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December 14, 2004

Biography of A.T. Ariyaratne

Dr Ari

In the spirit of Martin Luther King, he has led peace marches and meditations with millions of poor people. In the mold of Mahatma Gandhi, he has quieted angry masses through his personal example. Like Jimmy Carter, he has successfully mediated intense conflicts and helped build hundreds of homes. Like the Dalai Lama and the world’s greatest preachers, he has an impressive ability to rally ordinary citizens to see the spiritual wisdom of looking beyond their own salvation to help ensure the salvation of others.

But he is definitely his own man…and is almost completely unknown to ordinary Americans. He is Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, founder of the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement of Sri Lanka.

Why has Sarvodaya earned international recognition? Dr. Ariyaratne and the movement he founded have survived years of government harassment and intimidation, assassination threats and malevolent neglect by politicians. Yet Sarvodaya continues to embody the meaning of its name: “the sharing of labor, thought and energy for the awakening of all.”

It is an underestimation to think of him, as journalists have, as Sri Lanka’s “little Gandhi,” even though he won the Gandhi Peace Prize in 1996, the Niwano Peace Prize, the King Beaudoin Award and many other international honors for his work in peace making and village development. True, Ariyaratne is “like” many other leaders of popular movements. But his unique, nationwide brand of “development from the bottom up” has an enviable track record of success that endures.

It has not been easy. After 45 years of service to strife-torn Sri Lanka and humanity, Ariyaratne now strives for peace with an urgency. While separatists and the government have waged war on the island, villagers have struggled to make ends meet. The quality of their lives has depended as much on each month’s rains and the generous spirit of their neighbors as it has on the promises of globalization or politicians.

In the late 1990s, the big money and swaggering influence of traditional international aid were drying up. Now Dr. Ariyaratne’s message resonates even more than before–economic development alone will not suffice. True community requires nourishing the body and the spirit; the melding of a sense of mutual responsibility and self help that comes from living the truths of compassion, loving kindness, joy in the happiness of others, and equanimity.

When telling the story of Sarvodaya it is tempting to speak in sheer numbers. The largest non-government organization in Sri Lanka, this grassroots movement involves people in more than 11,000 villages rediscovering their ability to influence their own destinies. Sarvodaya has energized them to build more than 5,000 pre-schools, community health centers, libraries and cottage industries; establish thousands of village banks; dig thousands of wells and latrines; promote biodiversity, solar energy, rehabilitation…and peace.

Rooted in Buddhism and other ancient Sri Lankan traditions, Sarvodaya celebrates the involvement of many of Sri Lanka’s bikkus–local monks who play an active role in village life. But the movement is open to anyone. One can visit a participating village and see houses built by Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims next to one another. New homeowners eagerly tell of their close friendships despite different religious and cultural traditions–friendships that come from working together for common goals.

Sarvodaya’s power can even be seen in Colombo, where previous government leaders, jealous of its influence, harassed both Ariyaratne and the movement as a whole. But most government leaders now admit that it is in the villages where Sarvodaya’s true value resides. One can travel for days to the most remote mountain settlements and still find signs of Sarvodaya: a seamstress who got her start from a loan through her village bank; a healthy child who benefits from home visits by a young mother trained by Sarvodaya in early childhood development; a well tapped with a hand pump made through Sarvodaya. Or a hand-hewn road that brings poor villages into physical and psychological touch with the outside world.

It is in the building of such roads that the movement actualizes its most moving testimony of greatness. In village after village where hopelessness and poverty ruled, Sarvodaya has engaged people to live by the motto: “We build the road and the road builds us.”

In a shramadana camp, hundreds of villagers work side by side to construct something they democratically decide is important to their common welfare. Children and grandparents, men and women of all religions and castes, rich and poor alike lift shovels and carry dirt, sing together, learn about community organizing and sometimes move mountains.
At the core of Sarvodaya, after all, is belief in one another.

In the cybernetic age where busyness and popular culture sap our energies, Sarvodaya can offer something sadly lacking in our part of the world. Instead of competition, it stresses cooperation. Instead of dogged independence, it promotes interdependence and sharing. In the place of cynicism about our fellow human beings, it offers practical wisdom and hope.

The language may sound slightly awkward and foreign to us only because we rarely speak in such terms, especially in public discourse. But A.T. Ariyaratne reflects those values no matter where or to whom he speaks about peace, Gandhi, village development and the sheer beauty of seeing Sarvodaya Shramadana mature from idea to impressive reality.

A veteran of years of push and pull from the likes of the World Bank, AID, the UNDP and similar agencies from around the globe, Ariyaratne is more than a bit blunt about the strings attached to such aid. Ironically, his self-help movement still struggles mightily with inadequate funding, even as it plays a key role in the nationwide effort for peace. Many Sarvodaya workers earn subsistence wages and most are volunteers. A week’s salary of one New York business person could support ten Sarvodaya workers for months. And they, in turn, would involve hundreds more. Dollar for rupee, very few other investments could match Sarvodaya’s developmental earning power. Such inequities should make us squirm.

But Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne’s belief remains…in the power of individuals, families, villages, nations…and a world tied together by an awakening of the spirit that breathes life into us all.

Instead of seeing A.T. Ariyaratne as “like” Gandhi or any other great men and women of peace, we need to know him as one man who made a difference for millions through Sarvodaya. His message applies to every corner of the earth where inequity, violence, poverty and hopelessness oppress everyday people struggling to make life worth living.

The depth of admiration for this world leader can be understood through the expressions of rich and poor, literary and political experts, religious scholars and scientists alike:

“Through his written and spoken words Dr. Ariyaratne conveys another emotion—hope…It is an optimism rooted in reality, in evidence that humanity can prevail, rather than in millennial faith. In an atmosphere of gloom and doom this is a refreshing affirmation. When a leader of Dr. Ariyaratne’s experience and sagacity has such hopefulness the development endeavor is charged with light.”

–Professor Ralph Buultjens, Toynbee Prize Laureate, Senior Professor at Yale University and the New School for Social Research, and Chairman of the International Development Forum, in the Introduction to Volume IV, A.T. Ariyaratne Collected Works, 1989.

Two biographies of Dr. Ariyaratne chronicle his work, accomplishments, challenges and leadership. The first, Revolution Under the Breadfruit Tree: The Story of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement and Its Founder Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, by Gunadasa Liyanage in 1998, bears an appropriate photo on its cover, of Ariyaratne leading a mass peace meditation. Liyanage’s final pages recount:

“The politician tries to reform society by means of such external devices like the baton, the gun, the prison and the gallows. Sarvodaya tries to reform society by an internal change in the individual through the means of Metta (loving kindness) and Karuna (compassion).

The politician builds culverts, bridges and highrises. Sarvodaya builds the human hearts. The politician turns the pages of the Penal Code to get the people onto the correct path. Sarvodaya turns the pages of Dhammapada to get the people onto the correct path.”

Premil Ratnayaka’s Apostle of Peace, published in 1997, offers the following insights:

“Ari says: ‘…after over 40 years, with fair acceptance and recognition of my community services both in my own country and abroad, I feel embarrassed when a visitor asks me, “What motivated you to start the Sarvodaya Shramandana Movement?” My reply is that I cannot think of any motivation as such, but I know that the desire was always there and unfolded as a natural process. I cannot think of my life without it being integrated and related to other living beings.

“This raises the question, what are the factors that influence our personality development? Our social culture teaches us that our personalities are conditioned by biological, environmental, karmic and mind factors. These factors in dynamic relationship go into the formation of what we generally conceive of as “I” “Me””You” and so on. “But in actual fact, when we go into ourselves and try to find this “I”, it is impossible to do so.

“There is no substantiality called an “I.” “”I” is only an illusion. In the process of my work, the more I tried to analyze this conventional “I” the more I realize that “I” is not a doer but a series of changing conditions and processes.” (104)

In his after word to Vol. III of the Collected Works, University of Hawaii philosophy scholar Dr. David Kalupahana described the importance of Dr. Ariyaratne’s contributions to the study of world religions and philosophy. “Unbridled investigations,” Kalupahana admitted, have resulted in scientific and technological revolutions, the satisfactions of the desires of affluent societies, and the gradual depletion of natural resources. But Professor Kalupahana saw A.T. Ariyaratne’s contributions in a very different light:

“Ariyaratne did not devote his life to the reading of Buddhist texts in their original languages. He did not undertake research in the field of Buddhist thought and history. Yet, a sincere attempt to understand the moral principles taught him by his parents and teachers could not lead him anywhere except toward that non-substantialist and non-absolutist philosophy of the Buddha. Ariyaratne’s reflections and investigations do not represent a development or an unfolding. It is the result of an attempt to understand the meaning and significance of the four forms of noble life, placed not in a mysterious heaven or another world but in the context of ordinary human life, social, economic as well as political. It is an attempt to reach out for the message of the Buddha for whom human life more than ideology, human happiness more than ultimate reality, were of primary concern.” (202)

Richard Flyer, who designed the original website for Sarvodaya, (now describes the integrated, interfaith nature of the movement that Ariyaratne founded:

“To achieve the goal of releasing psychological and social processes to serve in rebuilding a healthy community, Sarvodaya incorporates (in Dr. Ariyaratne’s words)” the essence of religion, which is spirituality. What is the most practical way in which the spiritual ‘being’ of human personality could be awakened? Whether it be Buddhist or any other religious teaching, whatever prevents people from awakening their personalities and transforming themselves spiritually is of no use in our work.”
“Sarvodaya workers try to awaken themselves spiritually and thus transcend sectarian religious differences, to be come one with all…..Several million Sarvodaya adherents in Sri Lanka have proved that they can transcend racial, religious, linguistic and ethnic barriers to accept a common state of ideals, principles, and constructive programs to build a new society as collectively envisioned by them.”

“We who have been born Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim, or any other faith can be very comfortable in each others’ temples, mosques, and churches, praying or meditating together to create a spiritual mass of consciousness which can overcome our greed, hatred, and illusions.”

One of the most enduring tributes to Dr. Ariyaratne can be found in the book Dharma and Development, by Buddhist scholar and peace advocate Joanna Macy. First published in 1978, the book was re-issued in 2002. In 2001 Dr. Macy was moved to return to Sri Lanka more than two decades after her initial field research. She was drawn to the Vishva Niketan International Peace and Meditation Centre to lead training on spiritual connections in work and organizations. In 2002 she was a part of the mass peace meditation in Anuradapura which attracted 650,000 people, later publishing a reflection on the event in the summer, 2002 edition of Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, entitled “The Sound of Bombs Not Exploding” (53-54).

In books such as Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Living Systems (SUNY Press, 1991), World as Lover, World as Self (Parallax Press, 1991) and Widening Circles: A Memoir (New Society Publishers, 2000) she repeats an ongoing theme that Sarvodaya exemplifies year after year—the interrelatedness of humans and natural systems–and Dr. Ariyaratne’s undying commitment to changing the “psychosphere” in order to promote harmony, respect for the land and the human spirit.

On her own web page, Dr. Macy recalls her first impression of the Sarvodaya founder in the 1970s:

“in this voluble, diminutive dynamo I found a scholar-activist who took the social teachings of the Buddha seriously and dared to believe that they could inspire change in the modern world. He had banked his life on that conviction, drawing from ancient traditions to empower what he called “the poorest of the poor.”

Quoted in Apostle of Peace, Joanna Macy described the unique value of Sarvodaya:

“While many capitalists and Marxists take spiritual goals to be quietistic, mystical, drawing one off into private quests, Sarvodaya’s goal and process of awakening pulls one headlong into the “real” world and into the Movement’s multi-faceted programmes for health, food, education and productive enterprise.” (112)

To find the true measure of the man, however, one must do more than read the words of scholars. The truth can be observed in being and doing; in watching the eyes and listening to the minds of villagers who have committed their lives to the principles of Sarvodaya. The “Virtual Shramadana Camp” and a growing collection of scholarly and popular literature on the Sarvodaya web site ( offer glimpses of that spiritual reality.

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement for the People in Need.