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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
In 2002 Ari conducted a 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).
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 (www.sarvodaya.org) offer glimpses of that spiritual reality.
Learn more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._T._Ariyaratne