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Experiencing Peace while Engaging in Experiments Based on Moral Principles 


A. T. Ariyaratne



In the mid-1950s when we began the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement the Government of Sri Lanka identified about 150 village communities who were subjected to all kinds of social, economic and political discrimination. It also established a special branch in the Rural Development Department to help these communities. This branch was called the Backward Communities Development Branch and was manned by an excellent head and several highly motivated and committed rural development officers. What was later called the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement was started in one of these so-called backward communities by us who, at that time, were students and teachers mostly from leading high schools in the capital city.

As young people we recognized a serious flaw in our use of language when referring to these people, which in turn was giving rise to a superiority complex in our minds. I am sure that in spite of the good things we were doing, such as constructing roads to their villages, digging drinking water wells, making repairs to their small cottages, putting up a village school building, and so on, we were doing serious damage to their psyche as well as ours by calling them ‘backward’. Worse still, we referred to these villages in our printed programmes by the names of their castes. Even unintentionally we were creating an inferiority complex in the minds of these people while we, who were from well-to-do families from outside, were bloating our small egos.

Immediately after this realization came to us, maybe after two years of working in these villages, we dropped the word ‘backward’ and the names of castes from our spoken words as well as writing and printed programmes. No human being or community of people should be labelled ‘backward’ or outcaste for the reason that they are poor or powerless. In the words of Lord Buddha, ‘No one becomes an outcaste (vasala) by birth. No one becomes a high caste (brahmana) by birth. One becomes an outcaste by one’s actions. One becomes a high caste by one’s actions’.

As long as we retain caste labels the caste system will remain. As long as the caste system remains there will be discrimination, injustice and conflict situations. Today Sarvodaya is working in over 10,000 village communities and no one is interested in or talks of castes or caste differences. It simply is not in our thinking or day-to-day language. So any discriminatory deeds based on this ignorant conditioning are not heard of in our Sarvodaya villages.


Let me take your mind to a village scenario where the community is striving to build a better life for itself by harnessing self-reliance and community participation. They can conceive of their situation as hopeless if they look only at the dark side of the reality of their life such as lack of basic necessities like water, health care, shelter, education, a means to a livelihood and so on. They also see the political and economic injustices they are subjected to. They see corruption, waste and destruction of public and natural resources around them, which is truly a manifestation of structural violence at their level of society.

Some from outside the villages advocate violence and adopt violent revolutionary means in attempts to destroy the establishment. Violent clashes occur and the lives of the innocent as well as the not innocent are lost. Some are cast into prisons without trial. The establishment makes this an excuse to take away the fundamental freedoms of villagers by enforcing emergency powers. The village community falls from the frying pan into the fire.

The scenario in a Sarvodaya village is different. They see a small spiritual spark in their cultural memory. Here the villagers are seeking an alternative path to overcome the almost insurmountable obstacles they face in their everyday lives. They have inherited a cultural tradition which rejects hatred, violence and vengefulness as a means to resolve conflict. ‘Hatred does not cease by hatred. Hatred ceases by non-hatred. This is the eternal Law’. They remember these words of the Buddha. How can they translate this noble precept into concrete action which will help them to bring about a change in their life both physically and spiritually? In other words, they are seeking a non-violent revolutionary path to justice and freedom.

Besides their cultural heritage, what people in our poor communities have is the power to think, to feel and to work physically. Can their cultural values motivate them to harness this power voluntarily to bring about the satisfaction of even some of their basic human needs? Can the success of such an experiment create a fundamental transformation in their collective consciousness? One of the instruments they use for this experiment is what is called shramadana (sharing of labour, skills, resources, etc., for the common good) camp. Shramadana camps are a regular feature in Sarvodaya villages. Besides six to eight hours a day of manual work, three to four hours of spirituo-cultural activities are also performed in these camps to build collective consciousness.

What are called family gatherings are held before starting work, after the midday community meal and after work in the evenings. This is psychological infrastructure building in the community. In addition to the village community, others from surrounding Sarvodaya villages also come to these camps to participate and gift their labour and skills. The physical work they do is decided upon by them depending on a felt need like an irrigation canal or a tank bund. What I am trying to describe here is not the physical aspect of this experiment. Let us listen to a young volunteer who steps forward and calls the attention of may be 300 to 500 volunteers, children, youth, women and men, before they go out in their work teams to the work sites.

Dear elders, brothers and sisters,

In a few moments we will be going to the work sites to share our labour for the well-being of all. Our physical labour will certainly result in an accomplished physical task. No doubt this will help us to satisfy a need we have long felt. But more important is the human qualities we develop during the course of the day when we interact with one another. We will interact through thoughts that originate in our minds. We will interact through words that leave our tongues. We will interact through every deed that is performed by our bodily actions. In short, we have to be mindful of every thought, word and deed from now onwards. To the extent we can transform ourselves as human beings, we can transform our families, our villages, our country and our world.

Let us close our eyes. Keep our heads straight. Have a slight smile on our faces. Let us now meditate for a few minutes. Bring our minds to our breathing in and breathing out. Let us breathe in and breathe out mindfully. Think. May my mind be free from greed, ill will and ignorance and be healthy. May all of us gathered here be well and healthy in body and mind. May all those who work with me today appear to me as members of my own family. May the entire humanity be well and happy. May the entire living world be happy and peaceful. . . . Thank you. Now the team leaders can take their groups to their respective work sites.

This kind of meditation is practised before, during and after every kind of physical or social activity. Special songs are composed and sung at these events. Dances, dramas and other cultural activities remind us over and over that we are one human family, compassion towards all life should be our guiding thought, we should share whatever we can with others, we should learn to get joy out of service. We should develop the capacity to accept name and blame, gain and loss, with equal detachment and equanimity.

When people are reminded of the four ancient principles of social conduct, namely sharing, pleasant language, constructive activity and equality in association, and are provided with a physical, social and psychological environment like a shramadana camp in which to practise them, it is our experience that the noblest qualities that human beings and human society possess can still be made manifest and flourish.

If I may summarise, a shramadana activity, properly organised, provides for the following:

  • An opportunity for any participant from within the community or outside to practise respect for all life, compassionate service towards others, dispassionate joy arising out of such actions and equanimity.

  • An opportunity for the community to practice sharing, pleasant discourse, constructive action and equality.

  • An opportunity for the community to make decisions affecting their lives.

  • Development of a sense of togetherness in the community. Helping one another and learning from one another irrespective of divisive considerations such as social position, wealth, political beliefs, family feuds, etc.

  • An opportunity for non-traditional leadership to emerge, particularly from youth and women.

  • An opportunity for people to show their talents in aesthetic, cultural and technical activities.

  • A sense of pride, accomplishment and confidence at having met some common need largely through their own effort.

  • An opportunity for learning and acquiring organizational skills.

On this psychological foundation the community can develop a social infrastructure where pre-school children, school-going children, youth, women and mothers, farmers and craftsmen, all can be organized into functional groups. After sometime they can form themselves into a legally constituted society which can plan and implement welfare and development projects which they think are feasible. Sarvodaya Divisional Centres, District Centres, Development Education Centres and the Headquarters provide leadership training, skills training and other needed services for them to help themselves.


From psycho-social infrastructure creation, through organization building and legalization, individuals and communities have to be guided to build their own instruments and methodologies for economic and political well-being. Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of gram svaraj or Lord Buddha’s teachings on a Right Livelihood (samma ajiva) society provide us with a lot of insights into this stage of the experiment. This experiment, including the economic and political aspects, is already going on in over 2,500 advanced villages out of the 10,000 villages where the movement is active. These villages are going through what we describe as social, economic and political empowerment.

The very fact that this people’s movement working towards non-violent transformation of man and society has survived amidst many obstacles shows that change based on moral principles is still possible. The obstacles faced by sarvodaya from around mid-1986 to mid-1994 were of an unprecedented nature. During this period sarvodaya was persecuted by the State with all its might.

This kind of non-violent social transformation, I believe from my experience, is the only way to counteract and reverse destructive forces globally operative today. Both leaders and the led have to realize the collective suicidal danger we all are facing and overpower the culture of self-aggrandizement that has blinded our sanity. Our leaders should abandon petty-mindedness and become large-hearted. We all should turn to the spring of spirituality which is still within our reach, depollute and clean the stream of morality that flows from it, and on either side of the stream build a culture of peace, sustainability and joy of living.

May you all be well and happy.


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