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Moral Education for Environmental Protection 

The Sarvodaya Model 

H. M. D. R. Herath


Your village may boast of having a post office, telephones, electricity . . . but that is not what constitutes being developed. Development is in your head, your mind.*

— Joanna Macy

Ecology is becoming a more and more important subject today because it scientifically studies the relation of nature and living organisms with each other as well as with their surroundings. Further, this subject investigates the unique interactions in our environment. Compared with the past it is becoming a subject much referred to due to the destruction of the natural resource base through deforestation, destroying fauna and flora, and disturbing the natural environment for various development activities. Air pollution has an adverse effect on the ozone layer.

These factors need very serious attention today. If not solved they may lead us towards various unending questions. Will man senselessly destroy the ecosystems that support life on this planet? Will he be able to maintain a sustainable earth and eventually build a new humanity?

The Sarvodaya model of ‘Moral education for environmental protection’ is based on traditional Asian cultural values and differs from isolated, unilineal, material-oriented development models. It is unique, since it is developed through people-centred activities and for people-centred activities. Thus this model is directly associated with both an individual morality and a social morality within the central value system of society. It is imperative that the development process in a community is compatible with its environment as well as with the particular culture of that community.

Human beings define their natural environment in terms of its own endowments and natural resources, and in accordance with their perceptions and interrelationships. This pattern suggests that man is a cultural animal. This research covers activities in more than 5,000 villages (out of 25,000 villages in Sri Lanka) where the Sarvodaya model has been applied to achieve environmental protection through moral education. Sarvodaya is defined as the awakening or liberation of one and all, and it follows the Gandhian concept of human advancement. The pioneer of the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka is Dr A.T. Ariyarathna. He says that the Sanskrit word ‘sarva’ means all-embracing, integrating everything pertaining to man, society and nature. ‘Vdaya’ means awakening, unfolding or well-being. Thus the literal meaning of ‘Sarvodaya’ is the awakening of one and all in the society in every respect. Mahatma Gandhi had coined the two words to signify the kind of society he desired for Independent India. The Sri Lankan Sarvodaya movement was inspired and strengthened by Gandhian thoughts as well as the teachings of Lord Buddha.

In the Sarvodaya movement moral education is totally focused on individuals’ personality development to ultimate accomplish universal personality development. It is not merely an ideological model. It is certainly pragmatic in addition to being a practical model applicable through village-level educational programmes.

Individual Morality, Social Morality and Culture

In Sri Lanka society the majority (70 per cent) are Buddhists and their central value system comprises Buddhist values, norms, beliefs and morals. This value system and its chain of thought can be represented through appropriate codes of conduct. Foreign invasions and colonial occupation and accompanying influences had a negative impact and paved the way for the various conflicts, deviations and undesirable consequences that exist at present. Even in this disturbed and unsettled situation, Sarvodaya forges ahead, its moral education system expecting to achieve a society governed by Buddhist ethics.

The Sarvodaya model of moral education for environmental protection is a process that has six distinct stages. They include spiritual, moral, cultural, social, economic and political aspects.

1. Purna paurushodaya (Personality awakening)

2. Kutumbodaya (Family awakening)

3. Gramodaya (Village community awakening)

4. Nagarodaya (Urban community awakening)

5. Deshodaya (National awakening)

6. Vishvodaya (Global awakening)

The achievement of these six levels of awakening leads to universal awakening. To reach this state, moral education can contribute very effectively. To facilitate fulfilment of moral education goals there are ten basic human needs to be satisfied. Among those needs the environment should be considered one of most important.

Matrix of the Ten Basic Human Needs


Small town                    
Group of Villages                    


These ten basic human needs are universal. They are essential and indispensable to maintain human life according to Lord Buddha. Therefore the Buddhist central value system provides teachings to protect the environment using indigenous knowledge. Maha Mangala Sutta states that ‘living in a suitable environment is a blessing’.

Also according to the principles of Sarvodaya, complete human personality development is achievable within a suitable environment. The word ‘environment’ is used here to mean the physical, social, emotional and mental environment in which humans live. The physical environment includes the house, kitchen, latrine, well, sources of water (such as tanks, ponds, streams), garden, soil, land, vegetation, pathways leading to and from the house, neighbourhood, roads in the village, the main roads, air and all other things of physical character.

Social and emotional environment refers to the surroundings, neighbours, intellectual and spiritual development, concentration as well as factors such as noise, which may influence or lead to mental disturbances.

A clean and beautiful environment is one with unpolluted air, healthy soil and uncontaminated water suitable for human survival and devoid of unfavourable influences that make growing children go astray, and which provide them with physical and mental security while giving satisfaction and happiness in addition to a morally sound life-style.

Buddhism and the Central Value System

This doctrine is in perfect harmony with the Buddhist central value system. Prince Siddhartha (later Lord Buddha) was born under a sal tree in full bloom; he attained enlightenment under a Bo-tree and his parinibbana took place in a grove of sal trees in full bloom. This suggests that even the supreme events take place in a natural setting.

Furthermore, Lord Buddha had once said:

A tree is unique. It has unlimited tolerance, patience, and generosity. It provides a congenial atmosphere for many living organisms to survive. It also keeps on providing shade (as long as it stands) even to the man who attempts to destroy the tree with his axe.

This statement signifies the paramount importance and value of trees, and the environment so necessary to sustain life including that of man. The trees and nature assume so great an importance that even the noblest had illustrated their value.

Lord Buddha has stated that man possesses nama, rupa (form and mind), energy and a consciousness unified within a physical and social environment. Although one physical object of the external world stimulates his senses and generates mental activity and provides motivation to his behaviour, it does not necessarily determine his behaviour. A person has an element of freedom or sense of choice that can be exercised with understanding.

Furthermore, from a careful study of Lord Buddha’s concept of ‘Sath Sathi’ (seven weeks) it is evident that he spent the fifth week after enlightenment under a tree with the snake Muchalinda. To visualise a tree, a snake and a human being at the same location is imagining a mutual or reciprocal relationship. The relationship between man, tree and animal is an interesting link between nature and culture. Therefore we can assume that in Sri Lankan society, environmental protection is a part of the central value system of the culture.

Almost all Buddhists in Sri Lanka after religious observances in the morning and before going to bed recite an interesting poem. This poem amply illustrates a Buddhist’s value system in relation to his environment and its components.

All living entities on this world and above it (meaning the earth and space above) such as humans, non-humans, who live far and near, ants, animals, trees, acquaintances, friends, teachers, kinsman and parents should receive these merits that I offer.

This discloses the moral values related to Sri Lankan Buddhist culture and also the relationship between man and the environment. A Sarvodaya member pledges to maintain this close and friendly relationship with nature and also recognises the hierarchical social order to be observed.

Moral Education Programme and Environment Protection Systems

The Sarvodaya moral education programme has five steps:

(i) Pre-school group

(ii) Children’s group

(iii) Youth group

(iv) Mothers’ group

(v) Farmers’ group


These children may belong to different socio-economic strata but come together during the first stage of the socialisation process. The rural Sarvodaya centres try to care for these children and duly consider their nutritional state, health, education and mental well-being as well as sociability. The children have opportunities to recognise and perceive the relationship among them and between them and the environment and culture. This is achieved through structured fancy stories, legends, small dramas and other activities. They observe the streams, sky, soil, trees, sun, moon and the clouds. Their nutrition is met by a meal of porridge prepared by village mothers and the pre-school teacher using nutritious green leaves gathered from the neighbourhood. The children are assisted in personality development and in becoming environment conscious. The programme may differ from one region to another due to ecological variations.


Members of these groups are schooling children receiving formal education. They initiate and engage in tree planting, maintaining small home gardens, soil conservation, prevention of water pollution, repair of small irrigation systems and group savings. They are encouraged to interact with other groups (youth, mothers’ and farmers’). Sometimes they join or organise shramadana activities. These enhance their environmental awareness. They are trained to acquire practical skills, the development of organizations, and to participate in community development programmes. Sarvodaya headquarters assist such efforts. They are encouraged to engage in self-help activities and group activities depending on the circumstances.


This group is relatively mature, knowledgeable and responsible. It may be more active in environment protection than previously mentioned groups. The majority of the group members have either completed their formal education (G.C.E. ordinary level), or they may integrate school subjects with Sarvodaya cultural value-related environmental protection programmes. Some of their activities may include collecting planting materials, tree planting, participatory environmental protection programmes, etc. Some of them may receive organic farming training at the Tanamalvila Centre. There they learn natural pest control methods, ecological farming techniques, sustainable farming technology, reforestation and watersheds management, etc.


At the village level the mothers’ groups are dynamic and the most powerful of all Sarvodaya groups. They are trained in child care, tree planting, moral and spiritual development, family nutrition, home economics, home crafts, sustainable farming practices, post-harvest technology of food commodities, natural resource management, etc. Such training helps them to integrate newly gained knowledge with traditional knowledge and pass on their experiences to their children. They also undertake religious programmes and attend ritual functions. Usually mothers’ groups actively engage in running the pre-school groups. The children’s socialisation and health problems are looked after. Mothers’ groups often maintain a garden to provide raw material to produce porridge for pre-school children.


The elders of the village are in these groups. They organise all Sarvodaya activities in the village and are active members of the shramadana society. They enhance cooperation, unity, freedom and are interested in the prosperity and socio-cultural identity of the village. They assist youth groups and act to satisfy the basic needs of the community, including environmental conservation, water supply, food production, housing, health, communication, energy, education and the satisfaction of the spirituals needs of their members.

Group Formation, Moral Education and Environment Protection

These five groups meet separately as well as collectively according to the needs of their own villages. Their collective group formation can be introduced as a pawul hamuwa (family gathering). It includes all the five groups meeting at the village Sarvodaya centre daily and weekly depending on necessity. Among their activities, moral education and unity maintenance are considered main subjects. This process can be described as a secondary level socialisation.

At the pawul hamuwa, after normal practices in the schedule, meditation is a major item. In the educational process at every meeting discussions involve talk of the central value system, plays and other items. Among these speeches one will be on environmental protection. It is used to emphasise the main responsibilities of the younger generation in our society. Among pawul hamuwa speeches the researcher has observed the following topics:

  • Traditional medical treatment and environmental protection.

  • Chakkawarthi Seehanada Sutta and environment.

  • Traditional indicator plants in the environment.

  • Traditional post-harvest methods.

  • Natural pest control methods that ensure harmless control over the environment.

In addition to delivering these speeches they perform traditional drama in modified forms. All these forms of education provide necessary moral discipline to the members. At the end of the pawul hamuwa sessions they give merit to the environment and leave the place.

Practical Side of the Environmental Protection Mechanism in the Sarvodaya Model

The Sarvodaya development model is totally compatible with the balanced development of society and the environment. On the one hand it is related to sustainable development and on the other it is associated with the development of the human mind or moral development. Particularly four positive Buddhist virtues of loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (muditha), and equanimity (upekkha) are stressed. They analyse not only human resources but also non-human resources that can be influenced by the four positive virtues.

The Sarvodaya model precisely and certainly emphasises balanced sustainable agriculture based on eco-friendly farming practices; further, it promotes practices conducive to sustainable natural resource management. The following case studies depict the nature and effectiveness of the Sarvodaya model in the Sri Lankan context.



All Sarvodaya villages have a singithi hawula, which is a primary moral education group of children up to 6 years of age. The main purpose of this gathering is to enable children to acquire awareness about self-protection, self-confidence and self-reliance. Normally they are the pre-school children in the village. The pre-school teacher does the primary socialisation, providing understanding fancy tales, legends, jathaka stories and small dramas, and tries to introduce the relationship between nature and culture. Those are the first lessons about environmental protection and those devices are complementary to moral values from the central value system. At the same time the children try to internalise nature through observation.

At the second stage the child himself has to bring a seed from home and plant it in the pre-school common home garden. He has to water the plants; he has to touch the soil with his fingers. Before the daily physical exercises the child goes to the common home garden and treats the small plants. This way he learns the interaction between humans and nature. Later on, small children prepare and plant a number of important vegetable plots collectively.

At the third stage of environmental education the pre-school teacher and mother encourage children to think about trees and their importance to human beings. Everyday selected edible green leaves are collected from their home gardens used to prepare porridge. Sometimes they collect leafy vegetables from the surroundings to make porridge. After its preparation children are exposed to sharing behaviour. Each child serves a cup of porridge to another as a daily practice. It gives an equal opportunity to share as an activity that paves the way for collective consciousness.

At the next step the pre-school children themselves organise malperehera (a flower parade) four times a month, particularly on poya days. The adult villagers have their own conflicts and problems with neighbours. But regardless of such things, every poya day one pre-school child carries a flower plate (malwattiya) to the neighbouring house. Then members of that family join the child with their own plate of flowers. This is repeated till each and every family gets together and walks, forming a perehare that moves towards the village temple. There they collectively make an offering. This sensitises villagers, establishes harmonious relationships among children, and leads to the development of a collective conscience among them. It paves the way for unity and solidarity. Trivial mistakes are forgotten and forgiven and harmonious relations among the participants are renewed.

The next stage of the moral education process for the village pre-school group is organising a singithi pola (babies’ fair) at the village Sarvodaya centre. The children collect vegetables, fruits, nuts and other materials and take them to this small fair; mothers come to the fair to buy things from their own kids. This gives them training to earn and save money. In some villages pre-school children engage in rice collection, sugar collection, etc. These practices provide experience in collectivity, united earning and saving as a moral obligation.

At the end of the pre-school stage children participate in organising visits or trips, or educational contests about environmental protection or shramadana activities. The final outcome is that a small child learns about his role within the environmental system, and personality development is supported within this primary moral educational model. In addition, the pre-school teacher and the mothers of the village have to look after the nutrition, health, education and mental well-being and sociability of children. At the end of the pre-school stage they form a singithi hawula to assist other small formal organisations of Sarvodaya.



This case study aims to explain the secondary level socialisation process and how the implementation of a moral education programme through practical experience is attempted. The location of this included 10 communities, 36 schemes and their gravity-based water supply schemes in Kandy, Badulla, Matara and Nuwaraeliya districts. These programmes were completed in 1985 and evaluation was done in 1987. This second evaluation was done in 1995.

The main objectives of the case study were

  • To identify whether the communities had achieved environmentally sustainable gravity-based village water supply schemes.

  • To examine how this construction had changed values and fulfilment of the water needs of the area.

  • To see whether they had achieved the moral values in the Sarvodaya value systemin practice through different hawulas such as youth hawula, mothers’ hawula, and farmers’ and elders’ hawulas.

In the Sarvodaya model of moral education, activities are practically demonstrated to prove their value to youths, mothers and elders, so that they can all perform them in their everyday lives.

For the water supply project, Sarvodaya provided technical cooperation from its Rural Technical Services (RTS) unit. In addition it provided the necessary materials which had to be purchased. In line with the Sarvodaya philosophy of normal education the following decisions were made. In the hilly areas water projects should be gravity-based ones and people should not pollute or destroy the environment. There is no use of chemicals or toxic substances. At the initial stage different groups in the village got together and collectively decided on the necessity of a water scheme, then they carefully searched for a water spring within the village. After getting consent they cleaned around the spring and dug properly to conduct further investigations, such as the quantity of water available. After gaining collective approval the selected place was taken over by the Sarvodaya village centre and converted legally into common property.

Environment Protection and Naturalisation of the Process

After these initial steps the Sarvodaya technical team visited and measured the water level, power of gravity, annual fluctuations in water availability and the capacity of the water spring. Following this the village shramadana society got together and started infrastructural work to develop the water spring without excessively disturbing the location. Further, they collected gravel, stones, sand and other necessary materials on a shramadana basis and constructed a protective tank, while taking remedial environmental measures. After having started the process the pawul hamuwa often got together at night to discuss developments or review the progress of the gravity-based water scheme. The management group of the Sarvodaya pawul hamuwa had given necessary guidelines in relation to resource management and environmental protection. After their common decision the shramadana society permitted the spring area protective scheme. First the land area was protected by a wire fence. Then trees were established around the catchment area and associated with the water spring. Attempts have been taken to protect the spring from soil degradation and contamination by human and non-human elements.

After development of the water spring, the Sarvodaya society constructed a stock tank at the highest suitable location below the spring. The water collected by the tank was to be purified. The process of purification was completely managed by local experts. They used stones, gravel, sand and other suitable materials to filter the spring water. The collected water in the stock tank was distributed by gravity-based pump lines. This was done to avoid disturbing the natural soil. Natural purification methods were used.

The researchers studied 36 gravity-based water projects providing water for thousands of people all over the hilly regions. In all of them the whole concept was found to be compatible with conservation of the natural environment, and the sustainability of the projects was high. The operations of the water project were done voluntarily by the villagers. Their collective consciences and internal peace and love had helped to smoothly conduct the activities. Basic values related to moral education had been internalised. The social and individual morality developed with team spirit from childhood enabled the individuals to establish and maintain harmonious relationships in later life. The Sarvodaya model of moral education was both socially effective and environmentally valuable.


Environmental protection concerns within the Sarvodaya moral education model are dealt with by appropriate organisation of the community followed by appropriate orientation, awareness sessions and training. The Sarvodaya model focuses on the integration of cultural values with environmental concerns through a harmonious, synchronised and friendly approach. The aim is to implement the most appropriate programmes to achieve well-defined objectives. The progress made so far suggests that this model enables the achievement of sustainable and adequate development in village settings.


Ariyarathna, A.T., 1985, Development from below.

———, 1988, Sarvodaya concept of development and its applicability to building up an Asian regional network including Japan.

———, 1990, ‘Managing by values and vision’, lecture series 1.

———, Cakkavattisihananda Sutta.

Kantowsky, Detlef, 1980, Sarvodaya, New Delhi: Vikas.

Macy, Joanna, 1983, Dhamma and development. Connecticut: Kumarian Press.

Palmer, M., 1995, ‘Ecology prophetic or pathetic’. Expository Times, January.


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