Peace Is More Than Not Fighting

Felix Holmgren talks with the “Sri Lankan Gandhi,” Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, about his movement promoting peace, and the transformation of the Sri Lankan society

By Felix Holmgren

Photo by Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement.

When I walk into Vishva Niketan, the “Universal Abode of Peace,” I encounter camera and lighting gear all around its pavilion. They are trained on the man I’ve come to meet—the founder, ideologue and illustrious spokesman of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka. Dr. Ariyaratne, I am told, is being interviewed by national TV; please wait.

Back outside the pavilion, I slowly make my way through the lush surroundings, up and down paths with names like Karuna Path (“Path of Compassion”). Vishva Niketan was built to serve as a space for dialogue and peacemaking, but it has the air and function of a meditation center. This dual role is typical of the Sarvodaya movement’s belief that nothing substantial can be achieved without the compassionate outlook and mindfulness cultivated by meditation.

Returning exhausted from my short stroll in the moist, pre-monsoon air, I am introduced to the cheerful Dr. Ariyaratne. The seventy-two-year-old helmsman is dressed entirely in white and his cool alertness makes me feel even more like a casualty of the heat. On the spot, he arranges a photo session with me, himself and his assistant, Mr. Krishna, taking turns as photographer and subject. As he drives me the short way down the road to the Sarvodaya headquarters, I can now observe the venerable Ahangamage Tudor Ariyaratne, whom Sarvodayans revere and refer to simply as Ari. I’ve seen him in pictures from the pioneering years of Sarvodaya, digging wells or talking with villagers, and more recently, wearing the trademark white clothes, leading hundreds of thousands of people in meditation. At Sarvodaya offices in various parts of Sri Lanka, I’ve seen him depicted as a kind of saint, his face beaming down from the skies in one wall-painting, and elsewhere hovering over doorways. His blend of Gandhian politics, do-it-yourself rural development work and Buddhist philosophy has, during the last fifty years, inspired millions of Sri Lankans to transform their lives and their communities.

Yet this “Sri Lankan Gandhi” in the driver’s seat beside me seems uninterested in taking on the role of a saint, ascetic or spiritual paragon. He is joking and giggling, chatting about global monetary movements and a new notion of starting a Sarvodaya Web-design team. When he was asked once in an interview whether he regarded himself as a religious leader, he answered, “I am a person trying to understand myself by being of help to others. At most, I may be called a seeker of the truth. I am a pilgrim on a spiritual path.”

During our conversation in his dark and book-crammed office, Ari repeatedly sneaks off, leaving me mystified until his assistant invites me to watch the Cricket World Cup finals in an adjoining room. But before I settle in to watch the game with Ari, I ask him to explain his views on the relationship between spiritual growth, social development and peacemaking.

“When trying to achieve peace, the goal should not be defined narrowly,” he says. “Absence of peace occurs as a breakdown in several sectors of society and all of them must be rehabilitated. Ceasefire or poverty reduction or decentralization alone will not bring true peace. Sarvodaya has been working toward an integrated program since its inception; namely, the transformation of the consciousness of people by means of spiritual exercise; improvement of interpersonal relationships, which is to say the morals of people; preservation and enrichment of the culture of Sri Lanka; social development, meaning the improvement of education, health and so forth; improvement of the economy of the people; and, finally, political transformation, ending in participatory politics.”

Sarvodaya’s central principle appears to be self-reliance. The movement promotes the political and economic self-reliance of villages, but the crucial factor is the cultivation of self-reliant minds. Sarvodaya, a term borrowed from Gandhi, was interpreted by Ari and his co-workers as “universal awakening.” This denotes the broad scope of the movement’s aims as well as its foundation in the Buddhist teachings, which point out the possibility of complete liberation, or true awakening.

“A spiritually advanced person is efficient and reliable,” explains Ari. “If one individual is awakened, then the family, the village, district, nation, the whole world, can awaken. So meditation is of supreme importance for Sarvodaya. Without it, everything would be nullified.”

Sarvodaya is solid proof of the merits of mind training. What started as a summer camp in 1958, offering students from the capital an opportunity to meet with rural people and work side by side with them for a few days, has developed into an organization involving four million people in more than 12,000 of Sri Lanka’s 23,000 villages.

As Sarvodaya grew, focus shifted from “lending a hand” to bringing about long-lasting changes in rural communities. Normally the first Sarvodaya activity in a village is a shramadana (gift-of-labor) camp in which the villagers jointly construct a well, a road, or something else that is urgently needed. Having discovered the potential of cooperation and organization, the village goes on to form its own Sarvodaya Shramadana Society, a youth group, a mothers’ group and so on. Often a young woman will be picked out to receive training as a preschool teacher, and then a preschool will be established. Within a few years, the village can go on to administer its own finances and development programs.

As a result, more than 600 of the Sarvodaya villages are today fully self-governing and economically independent. They have entered the final stage of development laid out by Sarvodaya, when they share their experience and economic surplus with neighboring villages.

All over Sri Lanka, local Sarvodaya societies and district offices carry out a variety of programs, including childcare, micro-crediting, biodiversity preservation, work training for school dropouts, and inter-ethnic dialogue. The organization is also running one of the largest commercial printing houses in the country and is one of its biggest toy manufacturers. And all of this, says the man who initiated and fostered the movement, is founded on meditation practice.

During my visit to Sri Lanka, many Sarvodayans talked to me about the value of meditation practice. A former preschool teacher called Kalei, who is now working for Sarvadoya as a village coordinator on the Hindu-dominated east coast, said she had been doing morning prayers since childhood but had now started practicing meditation. She described the numerous benefits she experienced. “Illnesses subside, the body becomes relaxed,” she explained. “Focusing on breathing reduces depression and gives me courage.”

Working in Sarvodaya, Kalei said, had turned her into a new person. “Before, I knew nothing other than preschool teaching. Now, I have learned to be courageous, to have self-confidence. Other people can learn from me. I tell myself, Why should I think only of myself when there are so many who depend on me?”

During the past decade, Sarvodaya’s faith in the power of meditation has found expression in peace walks and mass meditations set up to counteract the brutal civil war that has ravaged Sri Lanka since 1983. To date, almost 150 of these events have taken place: the biggest attracted some 650,000 people from all parts of the island and, perhaps most importantly, from all of its ethnic and religious groups.

When I ask Ari what he expects from these rallies, he explains, “There is nothing that is not connected to everything else, including the mind. If several thousand people get together for a few moments to attain mental tranquillity and engender loving-kindness, it will affect the armed people. It will bring an environment of peace. If words and deeds can affect people, thoughts should have an even greater effect. Any person who believes in the supremacy of the mind would agree.”

Suggesting that Sri Lanka’s civil war is rooted in the state of the “psychosphere,” as Ari puts it, and that the solution is spiritual, is of course controversial. The war in Sri Lanka is fought between two ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, who are almost uniformly associated with Buddhism and Hinduism, respectively.

Historically, the Sinhalese state has been seen as the protector of Buddhism. As Sinhalese nationalism flourished, Buddhist devotion also grew stronger. After the civil war began, the government tacitly exploited Buddhism in an effort to assert the righteousness of the war against the Tamils, and it found support among many Buddhist clergy. During the last twenty years, Buddhist monks have often led demonstrations against frail and faltering peace efforts, which they have regarded as making too many concessions to the Tamils.

By incorporating traditional Buddhist practice as part of its peace effort, Sarvodoya has helped to undermine the Sinhalese state’s use of Buddhism to bolster its nationalist cause. Talking to three young Sarvodayans that I meet at the Ratnapura district office, I glimpse the complexities of Sinhalese identity. They are all around twenty and preparing to travel north from the beautiful inland valleys to a village named Oddhusudhan in Jaffna district, the very citadel of Tamil separatism, for a one-week exchange program. They will be living with Tamil families while setting up a shramadana camp to repair the local temple and build a preschool for the community.

They express great confidence in the possibility of creating peace from the ground up and add that since the majority of the population is Buddhist, and dedicated to peace, there is hope for a peaceable solution. I ask if the people in the army are not also Buddhists.

“In any army the soldiers have their duty,” answers the boy. “Their profession is to assure security. But in their hearts, they wish not to kill others, not to torture others. Sometimes their duty is to kill someone, but in their hearts they remain peaceful.”

One of the girls adds, “If an enemy is wounded, the Sinhalese soldiers will not try to kill him, but treat him as a human. They will give him first aid or put him in custody. The army people are innocent.” I come away with the feeling that even for these educated young Sinhalese Sarvodayans, who are devoted to social service and peace, the moral superiority of a Buddhist is unquestioned.

When I go to a Tamil community, I’m told a much different story. As I approach Batticaloa on the island’s Tamil-populated east coast, I notice the paved roads of Ratnapura have been replaced by rough and dusty tracks. There are countless military posts and camps and miles of barbed wire wherever one goes. Most of the landscape is desolate, rendered barren by landmines. The lavish tourist hotels along the beaches have been shelled and ruined, as have most other buildings. This district has seen some of the most intense fighting in the country. It is now divided between the government forces and the LTTE, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a guerrilla group that established itself as the main proponent of Tamil separatism soon after armed confrontations began.

“People are still afraid,” says Sivadas, my interpreter in Batticaloa. We have just finished our last interview and I am getting ready to leave Batticaloa. I get the feeling that he is apologizing for the reticence of some of the interviewees. “The LTTE are still recruiting and the army is bringing in new weapons. Why,” asks Sividas, “if it is really peace they want?”

Sivadas, who is in his early seventies, was the only translator to be found among the Batticaloa Sarvodayans. He belongs to the last generation that was taught English in school, before independence led to the abandonment of this practice. When he retired from his job as a government clerk, he joined Sarvodaya “to keep busy.”

A few days earlier, in a small village about an hour’s drive from Batticaloa, we talked to people who had been forced to flee their homes several times since violence spread to their district in 1990. The village is close to an army camp and the villagers were subjected to retaliation by the army after it had been attacked by the LTTE. Blindfolded, they were made to stand in the sun for a whole day. On other occasions their fishing nets—their only source of income—were destroyed.

On the outskirts of Batticaloa, at a junction not far from a Sarvodaya model farm, stands a tall candle cast in cement, a memorial erected by the local people with material donated by Sarvodaya. Ten years ago, 193 men, women and children were led down this way by government-sponsored forces. They were marched across land that the army had appropriated from Sarvodaya. A Sarvodaya member hiding on the premises saw the people being driven away in buses. They have not been seen again.

Sarvodaya’s ability to work in areas ravaged by the war, including LTTE-controlled territory, is remarkable. Although critical of both the government and the LTTE, Sarvodaya has sought to cooperate with both to assist the victims of the war and further Sarvodaya’s programs. At the inauguration of a new training program for preschool teachers at the Sarvodaya farm, I see an LTTE representative chatting with the local government official, and in the evening, when young people gather outdoors to sing and talk, a couple of LTTE anthems are heard in between pop hits from India.

Yet none of the Tamil Sarvodayans I meet are supporters of the LTTE. Some of the older Sarvodayans are even reluctant to talk about their ethnicity or creed. They seem to feel that first and foremost they are Sarvodayans.

The unfolding of the armed conflict coincided with a shift of focus by many of the international institutions supporting Sarvodaya. Some feared that Sarvodaya would allow itself to be morally co-opted by the government, and that the organization, having grown quickly, would collapse under its own weight when economic support was withdrawn.

Instead, Sarvodaya launched a program aimed at decentralizing itself further and establishing more independence for its district sections and various specialized branches, both economically and administratively. And clearly the organization does not support the actions and opinions of the government and the Sinhalese majority. Sarvodaya has tried to counter the violence by organizing human shields and medical teams, setting up refugee camps, arranging cultural exchange programs, facilitating dialogue and organizing meditational walks. People in Batticaloa are still amazed that Ari arranged for an airlift of supplies to Tamil refugee camps when the roads were closed off in the 1990’s. For Sarvodaya, the growing animosity between Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious groups has challenged the organization to become even more inclusive. Today it is the only non-governmental organization in Sri Lanka that brings together Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians from all parts of the island.

In a booklet called “The Sarvodaya Peace Action Plan,” a diagram shows various constructions of the civil war. The first depicts a clash between the government and the LTTE, each side claiming to defend the people against the other. The next shows a struggle between Sinhalese and Tamils. In reality, the booklet says, the parties in the conflict are, on one side, the Sri Lankan people, and on the other, the government and the LTTE. “Neither the government nor LTTE ‘winning’ the conflict will do anything other than make the culture of violence worse.”

The author of this booklet is Ari’s son, Vinya Ariyaratne, who became the executive director of Sarvodaya in 2000. He defines government as one of Sarvodaya’s priorities, and its aim is no less than to rewrite the constitution of Sri Lanka. An alternative form of governance, inspired by Gandhi’s notion of the “village republic,” has always been part of the Sarvodaya vision.

“If the warring parties are kept from going back to war,” says Ariyaratne, “it’s beneficial for the country, but not a permanent solution. Power must be placed at the village level, not at the district or province level. People should be able to govern their own affairs. Now, after almost fifty years of work, 600 villages have achieved economic self-reliance. How can they also become self-reliant in governing their society? This is what we want to explore, slowly—a discussion at the grass roots level about what the constitution should be like. It is clear to everyone that the system must change, so Sarvodaya should be able to make its alternative known.”

The booklet also contains a “500-year peace plan.” It outlines the pacification and development of Sri Lanka over the next half-millennium with the typical Sarvodayan blend of self-confidence, breadth of vision and common sense. One of its goals for 2100 is for Sri Lanka to become “the first country to totally eliminate poverty—both economic and spiritual.”

As I travel through the Sinhalese parts of Sri Lanka, I see sumptuous Buddha statues everywhere. Interspersed with these images of serenity and compassion stand numerous monuments celebrating war heroes (“boys looking for a good salary,” as Ari characterizes them), majestically and gravely at ease, or in the midst of battle, with contorted faces and gun in hand.

I tell Ari that I am bewildered by the split personality of the Sinhalese, who seem equally devoted to militarism and loving-kindness.

“Most of the people in Sri Lanka are born Buddhist, but the entire political and economic system is non-Buddhist,” he says. “Unless our institutions become based on Buddhism, this will not be a Buddhist country.

“Buddhism is really just a label—the real aim is the awakening of all human beings, of all living beings. We shouldn’t accept tradition because it’s tradition. We should accept it only if we think it can help and protect people.”

Felix Holmgren

Felix Holmgren grew up in Sweden and now resides in Nepal, where he is enrolled at Kathmandu University’s Center for Buddhist Studies at Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery, Boudhanath.