The Sarvodaya story is perhaps familiar to the reader by now. The man behind the movement, less so. Ahangomage Tudor Ariyaratne, “Ari,” is a dynamic thinker and leader from humble beginnings in a village in Sri Lanka. As a young man he aspired to social service. It was during his career as a science teacher at Colombo College that his dream began to take shape when, in 1958, he led a group of students to a remote “lower caste” village where the people lived in destitute conditions. His group started by helping the villagers dig wells and build latrines. Thus began the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement (Sarva Udaya: “awakening all,” Shramadana: “gift of energy”) based on Gandhian and Buddhist principles.
The movement grew rapidly; each village that was helped became part of the work pool in the sharing of energy with other needy villages. At present there are two to three million members of Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka including 60 percent of the police force and many ranking members of the government. In addition to the bonds they form doing work projects together, the members of Sarvodaya practice lovingkindness meditation (metta) once or twice a day at the same times. Ariyaratne feels that these many loving thought forms being sent out simultaneously have a tangible effect on humankind.
Like Gandhi’s method, Ariyaratne’s strategy has always been surprisingly simple—the kind of plan that inspires the old, “Why didn’t someone think of that before?” A Sarvodaya group goes to a village and convenes a “family gathering” of the villagers to discuss what the community needs and to come up with a project for implementing those needs. Sarvodaya volunteers then help them to carry it out. In this way Sarvodaya has provided ambulance services and health care, transportation facilities, agricultural projects, and a wide range of technologically appropriate benefits such as windmills and methane generators which convert human wastes into cooking gas. In one year, Sarvodaya built three times the length of road as did the government—at a tiny fraction of the cost. Sarvodaya now has projects such as these in many countries, particularly in Africa and Asia.
There is a tendency for myths to develop around a leader that helps so many. Yet Ariyaratne seems unaffected by his large following; he is conscious of the pitfalls fame and admiration can produce. In one of our conversations he reminded me of Gandhi’s words of caution: “When you try to do something for people you have to go through five phases: first, people will greet you with indifference, then they will start ridiculing you, then they will abuse you, next they will put you in jail or even try to kill you. If you go through these four phases successfully, you will get to the most dangerous phase when people start respecting you. Then you can become your own enemy unless you are careful.”
So Ari tends to be careful. He wants no truck with “power politics” though he is regarded as perhaps the most popular man in Sri Lanka and consults regularly with President Jayewardene. He is a family man who lives in a simple house near the Sarvodaya headquarters in Moratuwa with his wife, mother and six children. He works hard, sleeps little, and looks his fifty-three years.
In October 1984, I conducted this interview with Ariyaratne in San Francisco. He had been traveling for several months and was on his way east, stopping in only a few places in America. Having interviewed him the year before in New York, I was struck with what I perceived to be a change in his presentation. His statements have become more forceful; his plea for humanity more urgent. I do not believe this urgency to be primarily due to the turmoil in his native land; he has too much international savvy for that. I felt that Ariyaratne spoke for many the world over in his appeal for a lessening of the greed, the tension and the frenzy that characterize our modern way of life. The principles of his movement, he is quick to remind us, are based not only on the sharing of energy but on the need for awareness and sensitivity to those less fortunate, wherever they may be. In this interview, Ari speaks about the problems of the Third World and about our need to wake up to them.
Catherine Ingram: Ari, you say that the world’s problems are interrelated. Could you specify the ways in which this is so?
A. T. Ariyaratne: Yes, we are living in a world which is interdependent in a number of ways; communications and various technologies have brought us together, technical things that we are all using, such as this tape recorder, these have become common everywhere, even in places where people have nothing to eat. The world’s resources are being used. I’ve just returned from Japan where I heard that 70 percent of their food requirements are imported from other countries. The so-called economic miracle of Asia, Japan, is also dependent upon the rest of the world and mostly from those countries where people are starving. These are one kind of interdependency. The other way that our problems are connected is that the superpowers are building their nuclear armaments. If anything happened, an accident, it’s not only they who are going to suffer, but everybody in the world. And there are also the drugs that are dumped in our countries, pesticides, experimental pharmaceuticals. Whatever we are doing, whatever part of the world, we have to keep in mind this global perspective. In the Sarvodaya Movement, while we may be working in the remotest villages in Asia or Africa, we always try to keep a global vision.
CI: Have you seen any decline or any improvement in the economic status of the poor in the last few years?
ATA: There has been a reversed process. Instead of the conditions of the poor improving, I think conditions are becoming worse. I believe the cause is that the international economy is controlled by so few people and furthermore, that the people who are actually the primary producers of food and labor-intensive products are in the poorer communities of the world. Take Sri Lanka for example. Maybe a handful of people in Sri Lanka, a really insignificant minority, are benefiting from the economic development or the increase in trade with the West that has taken place in the past few years, while the poorer people are becoming poorer and the numbers of people who become poorer is increasing. This is a phenomenon in all the developing countries.
In my country, wherever food is processed we pay more for the processing than for the food, with the chemicals and all that. Supposing there were a direct exchange between people, all these expenses would be cut down and all these idle rich fellows can be made to work or go to the jungle and meditate if they have nothing else to do. The whole thing is a pyramid and everything is done to satisfy the upper level. International trade should be restricted because the injustice this international economic order produces cannot satisfy basic needs of clothing and shelter but satisfies the greed of the rich people in rich countries. And they get in return cash, and this cash is once again spent to buy created wants, created by the advertising media. It’s a vicious cycle.
What I would advocate is to de-link, totally de-link from this international economic system. Now I do not mean to disassociate from different peoples in the world. We should simultaneously strengthen the linkages that exist between grassroots or non-exploitative groups in the world who do not approve of the present affluent social systems which are trying to direct all our energies.
CI: How would you link up all those grassroots organizations?
ATA: First we have to think of what we as people, whether in the rich or poor countries, have in common. What we have in common is humanity, the spiritual life of people. In this, there are not barriers at all. I believe that spiritual life cannot be centralized. It is possible for us human beings to organize our own life as individuals, to organize our lives as families, and to organize what we call a community. If we are to bring about any change in this at these three levels, the individual, the family, and the community, we have to strengthen the spiritual foundation we have.
In our Sarvodaya experience, when several hundred of us meet together, think together, work together, share our joys and sorrows together, we feel that we are releasing certain thought processes which give us some sort of protection, some hope, joy, security. We feel those effects and we believe that our communities are linking in this way. Maybe the scientists will prove it one day but even if they don’t, we don’t care. Now I am here in San Francisco over fourteen thousand miles away from my home. I don’t feel that I am in a strange place; I don’t behave as if I am among strangers. Similarly, you didn’t treat me as a stranger; you accepted me as a member of your family. So in spite of our geographical or economic levels in different parts of the world, people who believe in the small community can always get together.
In the cases where people stay apart it is because we allowed the technology to be used and handled by those who believe in huge systems of power or huge systems of economic organization such as the military or multinationals. Most of the technology available in the world is used by this minority of people who believe in largeness, centralization. So we, as small communities, first building on our own spiritual life, should find those technologies that we can utilize to communicate with each other. Maybe we can’t launch satellites straightaway but we can use the telephone, the postal services, the printed matter. There are ways that small groups in the world keep in contact. And this is what reaches the old societies.
When I say the “old” society, I don’t mean the society that existed in the twelfth or thirteenth century. What I mean is a society that is existing in 1984 which is steeped in the “old” values—where they believe that children have a moral responsibility to look after their parents when they are old, where a family has a responsibility to live in cooperation with the families around them, where the food producer has a moral obligation to produce clean food without destroying the environment or polluting the soil by using all types of chemical fertilizers.
The biggest blunder Western culture has made is that there is no standard to measure good and bad. It is lost in liberal thinking. In other words, there is nothing called sin and merit. You are not accountable because you do not know whether you will be reborn or not. We believe in rebirth. We believe in sin and merit. In our society in Sri Lanka, the old system prevails to this day. I believe that the vast majority of people in the world, at least 85 percent, belong to this old society. And some of them are economically well off, of course, but still they retain their old values. It is a mistake for us to forget these values, to just want the modern society where we have so many goods around us and that this 85 percent should rush to acquire what the 15 percent have. This wealthy 15 percent are not only in the U.S. and Japan; they’re there in my country too.
So now, what should we do, those people who belong to the old society, who wish to reject this attitude of trying to become the modern society, energy-consuming, environment-polluting. We say reject it. We want to live in the old ways correcting the deficiencies we have, satisfying the basic needs of people so that nobody will be poor. We don’t want to be rich; we want a no-poverty society, not an affluent society. And we will make a new society bypassing the modern society in the same way that those who are in the modern society bypass the old society. They have unsuccessfully and, well, dishonorably told the people in the Third World, “Come, you can reach our level. We give you the First Development Decade, the Second Development Decade, the Third, we give you the Year of the Children, Year of the Disabled, the Old, the Year for Women.” All right, now after all these beautiful years, are the disabled looked after, are women liberated, is every child fed? No. So this bluff must stop now. The poor man still cannot find one liter of water to drink while these others have thousands of liters in which to swim. We say, “No, we don’t want to reach where you are. Instead we believe in a spiritual foundation, moral relationships, small economic and political organizations in a highly decentralized but highly coordinated way.” How to do it? Well, we have to find how to do it. This is why we have to link up all these movements around the world and think together.
CI: With regard to the moral and spiritual values of the old societies, I’ve heard that in Sri Lanka, with the great influx of cash, that there’s been a lot of prostitution among young people—boys and girls who in a weekend can make more money than their parents make in a year—and that it’s turning the Sri Lankan economy upside down. Is Sarvodaya addressing this problem?
ATA: Well now we are doing curative work, trying our very best to save people who have gotten into drugs or prostituttion or crimes or other social evils. We have programs, a whole range of welfare activities to help these people. We have a special program in the south where ex-criminals are also now being reformed. But at the same time we have a program to prevent this sort of thing from happening. Our efforts should not be merely palliatives or first aid but should also be preventative. This program has a dimension where people are shown a society in which this sort of thing will not occur. We try to show downtrodden people ways to uplift their general conditions and attitudes. However, our social philosophy in the Sarvodaya Movement is that a lot of these problems are the result of the unjust system that is prevailing.
CI: Does America play a major role in the economic oppression of the poor of the world?
ATA: I think America should take a substantial share of the responsibility. After all, America was a country built with very high principles of equality, brotherhood and all that. I remember our parents looking up to America as the country which might liberate the rest of the world. But I do not think America is playing, or as a matter of fact, that the Soviet Union is playing the role that these big powers should play in the world today. They have no moral right to spend nine hundred billion dollars a year for armaments when nine hundred million people are starving. As long as this sort of money is completely diverted for the destruction of people, the economies of the poor people are shattered.
CI: In the process of de-linking your country from the international system, how will you handle the problem of your enormous foreign debt? Is this a way in which the international banks have brought your economy under their control?
ATA: Yes, they have tied the economy of the developing poorer countries to the world economy in such a way that they set the rules and they are in control. These countries have no way out of this situation unless they gather all the courage they have, educate the people as to what has happened, prepare them to face the worst as far as the consequences of such action is concerned and then tell the banks we are not going to pay our debt.
You see, right from the beginning, at the time we were given the money, it was inherent in the system that we were not in a position of earning and paying it back. Now to get out of it of course will have very severe consequences; it’s not as easy as what I say. That’s why this could be done only by countries whose leaders have the capacity to show an example of selfless leadership by their own style of life, their own fearlessness and their moral integrity. A leader who could say, “look here, this is the reality of the situation, we can go on taking loans and being in debt but we will never succeed in eradicating poverty in our societies. At most we will only increase the rich by a few more people. To eradicate hunger in our country, therefore, we are going to reject this economic theory, this market economy as it works now and instead pool all our resources to produce the primary needs of the people.
The “basic need” is our first economic objective, not growth, not increasing the per capita incomes. This talk about growth and no-growth is nonsense when there is no value attached to the whole thing. You should not ask the question “How much has the economy grown,” you should ask the question, “How many people are now getting a balanced meal?” You know, a lot of wealth goes into unnecessary consumption, wasteful consumption, but in the old societies, when the primary needs are satisfied, they then built works of art and architecture. Of course, a Marxist would say this is all from the slave labor of the people and there have been some societies like that, but not the Sri Lankan society. That Samadhi statue of Buddha [at Polonaruwa, Sri Lanka] could never have been carved by a slave. It could have been done only by an absolutely free man who got into that stone and carved the serenity of the Buddha. I remember Pandit Nehru, the Prime Minister of India, came to stand in front of it and just looked at it for long periods of time. Only basic cultures produce great works of art and architecture in the world, things that last for centuries.
Now once we satisfy these primary basic needs, next we are going to satisfy the needs at a community level. Every house need not have a television set; you can have a bigger television for the whole community. I visited a community last week in Japan; only three hundred people in the community. They have a daycare center, a preschool, a primary school, a junior secondary school, a senior secondary school and a university. This serves the entire community—men, women and children. They live quite happily without a mass educational system which only conditions the people to a society where competition and individual material advancement are the main objectives. So by filling these larger educational needs in a cooperative way the resources would be more than enough for every country. The leadership in poor countries has to have the courage to decentralize the economic and political power. Decentralization strengthens the center, really. If the center has the courage to distribute power, to that extent the center is strong. Once the country as a whole has that kind of strength, then they can say to these foreign banks and governments, “Sorry, we would like to pay you because customarily we pay our debts, but we can’t pay. You have taken it back many times more in other ways.”
CI: In the last year and a half there has been a wave of violence in Sri Lanka between the Tamils and Singhalese. You planned a peace march, I understand, and were stopped by your president [Jayerwardene]. Could you talk about this?
ATA: Yes. Last year, as anticipated by most of us, there began a big wave of violence in Sri Lanka. This was generally called communal violence, but for us it was the climax of a gradual breakdown of spiritual, moral and cultural values. This had been happening over twenty or thirty years. Then the communal issue became the excuse for what happened and there was a lot of publicity given outside Sri Lanka saying that the Singhalese Buddhists were killing Tamil Hindus which is an absolute lie. No Buddhist killed any Hindu as such. There are gangs of fellows belonging to lawless elements and also to political parties who were waiting for any chance to plunder other people and get money. These are the people who did all this damage—not a single Buddhist monk or what you call a decent Buddhist. When this all began, none of the leaders came out to stop it. So the Sarvodaya groups appealed to our people to come out and do whatever possible to stop the escalation of violence and help the people who were affected. We opened up relief camps and did everything possible throughout the country for relief and for rehabilitation which we are still doing.
We also started immediate reconciliation efforts. I personally went round the country addressing public meetings everywhere, and appealing to both Singhalese and Tamils not to get trapped in this violence involving a few hundred people. We had seventeen Tamil brothers and sisters living in our house. One day a Singhalese gang came to the door and my young daughter went out and said, “My parents’ instructions are that if my father is there he will have to be killed first before any Tamil family is touched. If my mother is there, she will die first. Now I am the oldest in the family and as my parents are not home, I will have to die before you touch them.” Perhaps she didn’t realize the gravity of what she was saying, but the people did not harm her. They apologized and went away. This is the type of thing newspapers don’t publish. There were many, many Singhalese women and children who did heroic deeds during that period when there was insanity prevailing in the country.
CI: These were Buddhists who were protecting Tamils?
ATA: Yes, yes, yes. In our village we were looking after 11,000 in a refugee camp. Now there are about 89,000 refugees in Sri Lanka. The government formed a rehabilitation ministry for welfare and relief. A very good man was in charge of it and we at Sarvodaya helped out. Then we convened a conference of Tamil and Singhalese leaders. At this conference we adopted several resolutions and a Peace and Harmony Declaration which I undertook to deliver by walking from one end of the country to the other. So I started the walk and I wanted about 500 people to come from different parts of the country representing the various communities—to join me symbolically. Within only a few days, there were nearly 30,000. They were so very well disciplined; we held religious ceremonies where people of different religions participated in religious observances in every temple or church nearby. This was the first time this had happened in Sri Lanka.
Then on the fifth morning, we started the Peace Walk and went fifteen miles. But when we stopped to address a gathering, the president of Sri Lanka arrived and told the crowd that the government had received information that I would be killed if the walk continued and that it would only lead to more violence in the country. He appealed to them to discontinue for that time and said that later they could walk again and he promised to convene an All-Party Conference to try to establish peace. Now when the president personally comes and makes a public appeal like that, I can’t be that stupid or arrogant just to turn it down, so I stopped the walk. I did not stop because of my personal safety; I would not stop simply because somebody threatens me. We who take to nonviolent revolution are prepared to die any moment to make others live. But on the second count, I didn’t want anybody to say that because of us the All-Party Conference was not called or that it got disrupted. So I told the people, “As far as I’m concerned, the Peace Walk stops now, but the peace journey will continue. I will go by car till such time that an All-Party Conference starts. Now, it is in your hands, your excellency.” Having said that, I stayed there three days and then got into the car and started going to distant places. Like that I continued for, I think, sixty-nine days. When the All-Party Conference started we stopped that work and I decided by that time that I was creating unnecessary fear in the minds of political leaders, both for those in power and for those who were trying to come into power. They were not so much afraid of the movement; they were more afraid of me because they thought I could move crowds of people. Then I decided that it’s bad to create fear in anybody’s mind so I decided to leave the country for a period of time to alleviate this fear. I decided to go abroad, stay for a few months, helping people wherever I could, sharing my ideas, learning something, and then come back. Like that I have lived from last April to this coming December when I will return.
CI: They were afraid that you will become a political force?
ATA: I am a political force; I mean, I need not hide it. But, you see, I will never dabble in power politics. There are more important things to do. Instead of confronting a government, we in Sarvodaya confront the whole system. They may call us sentimentalists or idealists or whatever. We are not interested to sit in their chairs but that fear is there. Anyway, when I go back in December I’ll continue my work. My absence does not affect the movement; the movement has eight divisions, an executive director, a committee of seventy-five people. Every village is organized. We will double the number of places where we work before the end of one year. Yes, Sarvodaya will go on. My dream is to get 16,000 villages in Sri Lanka to build a truly alternative system without calling it alternative, and then to one day declare our freedom.