Buddhism and Sarvodaya,Sri Lankan Experience by A.T.Ariyaratne

Buddhism and Sarvodaya,Sri Lankan Experience

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  • Book Name Buddhism and Sarvodaya,Sri Lankan Experience
  • Author A.T.Ariyaratne
  • Language, Pages Engish, 261 Pgs. (HB)
  • Last Updated 2024 / 02 / 08
  • ISBN 9788170305149, 8170305144

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Buddhism and Sarvodaya,Sri Lankan Experience
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Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne is the Founder and President of Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka. He received his immediate inspiration for such activities from the work of Mahatma Gandhi and Acharya Vinoba Bhave. In Sri Lanka, he fashioned the Sarvodaya philosophy on Buddhist teachings and thus provided a living practical example of an alternative philosophy of development.

Dr. Ariyaratne is a prolific writer, and his writings are published in 6 volumes of collected works. He is the winner of a number of national and international awards. He won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 1969 and the Jamnalal Bajaj Award for propagating Gandhian values outside India in 1990, the King Boudouin Award in 1982, the Niwano Peace Prize in 1992 and the Hubert Humphrey Award in 1996. He has lectured in many countries and also before academic audiences, both in the east and west.

The essays included here deal with his development philosophy and strategy based basically on Buddhist teachings. How far could Buddhist teachings inspire modern day developmental efforts? Could Dr. Ariyaratne’s approach provide the modern world with the alternative theory of development it is searching for?

The essays are selected and the Introduction is supplied by Professor Nandasena Ratnapala.


Editor’s Note

I am happy to see this volume entitled: “Buddhism and Sarvodaya – Sri Lankan Experience” published by Shri. Naresh Gupta at the Indian Books Centre in New Delhi. It was he and Dr. Sunil Gupta who made this suggestion when Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne visited their office with me in New Delhi in March 1996.

I am grateful to both of them and also happy that Dr. Ariyaratne consented to allow me select a collection of his essays pertaining to this important subject. I have added the Introduction to provide the readers with an insight into Dr. Ariyaratne’s its value and relevance as an alternative development theory and practice.



The Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka started with Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne’s community development activities in a remote village known as Kanatoluwa as early as 1958 (Ratnapala 1978). The immediate inspiration for such work of Dr. Ariyaratne came from Mahatma Gandhi’s and Vinoba Bhave’s activities in India. As a Buddhist, from his young days, he was primarily interested in working for the welfare of other human beings and such activity was associated with him long before his experience at Kanatoluwa — the remote underprivileged village in Sri Lanka.

Dr. Ariyaratne learned about Sarvodaya, “the welfare of all,’’ from Mahatma Gandhi and gave it a Buddhistic interpretation, ‘‘the awakening of all.’’ This new interpretation later on laid down a foundation for an alternative theory of development fashioned on Buddhistic thought. The first step he took in interpreting the term Sarvodaya along his Buddhistic experience triggered off a venture dedicated to community development centred on human beings.

Development meant, at the time, some visible results made in the economic field usually measured in the increase in the G.N.P. and the per capita income. Very often the number of jobs supplied, the number of houses constructed etc, were utilised as development indicators. All these measures found only in the area of economics never looked at the total development in other sectors not directly related to economics.

Dr. Ariyaratne based his development theory on experience, working with the people. He saw how in the past, development was achieved as a total unified process not only in economics, but also social, cultural, psychological, environmental and spiritual elements which were included in the process of such a development. It was based on human beings, treating them as the centre of such a total development process.

The development of the individual and the development of the community (beginning from primary groups as the family and moving into small groups and finally to the society) was the goal of such development. First of the basic needs in the community need to be satisfied. Exploitation of people at whatever level found in society need to be eradicated if possible or reduced at least to a minimum level.

Strategies for such individual and community (group) development were found in Buddhist theory and practice. Sharing (dana) was of foremost virtue, and a practising quality among Buddhists even today. In India the Sarvodaya too had dana- the Bhoodan, Gramadan etc. In Lanka, Dr. Ariyaratne utilised shramadana; which started with the sharing of physical labour and went on to many other areas.

The concept of dana, re-interpreted as sharing, underscored physical labour done for the benefit of all. Sarvodaya’s sharing or shramadana strategy is the first time in our modern history where one observes a permium attached to physical labour. Usually, under foreign rule for nearly three centuries, Sri Lankans began to consider physical labour as demeaning. The Sarvodaya philosophy, providing an alternative theory and practice of development showed the people the dignity of physical labour.

Everyone in village or town did whatever he could contribute in the area of physical labour. The idea was to assert its dignity in developing a country. Whatever development activity is released; physical labour need to be executed. When everyone involved sharing in such physical labour could contribute what he or she is capable of, the basis for individual as well as social development is established.

Sharing, together with three other principles, formed a basis of behaviour in which Buddhist rulers in the past established social development in the country. After the dana or sharing, there is pleasant language (priya vacana), activities conducted together for everyone’s benefit (arthacariya) and equality (samanatmata). These principles caned together formed the Sarvodaya alternative social development theory and practice.

The awakening of the individual personality is to be done along four other principles considered as vital in individual development in Buddhism: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity are these principles. The individual or personality awakening takes place along these four principles while group awakening takes place following the earlier four principles (Kantowsky 1979, 63).

Buddhism lays emphasis on primary and small group activity in a country’s development. In this context, the value it places on the family, age-groups, occupational groups, peer groups and other community groups is important. Buddhist democracy functions successfully on the basis of such groups functioning all over the country. These small groups are expected to meet often, discuss all aspects of problems they face openly allowing all shades of opinion however feeble take decision, in unity and end their discussions maintaining such unity. Small group practice thus is a prelude to the practice of democracy at a higher level.

Dr. Ariyaratne was inspired by these Buddhist teachings and realised first of all the importance of the family as a small group. The rank and status of different members of the family when carefully articulated, results in a small group vital for both individual and community development. The dynamism and vitality that the family could contribute to development made obvious in Buddhistic teachings were immediately taken up and developed by Dr. Ariyaratne.

He included the family in his development terminology by calling it Kutumbodaya- the reawakening of the family. In order to arrive at this family reawakening, each member of the family should perform their respective roles in a dedicated, responsible and disciplined way. When each family performs this task, there is no difficulty of extending the development process all over the country.

From the family, he moved to age-groups. For him, even preschool toddlers became important. In an age where we talk of children’s rights, we must not forget that three decades ago, the Sarvodaya following Buddhist ideas organished little children in groups, making them share in their own development activities. It is the first time when these little boys and girls were made a part of local decision- making groups (the Sarvodaya local community comprised representatives from all such groups, especially children’s representatives).

In addition to little children, the Sarvodaya organised youth groups and mothers’ groups in villages and towns as small groups with definite objectives. The youth were neglected at the time and the disastrous results of such sheer neglect were seen three or four decades afterwards (197] and 1987-88). (It must be mentioned here that, to the credit of the Sarvodaya, no youth associated with Sarvodaya development-work got involved in terrorist uprising on those two occasions).

The importance of the mother in Buddhism may have inspired Dr. Ariyaratne to think of mothers’ groups. The women who are mothers could join this group, articulate their feelings, attitudes and ideas, share and learn from each other, protect their rights and privileges as women. Except for these mothers’ groups women’s rights and duties were not articulated by any formal organised groups at the time.

Of occupational groups, the farmers’ group was the most popular one. Since Sri Lanka was an agricultural country. agriculture was the vocation practised almost in all the rural areas. Following farmers’ groups, specific sub-groups based on various occupations and interests were formed. All these were small groups who could react to each other easily on virtue of their common interests and physical nearness.

The formation of such groups cut across traditional group structure sometimes based on caste, creed, kinship, lineage etc. It also disregarded economic and social status. Ta Buddhism, everyone was treated equally and the same practice was adopted in Sarvodaya group activities. All those who came, sat on mats spread on the floor as in the case of taking part in religious rituals. Equality reduced the high and low in the society into one dimension. Rather than preaching equality, Sarvodaya group-work practised it, adopting Buddhist strategies.

Dr. Ariyaratne was aware how according to Buddhism, no development could be ushered in by concentrating only on material things. Wealth to him was not only economic, but non-economic as well. From Buddistic teachings he was inspired to view development as a total process, touching material that economic, spiritual, social, cultural and psychological environmental areas. A parallel development in all these areas centred on the human beings, but not forgetting the environment covering animals, birds, fish, plants and trees as well as other natural phenomena. It is in this context that he thought development should begin with the least powerful and privileged in society.

Incidentally, the first village he selected to test his theory and practice of development was such an under-privileged village. Mahatma Gandhi termed this strategy as Antodaya. After his first village, the Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka worked in a number of under-privileged villages and perfected this strategy of working and living with people and motivating people to help themselves.

Such development activities in these villages contributed significantly to change the social attitude towards these groups of people. The people in these villages were traditionally considered as belonging to a low caste (e.g. the 1-larijans in India). Although Buddhism does not support caste; these unfortunate people came to be treated as social inferiors even by certain Buddhists. Social change in Buddhist teachings is considered as inevitable. Buddhist teachings emphasise that everything is subject to decay. There is nothing permanent in all component things. Thus, for Sarvodaya ushering social change was not something difficult, because the necessary positive climate for such change is already prepared by Buddhist teachings.

Dr. Ariyaratne has learned another development technique from Buddhism. This technique was modelled on the basic Buddhist principles concerning the Four Noble Truths, First of all he attempted to find out the nature of the problem at hand (the first Truth, Dukka in life, that is unpleasantness). Then the cause for the problem (that which caused unpleasantness). Thirdly, the way to get rid of the problem (by means of the noble eightfold path or personal and community awakening) and finally the end result of the Path (total development or Nirvana).

Dr. Ariyaratne applied his theory and practice along these lines, thinking of ending all forms of exploitation both within and without the individual. Total education, he considered as vital, and coupled it with practical action. This is what he with other Sarvodiyans did in Kanatoluwa and the early underprivileged villages. Education should not only bring knowledge (information), and skills; but also wisdom. By wisdom he meant the application of knowledge and skill towards the betterment of both the individual and the community. If such wisdom is not found education becomes meaningless. ft is only character that contributes much to the distillation of wisdom from skills and knowledge. Again and again, Sarvodaya emphasised character-building as an essential aspect of development. This is an aspect neglected in modern theories of development which emphasise only economic production, forgetting all other significant areas of lire.

He thus went, lived and worked with the people and learned from them. The Great Buddha exhorted the first Buddhist monks to go and live and work for the welfare of the majority (the people). By living with them, sharing their huts, food, equipment, and by breathing the identical air, Dr. Ariyaratne and the Sarvodiyans could understand and feel with those very people whom they involved in participatory development.

The Sarvodaya alternative theory of development is not a theory imposed from above, or an academic (hypothesis) to be tested in the field. It is an empirical realization acquired in involving with people at hard work. The participatory aspect in which the people are motivated to become their own masters is at the basis of it.

In all Sarvodaya strategies, community participation is considered vital. When a shramadana or any other sharing activity is involved where everyone contributes according to one’s capabilities and mite it is not necessary for such a contribution to be great or small. What is necessary is the participatory involvement. The big and small dimension loses its meaning in Sarvodaya activity.

In the Buddhist tradition, there is a concept called ‘Pin’ or merit (Ratnapala, 1986 60-78). The idea and practice of merit involves participation. It begins from symbolic to immersed participation. One may contribute a handful of rice to a collection made to feed the people. It is symbolic. Another could contribute one full meal to all those taking part -- thus immersing himself totally in the act. All types of such activities are appreciated. The greatness of the act depends not on the quantity given; hut on the nature of the thought a person entertains at the time. Karma in Buddhism is volitional activity. The natue of one’s volitional activity in this context decides the quality of his contribution.

Dr. Ariyaratne followed the development process after enquiring fully into the nature and causes of things. He learned about this from the first two principles of Buddhism. (i.e. the first two principles or Truths of the Four Noble Truths), Consequently, he laid great emphasis on research. Before development activity takes place, the nature of the village, town or community and the causes for such a nature are examined. Thus, for Sarvodaya enquiring into the present nature of things and familiarising with the situation is considered something necessary. Hence the emphasis laid on research by Sarvodaya.

The people themselves should become aware of this nature and causes. Every effort is made to make them share such a process of investigation. Participation here enabled the people to come out with their own solutions to problems and learn to analyse the problems by themselves. Unless people are made aware of the problems and come out with their solutions to such problems, all development effort would be meaningless.

Once the nature and causes of a given social situation is realised, and the people themselves come out with solutions, they are made to discuss and examine them, selecting the most appropriate solution available to them. In this context as in Buddhism (attahi attano nato), one is one’s Own refuge, Development is best when one, or a community decides to develop itself with its own resources, depending very little on what is corning from outside.

In making Individuals and communities to re-awaken themselves, ill such strategies which they utilised for this end Should be Sustainable They should see that their process of development could be carried out in the long run without being dependent J this connection what is small was considered as beautiful and appropriate technology is that which does not destroy the individual and does not spoil the environment unnecessarily and which is based on Community initiative was preferred.

The environment is emphasised as a vital factor, and even as a blessing to human beings when carefully selected and maintained as stated in Buddhist teachings. Dr. Ariyaratne, from the inception of the .Sarvodaya stressed on this blessing In fact, of the ten basic needs, he enunciated later (Ratnapala 1989, 157 ft) “a clean and beautiful environment was the first basic need. To be clean themselves and to keep the environment clean, Protecting it from pollution as well as profit-centred encroachment by human beings was a Sarvodaya goal.

Emphasis on the rights of all, including the rights of children and women-two most neglected sectors in our Society was a part of 1ticSavoday development policy. The Sarvodaya, following Buddhism went beyond present day human rights, concentrating on the rights of Jill living beings-- even that of animals, birds etc. The all-encompassing towards the entire living beings found in Buddism became Sarvodayn’s accepted policy. Consequently race, creed, caste and such manmade distinctions disappeared completely.

In organising the community through various small groups, the Sarvodaya development strategy strived to conscientise them. Participant in small groups listened, disc5j and informed themselves [hey came to know of their rights, responsibilities duties and privileges. In the group, they reacted against each other, learning tolerance and (he need to respect other persons’ Viewpoint. Real democracy as a way d life was practised by them in those small groups.

The people selected their political representative’s and transferred political power to them from time to time. In other words, political power which ultimately rested with the people is leased to them representatively by way of seasonal elections. But the people often electing their representatives do not know how to make use of their representatives to serve them. Their political power in reality ends after a general election.

Buddhist political practice teaches how people could lease political power and make use of it when representatives are sent to the legislative assemblies and see to it that they carry out what they want. Finally, the people could get rid of their representative if such individuals do not carry out the mandate given correctly, even before a definite tune frame.

In order to do this, Buddhism teaches to enunciate intense small group activity. Such activity could voice public opinion and serve as a social protest. In the past, when kings reigned on certain occasions, small group activity was found successful as a way of social protest and expressing peoples’ power. The Sarvodaya strived to empower the people through such social political activity. The people’s political power becomes real when exercised by them in strong small groups. The people become politically conscious only then, Public opinion is thus marshalled and fortified in the action of thousands of such small groups.

Sarvodaya developed an indicator to measure development in the form of ten basic needs. The universally accepted indicators including the quality of life index do not provide us with a real measurement to understand development. The ten basic needs approach was made after getting the people involved in development to see how their efforts could be measured by themselves (Kantowsky 1979, 76, ff; Ratnapala 1989, 156ff).

The ten basic needs include: (1) a clean and beautiful environment. (2) A clean and adequate supply of water. (3) Minimum clothing requirements. (4) A balanced diet. (5) A simple house to live in. (6) Basic health care. (7) Small communication facilities. (8) Minimum energy requirements. (9) Total education. (10) Cultural and spiritual needs. Each of these needs have been sub-divided and detailed, making 167 items altogether.

‘‘The Sarvodaya philosophy is a syncretic ideology, and universal concept. All forms of creating altruism and evolutionary humanism; be it from Marxist aim of material integration, Rousseau’s option of social integration, just to name a few examples, arc inherent in the Sarvodaya philosophy practised by us-for ours is an attempt to bring about total human integration. The philosophy that influences us most in evolving our Sarvodaya concept in Sri Lanka is Lord Buddha’s teaching’s (Ariyaratne 1977).




Editor’s Note v
Introduction vii
1. The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement – Hundred Village Development Scheme 1
2. Sarvodaya in Buddhist Society 29
3. Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement: Towards a Global Perspective from a Rural Experience 34
4. Integrating National Development with the Rural Sector 46
5. Western and Asian Science – Two Ways of Seeking Knowledge Through Causes 54
6. Non-violence as a Process of Transforming Action with Inner Harmony 65
7. On Survival and Development – Lessons from Sarvodaya – A Buddhist Inspired Movement for Universal Awakening 71
8. Village Studies for Development Purposes 77
9. Peace-Making in Sri Lanka in the Buddhist Context 87
10. Social Service and Humanity – What Buddhist can contribute 104
11. Sarvodaya Concept of Development and its Applicability to Building-up an Asian Regional Network Including Japan 108
12. Political Institutions and Traditional Morality 133
13. Technology and Rural Transformation 149
14. Transformation of Vision into Reality-Planning for Development (Awakening) 166
15. A People’s Agenda for Global Awakening 185
16. Buddhism in the 21st Century 199
17. Tolerance as a Positive Characteristic for Personal and Structural Change 213
18. Buddhist Thought in Sarvodaya Practice 228

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