New Internationalist

Souls And Soupkitchens

Issue 105

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SRI LANKA [image, unknown] The Sarvodaya Peoples movement

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Souls and soupkitchens

Sri Lanka is also home to one of the Third World’s most famous peoples’ movements — now working in over 3000 villages on the island.
Anuradha Vittachi profiles Sarvodaya Shramadana and its founder A. T. Ariyaratne.


Hands together, head briefly bowed. That’s the traditional form of greeting in Sri Lanka and India. It’s as familiar as the handshake in the West And just as the handshake is no arbitrary gesture, the ‘namaska’ murmured over hands meeting by the breast has a symbolic meaning: the divinity within me honours the divinity within you. It is a gesture of mutual honouring, not of simple obeisance: it signifies a respect that implies self respect.

To understand that mutuality is to begin to catch the flavour of ahimsa, the doctrine of ‘respect for all life’. If its ideals were fulfilled, each individual would live in equilibrium with his human and natural environment. It is a fundamental principle of the Buddhist tradition that flowed south from the foothills of the Himalayas. And it is the cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s revolutionary ‘Sarvodaya Shramadana’ movement.

The movement’s founder, Ahangamage Ariyaratne is fondly known as ‘Ari’ or ‘Ariya’. He doesn’t look much like a revolutionary leader — not if you expect a bearded guerilla. A bemused American recently described him as ‘a blend of Charlie Chaplin and Omar Sharif.'

Yet he is so much like another, celebrated revolutionary that he has even been nicknamed after him — Sri Lanka’s ‘Little Gandhi’. The two have much in common. Ari is a Buddhist and Gandhi was Hindu. But ahimsa is a doctrine crucial to both religions. Gandhi discarded his barrister’s gown for a twist of coarse-spun khaki to emphasise his identification with the rural poor. Ari wears a sarong. Both keep their material needs to a minimum: spiritual development always comes first.

Way back in 1918 it was prophetically written of Gandhi that ‘he would be a dangerous and uncomfortable enemy, because his body, which you can always conquer, gives so little purchase of his soul’. Ari is less austere than the ‘half-naked fakir’ — recommending, for instance, that each individual should have six sets of clothing: two for work, two for home-wear, one for sleeping in, and one for special occasions — but his priorities remain the same: inner needs should govern external satisfaction, not the other way round.

‘Centuries ago,’ Ari says, ‘my country was a prosperous food exporter. But people in those days planted crops not thinking to make so many bushels per acre or so much money. They planted then. thinking "I am doing something which is going to feed human beings and animals." The external activity had an internal social and spiritual relevance, so that not only the plant grew but people’s lives also grew. Today we value people’s physical and mental labour ‘only for its market price, not for the development of the human beings themselves and the whole of society’. Schumacher, not surprisingly, was a fan.

Even the term sarvodaya was Gandhi’s. It meant ’the welfare of all’ and was the name he gave to his Gujerati translation of Ruskin’s Unto This Last, a book whose first principle was ‘that the good of the individual is contained in the good of all’. Gandhi founded his first sarvodaya community as a consequence of Ruskin’s book. An too lives by a comprehensive vision of human co-operation. Sarvodaya Shramadana’ (sarVO-daya SHRAmadana) means ‘the awakening of all through the sharing of time, thought and labour’.

As a political principle, it differs fundamentally from the democratic principle of ’the greatest good of the greatest number’.

Ari is scathing about this kind of ‘Particracy’, as he calls it. Once every four or five years, in his view, the urban elite ‘take their quarrels to the rural areas’. When the election is over, a few villagers are paid off for their services by the victorious group — and then the village is once more forgotten.

What Ari wants is a new form of 'partyless social democracy’ — not a one-party system as in Tanzania, but decentralised politics at village-level, where every villager’s voice could be respectfully heard — a commonwealth of self-reliant village republics run by consensus. No longer would such villages be the recipients — or more often non-recipients — of urban ’benevolence’. One of Ari’s favourite stories is about a group of villagers who wanted their water reservoir repaired. Their correspondence with the government was kept in a thick file — all 15 years’ worth of it.

With Ari’s encouragement, a communal work-camp was set up for the job to be done by local volunteers the following weekend. The file was burned — and the job completed by tea-time of the first day.

‘What I did,’ said Ari, ‘was to remove the constraint, that file which stood between the people’s problem and the solution which was within their reach.’

Ari would see a crucial distinction here between his action and that of a government expert. In his view, Ari merely removed an unnecessary psychological barrier, the habit of dependence. The project was organised, financed and carried out by the villagers themselves. Ari himself joined in the work as a volunteer, not as a supervisor. The building of the tank was of economic benefit to the village, but more important, it awoke a new self-respect and confidence in their own capabilities. A traditional government official, in contrast, would be more concerned with impressing his supervisors than with fulfilling the needs of the villagers who are beneath him in the power pyramid. Even if the job were eventually done, it would be done for the villagers, as a kind of handout confirming their dependent, ‘inferior’ status.

Today, some 3,600 Sri Lankan villages are involved in Sarvodaya projects. And there are sister communities in Thailand, French Guyana, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Switzerland and West Germany. Interest grows apace. In 1973, 14 Sarvodaya community kitchens fed 732 children. Just three years later, 452 kitchens fed over a million children. 400 new kitchens per year is the present target. Each child brings a contribution: a stick of firewood, a coconut, some edible leaves, a matchbox of rice.

Secondly, Sarvodaya is not class-bound. Ari’s aim is to harness the altruism latent throughout all strata of society, so anyone willing to pool time and effort may apply to train as a Sarvodaya volunteer. An himself was an urban professional, a 27-year-old science teacher in a school in Colombo, where he decided to take a firsthand look at the living conditions of Sri Lanka’s low-caste poor. He led a group of students and teachers through 18 miles of jungle to find people who had been living a whole week just chewing bark. ‘One morning we heard this woman yelling in great pain. We met a man who said she was in childbirth labour. And to our shock, we saw him rush off to assist carrying rusted tools. . . and this at a time when our country had very good health services'.

Back in Colombo, Ari reiterated his belief that education should ‘stop catering to make the human animal a marketable product’. Children ‘imprisoned’ at school knew nothing of the real needs of their countrymen, had ‘no chance to develop a love for them and utilise the education they received to find ways of building a more just and happy life’. Ari’s students from Nalanda College, once better known for turning out cricketers and clerks, now turned out in large numbers to live among the poor.

Ari has a vigorous belief that all people have goodness as well as evil in them. As the world is now, he says, the evil is highly organised. His aim is to counter that massed evil by organising the forces of good in human beings. ‘There is such terrific potentiality for goodness. .. When you harness that goodness — that is Sarvodaya.’ When individuals and whole villages have been awakened, then the goal will be national and finally global awakening.

Like Gandhi, Ari believes that only good means can bring about good ends. Means are ‘ends-in-the-making’. The Buddhist virtues of pleasant speech, sympathetic joy and a tranquil being can evoke results that violence never could.

So non-violent ‘respect for all life’ goes beyond the refusal to do physical harm. Non-violence interpreted less literally is a determination not to manipulate another: for coercion, however refined a form it takes, violates another’s essence. Moral blackmail, for instance, is out Gandhi, the most famous political ‘faster’ of them all, urged anyone who was ‘fasted against’ but considered that fast to be blackmail ‘to refuse to yield to it, even though the refusal may result in the death of the fasting person'.

Nor is retaliation a sufficient excuse. Someone who returns violence punitively with violence, however self-righteous he may feel, implicates himself in a mixture of pride and guilt which undermines his own ethical position.

Gandhi took great pains to distinguish between ‘passive resistance’, the helpless, negative stubbornness of the weak, and satyagraha, the ‘force of truth’, that can only be radiated by the inwardly clear and strong. In acts of civil disobedience, it is this force that is called upon.

The Sarvodaya movement too is prepared for civil disobedience, as a last resort. But they seem to have persuaded the Jayawardene government of the value of co-operation. Ari’s staff have been asked to give development courses to senior officials, to give police officers a ‘more humanitarian orientation’; and to help the Ministry of Education improve 2,500 schools in the most poverty stricken areas.

Nor should the religious base of Sarvodaya suggest that it is other-worldly. Ari claims that the community ideal as exemplified by Buddhist monks was deliberately disrupted and kept apart from lay life during Sri Lanka’s colonial past. (It’s an interesting point that bhikku, the word for monk, means one who shares’.) Worldly renunciation was over-emphasised. And, Ari stresses, the law of karma (which states that we create the circumstances of our future lives by the deeds we perform now), far from being a fatalistic justification for the downtrodden to remain so, is a reason to spur them on to rebirth in happier circumstances.

Ari has no time for ‘spiritual leaders who have everything for the other world and nothing for this world’. Gandhi, he says, was a ‘real leader’. But then, it has been said of Gandhi ‘when he listened to his inner voice, he heard the clamour of the people’. The same might be said of Ari.


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