Remembering Dr A.T. Ariyaratne (1931-2024)

Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, founder of the socially engaged Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, has died at 92.

Rod Meade Sperry
18 April 2024
Dr. A.T. (Ahangamage Tudor) Ariyaratne. Photo by Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement.

Via comes the news that activist Dr. A.T. (Ahangamage Tudor) Ariyaratne, founder of the socially engaged Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement — “Sri Lanka’s most broadly embedded community-based development organization,” dedicated to “the awakening of all” — and a major inspiration for engaged Buddhists worldwide, has died. He was 92.

Born November 5, 1931, in the Galle District of Ceylon, Ariyaratne was, as the Sarvodaya website puts it:

A former high school teacher at Nalanda College, he conducted the first Shramadana work camp in 1958, which eventually led to the establishment of the largest people’s movement in the country. He [was] the father of six distinguished adult children and has led tens of thousands of “family gatherings” and meditations with millions of people throughout Sri Lanka and other parts of the world.

Ariyaratne’s work also incorporated Buddhist concepts and what he called “Buddhist Economics” to address societal and individual suffering in a holistic way. 

About Ariyaratne, Buddhist teacher and climate activist Joanna Macy has said:

“In this voluble, diminutive dynamo I found a scholar-activist who took the social teachings of the Buddha seriously and dared to believe that they could inspire change in the modern world. He had banked his life on that conviction, drawing from ancient traditions to empower what he called “the poorest of the poor.”

In a memorial tribute to Ariyaratne, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, the founder and chair of Buddhist Global Relief (BGR), credited Ariyaratne’s example as the inspiration for founding BGR, which works to fight chronic hunger and malnutrition. He writes:

“In several ways, Dr. Ariyaratne’s example was the inspiration behind the organization that I formed along with some of my Dharma friends in 2008, Buddhist Global Relief. Sarvodaya Women’s Movement, a branch of Sarvodaya Shramadana, was one of the first organizations that BGR partnered with on a project to improve women’s livelihoods. Last year, we supported a Sarvodaya project that provides food relief to poor communities in Sri Lanka, a critical need as the country has been facing extraordinarily widespread hunger.

Ari’s soft and gentle personality inspired countless people, both in Sri Lanka and around the world, and the impact he had on many of us will no doubt remain with us throughout our lives. While he will no longer be dwelling bodily in our midst, we can hope his spirit, his insights, and his example of love and compassion in action will continue to spread, promoting the emergence of the kind of loving and mutually supportive global order he aspired to create through his life and work.”

Sarvodaya states that Ariyaratne’s remains will lie at its headquarters in Moratuwa until Saturday, April 20th, at which time a funeral procession and then final religious rites and cremation will take place.

Rod Meade Sperry. Photo by Megumi Yoshida, 2024

Rod Meade Sperry

Rod Meade Sperry is the editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide (published by Lion’s Roar), and the book A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation: Practical Advice and Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his partner and their tiny pup, Sid.