarvodaya means (1) Production (2) Protection (3) Social environment in which production takes place and (4) Balanced consumption. Economic development therefore means the development of all these four aspects. Production means the creation of material and non-material goods to ensure a good life to all. Such goods have to be protected to assure an equitable distribution and to be used in times of scarcity. Not only goods but the environment where they are produced and protected is important to Sarvodaya. Production of goods in a way detrimental to the physical or spiritual well-being of the people is thus defined. Consumption should aim not at excessive consumption leading to luxurious life for a few and deprivation for the majority. The basic needs of man have to be met such as consumption and when these basic needs are satisfied for all no excessive and meaningless consumption could take place.
What are the people’s basic needs? The fundamental Buddhist teaching asserts the four basic needs of man: clothing, food, medicament and shelter. Based on these Sarvodaya has identified ten such needs*. Economic activity at all levels in a Sarvodaya society is geared to the satisfaction of these basic needs. Man should learn to control his insatiable desire to multiply his needs creating more and more goods to satisfy these endless needs. The resources of the human world are for all living beings and not for a selected few who are powerful enough to own and enjoy them.
Economic theory based on experience alien to us cannot help us to solve our problems. Ariyaratne’s contention is that, however valid such theories are to those countries in which they originated, in the peculiar context of a third world country where the experiences for centuries are different, this theory even if it is applied assiduously, cannot help us to understand our problems successfully. As an example he cites the theory of surplus labour and drawing from the socio-economic activities of the past constructs a theory of surplus merit. He says that in the past the men and women who lived in our society engaged in a certain economic action not only for the individual material gain they derived from it. There were other material and non-material gains achieved by engaging in an economic act. Take, for example, the construction of a religious edifice such as a Dagoba or a huge tank. The men and women who helped in such construction were requested by the Kings to ask for material gains often in the form of money (gold, silver or copper coins) equivalent to what they considered sufficient for their physical labour. The ancient records evidently point out that the majority of the people in this context drew money lower than the proportion of labour they contributed. It is because of the belief that such a sacrifice resulted in the accumulation of merit for them. Such merit would enable them to be happy in this world and the next.
The code of ethics which was ingrained in our people was not imposed from above by Kings who desired to plunder the surplus labour of the masses for their own good. On the contrary the labour thus sacrificed enabled them to construct vast reservoirs of water which helped the people in the cultivation of paddy that fed the entire country. On the labour thus donated helped in building beautiful pieces of architecture, sculpture or painting which became the cultural inheritance of the people. The Theory of Surplus Merit was thus conceived as the fundamental economic theory of the Sri Lankan society. It was not promulgated to exploit people and make the elite groups rich and powerful. The theory when put into practice not only contributed its share to the well-being of all those who lived in that particular era but also of those who will be born in the future.
Politically Sarvodaya commits itself to a peoples democracy where people matter. The decision-making and implementation power should rest with the people. The ideal is of assortment of small village republics each one ruling itself. At a practical level it means the creation of small groups in a society which when united could act as a countervailing power to any government elected by the people. The people’s power or Jana Shakti when organised gives expression to the people’s will which Sarvodaya believes should hold supreme authority.
What could Sarvodaya’s remarkable experience in this country give to the human beings living in other countries specially those of the Western World? Ariyaratne honestly admits that he is unable to formulate precisely how Sarvodaya experience could be of help to others. It is thus even more difficult to project this experience into the future and formulate hypotheses, such as how, for example, the basic tenets of Sarvodaya would stand up to the test of a fast industrializing world where even the literal meaning of words that denote spiritual and cultural experiences have become un-intelligible to most people or how the Movement can bridge an ever- widening psychological and intellectual gap between a minority of post-industrial communities and a vast majority of more or less below subsistence level communities in our world.
Undoubtedly the majority of the third world countries could benefit much from Sarvodaya’s philosophy and strategy. Although the political, economical or social conditions may be different from one country to another the way and the manner Sarvodaya has activated the process of development from down below involving the maximum participation of the people in the decision-making structure could inspire similar lines of approach among the rural or urban communities of these countries. The Sarvodaya philosophy of self-reliance expressed in simple working terms could be perhaps emulated to formulate a parallel philosophy able to motivate the people. The manner in which Sarvodaya has imbibed meaningful features from the past tradition may unfold a path by which such inspiration could be obtained from the past traditions of those countries. The way Sarvodaya has defined development in the language of the people is another example worthy of following.
Is there an alternative to our problems specially those faced by the youth of today and perhaps the problems that the youth of tomorrow have to face? In violence today’s youth have found their answer to injustices, inequalities and exploitation. The gun and the bomb is their repeated and only answer to create and usher in the utopian revolution they dream. Utopia achieved by guns and bombs is not worth achieving, says Sarvodaya. You die, so that a new world may be born. But is there an assurance that your death or anyone else’s death would usher in such a new social or economic order sans exploitation? Revolution therefore should be capable of not destroying human life but sustaining it. Revolution should re-create man and recreate a new equitable social and economic order. Revolution bereft of violence is the only alternative to the revolution ushered with the gun and the bomb. New world means the birth of a new man, non-violent revolution transforms man and transforms the world.
Finally let me conclude this Introduction with an apt quotation from Ariyaratne himself.
We are none of us still. Daily we are swept on by the stream of life. Unfortunate perhaps, we are undergoing a process of development, we are being moulded by our environment. Through Sarvodaya we are made conscious of this process and encouraged to play our part in it. We are awakened to the implication of our potential. But Sarvodaya does not only seek to awaken individuals, it aims to awaken the family, the village, the town and finally the nations that crowd this globe of ours.