The mighty atom who created Sarvodaya

by Malinda Seneviratne
It is an extremely difficult task, and one that is even silly at some level, to offer a sketch of a man who has just finished an autobiography that runs into a full five volumes, and especially so because the man concerned has spent a lifetime of engagement with some of the most critical problems of society and has done so through a myriad of mechanisms spanning half a century.

And yet, as is the case in people with vision and purpose, the entire process is propelled by a simple set of principles and values. In the case of Ahangamage Tudor Ariyaratne, truth and non-violence were the paramount articles of faith.

Long before non-governmental organisations (NGOs) entered the lexicon of development and gradually acquired pariah status on account of racketeers discovering the market value of developmentalism and its worth as a convenient front for proselytisation, gun-running and spreading the bad news of western ideologies, and well before the term "Community Based Organisation" (CBO) became the preferred acronym, a young man set out to change the world.

He not only had a cogent critique of existing paradigms pertaining to development , both in terms of economic as well as the spiritual well-being of society, he had a vision that coupled with a methodology, and these were supported by an appropriate institutional structure. And today, Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne and the movement he founded, Sarvodaya enjoy not only household recognition through the length and breadth of the nation, but are known world-wide by development practitioners, statesmen, academics and ordinary people.

Ariyaratne was born to a middle-class family in 1931. His father, Henry Jinadasa, was a contractor in Unawatuna. His mother, Roslina Gajadeera hailed from Weligama. Young Ariyaratne was the third in a family of six. It is a little known fact that he was a member of the Mahinda College cricket team in 1951. In fact, he claims that watching cricket is his only hobby.


As a young man, he had been very keen on becoming a scholar. He was an avid reader, Dr. Adhikaram, Rev. Bambarende Siriseevali, Tolstoy, Bertrand Russel being among his favourite authors. Even now, at the age of 70, Ariyaratne continues to read. "I always enjoyed the heavy stuff". Among his prized possessions is his collection of books. "Except for my library and my house, I have given everything else to the movement," he said.

Ariyaratne claims that even as a child he had a natural tendency to help others. During his travels he had been struck by the poverty around him, and the powerlessness that flowed, according to him, from the prevalent economic and political structures. At this time he was teaching science subjects at Nalanda College although graduating with an Arts degree from the Vidyodaya University. He had then decided to give up "trying to climb the social/bureaucratic ladder" and had decided to find a solution to the structural violence in society.

"Personal violence results from things such as anger, greed etc.," he explained. "There is also structural violence, the economic and political system is just, democratic and fair only in name. So I wanted to organise the 25,000 villages in our country so that people, by themselves can improve their living standards. I was confronted by caste, class, political affiliation and had to transcend all these divisions.

"In the fifties, I was highly influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi as well as people like Vinodh Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan, especially the teachings of non-violence and the notion of ‘gram swaraj’."

He worked these ideas into the teachings of the Buddha, "working for the well being of all". This was the birth of Sarvodaya.

The movement started with the simple idea of shramadana. The movement attracted a lot of idealistic and talented young people and in the early days, Ariyaratne had to support many families on his salary. "Some days, we could eat only one meal a day. But we somehow managed. We went against the grain. We went against the conventional wisdom, which told us to take on something small and to then expand. We would go into a village and ask the people what their biggest problem was and we employed the shramadana concept to deal with it. Once the biggest problem was solved the rest don’t look insurmountable at all."

At first he took on a less strenuous work load in school, choosing to teach subjects such as Sinhala and English. In 1969 he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award and he gifted the entire sum of money he received to the movement. As the movement grew, so naturally did his work and the demands on his time. So in 1972, he had applied for 2 years of no-pay leave. The Department of Education refused him. Ariyaratne had no option but to take leave anyway.

"I was waiting for them to whack me with a ‘Vacation of Post’. They didn’t. In fact, I was never dismissed. I believe I still hold a Grade One Special Post in the Ministry of Education, although I don’t receive a salary or a pension."

Sarvodaya attracted both local and international support. Ariyaratne has functioned as a consultant for various UN bodies. He has received numerous local and international awards, held many important positions in world bodies and been conferred honorary degrees by the Sri Jayewardenapura University and the Emilio Aguinaldo College of Philippines.

The wealth of the movement slowly but surely expanded to the extent that Sarvodaya has a presence in 15,000 villages today, in addition to 36 district centres, 340 divisional centres and 8 special development education institutes. Under Ariyaratne’s guidance, Sarvodaya has developed 10 umbrella organisations covering areas such as early childhood development, peace, legal services, publishing, women’s issues, and economic enterprise development. These operate as separate entities.

How is it possible to keep such a large number of units and thousands of people from disintegrating? "Through the integration of 6 spheres, the spiritual, moral and cultural on the one hand and the social, economic and political on the other," Ariyaratne explained. The relentless pursuit of truth and the adoption of the principle of non-violence have been the twin beacons that have guided the man over the half a century.

This man, who has built the largest network of organisations outside the state apparatus, has for the last 7 years, taken a back seat, as it were, in social engagement. "I handed everything to the new generation. We have a board of 11 elected members, an executive council of 75 persons, and an executive director, my son, Vinya, who was earlier lecturing at the Medical College."

I asked Dr. Ariyaratne about the time when there was widespread speculation that he was being considered as a presidential candidate by a united opposition. Many people believed that he was the one man who could effectively defeat the dictatorial tendencies that were fast emerging at the political zenith of the nation. He confessed that such an idea had indeed been proposed, but nevertheless said that politics, power, and especially party politics never really attracted him. "Building or destroying a government is relatively easy. The difficult thing is to build a nation. I believe I have planted some seeds."

A man who has built a colossal organisational network and generated ideas that others have since used and even abused, naturally invites controversy. During those years of his rumoured presidential candidature, there was a concerted effort to bring him down, a Special Presidential Commission being appointed, supposedly to look into the NGO sector. It was common knowledge then that the real purpose was to "get Ariyaratne". That document is certainly historic and the exercise did bring large sections of the NGO mafia that has hijacked development in the name of the people into closer scrutiny.

That particular period was indeed traumatic for him and his family. There were threats hurled against him and he had to suffer political harassment unleashed by people who wielded enormous power. He has clearly borne all this with equanimity. "No government ever supported us fully. Still, I am thankful that they didn’t destroy us."

Dr. Ariyaratne delineated the fundamental fault lines of our society. "Although we had leaders who had a vision, best expressed by people such as Anagarika Dharmapala and Arumugam Navalar, after Independence we became servile to western thought, and western ideas of development. Our culture and our literature were not seen as important. English is important, of course. But Sinhala and Tamil should not have been neglected. That was a fundamental mistake.

"Vision alone is not enough. We have to have the right methodology. Both S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and D. S. Senanayake wanted us to be self-sufficient in our basic needs. The leaders that followed more or less allowed our country to be tightly tied to the international economic and political order, a system in which we are always dictated to and where we do not function as equals with the powerful nations.

"Finally, we depended on an institutional arrangement that was alien to us and totally inappropriate to our needs. We have a dependent economy in which the poor gets poorer and most of the wealth is concentrated on a few families. Furthermore, we have chosen a political system which we cannot enjoy. Party politics only exacerbates division along lines of caste, religion, political affiliation and ethnicity. It only contributes to the general degeneration in all spheres of social life."

He admitted that turning things around is not an easy task. "We have the vision. It is none other than what the Buddha said: the well-being of all. Methodologically, we need to place more faith in our indigenous technology and scientific knowledge. And we have to develop political and economic institutions which make divisive party politics less important.


"I believe in decentralisation. Not decentralisation on ethnic lines or anything like that, but a devolving of power to the level of the village. This is why I subscribe to the Gandhian notion of Gram Swaraj, a commonwealth of village republics."

I asked him to comment on the fact that despite all his efforts and the efforts of similarly motivated people, what we have seen in the past 30 years or so is only a steady deterioration in civil society in general.

Yes, it has not been easy and it will not be easy. When I was growing up there were people we could go to such as Professor Malalasekera. One hour with a person like that would be equivalent to a year in the university. We seem to be poorer in this respect now.

"Change requires courage and sacrifice. This is what I did. No government co-operated fully with Sarvodaya. Thankfully they spared us! Anyway, I believe that we are quietly but surely showing the way. The challenge in this era is healing the minds of people, healing nature and society. On the 25th of this month we will be holding a mass peace meditation at Dondra Point and 25,000 people are expected to participate. This will be replicated at several ‘energy points’ all the way up to Point Pedro. All this is to build a solid psycho-social infrastructure which will strengthen people morally. This will go a long way in re-ordering the economic and political structure of the nation. I know there are a lot of young, educated people who are disillusioned about the current set up and who are now considering alternatives."

Over the years, people have come and gone through the Sarvodaya movement. Some have started their own organisations. Others have actually turned against him. Still, this ageless man who "discards" his body and mind for 15 minutes every morning (which gives him the energy he needs for the entire day, according to him), claims that he never holds a grudge. "If I dwelled too much on that kind of thing, where will I find the time to do my work?" he asked.

The first volume of the 5 part story of this exceptional, and sometimes controversial man, will be launched today, in Sinhala, Tamil and English. It covers the period up to 1971 and is based on notes he had jotted down in journal form dating back to the fifties. It is replete with more than a hundred photographs, dating back to his days in Unawatuna.

Speaking on the autobiography, Dr. Ariyaratne said that he feels it would influence the young and help convince them that family background and wealth were not critical factors when it comes to doing something worthwhile to society.

"It is a good document for politicians and bureaucrats too," he said with a smile. "I highlight what I feel were the blunders, attacking the system but not the individuals responsible. And in some ways, it is also a historical document, because I am relating my first hand experiences and in my life I have met people who have played important roles in our country."

In his 70th year, Dr. Ariyaratne seems to have gradually worked himself out of regular and intense social engagement, although it is clear that he has difficulty in saying "no" to the many demands made on his time. He prefers, he says, to lead a life of meditation.

He is still a voracious reader. "I have started reading on how the corporate world. The more I read, the more scared I am," he quipped.

At the end of our interesting conversation, during which time I had the pleasure to meet his charming wife and enjoy their hospitality, I couldn’t help wondering who this man really was. I knew that a couple of hours and endless stories about a man is woefully inadequate in the matter of testing the texture of his heart and being. His work certainly speaks volumes. Perhaps his autobiography will reveal more. One thing alone I was convinced of. There is much to learn from Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne.