A Tribute to A.T. Ariyaratne

Quincy Saul

A.T. Ariyaratne, founder of the Sarvodaya Movement in Sri Lanka, passed away on 16th April 2024. Quincy Saul offers a tribute to the legendary figure, sharing key lessons we can learn from his life’s work as movements around the world continue the struggle for revolutionary change and alternatives to unjust systems.

Long live A.T. Ariyaratne! I’m honoured to have briefly known this radical and original human being. Jaya wewa, loku sir![1]

Portrait of A.T Ariyarate by Chamith Pubuditha

A glimpse of A.T. Ariyaratne’s life

Dr. Ahangamage Tudor Ariyaratne was a Sri Lankan activist-educator, visionary founder and president of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, a grass-roots social movement advocating for societal transformation through self-governance. He was born in 1931 in Unawatuna, a small village in southern Sri Lanka. After completing his studies, Ariyaratne embarked on a teaching career at Nalanda College, Colombo, and an early field trip with his students marked a turning point in his life. Coming face to face with the grim existence of entrenched inequities in an outcaste village[2], he decided to create the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in 1958.

Sarvodaya means ‘awakening of all’ and shramadana means ‘gift’ or ‘voluntary labor’. The Sarvodaya movement was based on the concept of sharing of labor, energy, gifts, and resources for individual and collective awakening. It was more than just an organisation; it was an organising principle and philosophy of self-help, community development, and spiritual growth. Ariyaratne was particularly inspired by the Gandhian principles of non-violence, rural development and self-sacrifice (note: he was also informally known as the ‘Gandhi of Sri Lanka’) and by the Buddhist ethics of impermanence, compassion, no-self, and the Four Noble Truths. As a socially engaged Buddhist movement woven with Gandhian values, the goal of Sarvodaya was the dual awakening of the individual and society through non-violence and a recognition of interdependence. It was a unique and potent blend of social activism, spiritual awakening, and rural development. Communities pooled their resources and skills to build schools, roads, and sanitation facilities within their villages, identifying their needs and working to collectively address them instead of waiting for external intervention. Thus, the village was at the heart of societal transformation, fostering a sense of ownership and self-reliance, in sharp contrast to top-down development models.

Ariyaratne’s brilliance lay in his remarkable ability to bridge the gap between ancient wisdom and the challenges facing Sri Lanka, including widespread corruption, ethnic conflict, inequality, and unsustainable and inequitable development. He nurtured a vision for the poorest communities to become architects of their lives through self-empowerment. It is worth noting that since its inception, Sarvodaya has helped thousands of people to create housing, water projects, solar energy, food production, pre-school programmes, legal services, projects for women’s empowerment, orphanages, child welfare agencies, and village banks. Such a bottom-up, holistic approach not only improved social, economic, and political life at a societal level, but also helped individuals in their spiritual journeys.

A.T. Ariyaratne addressing a gathering. Source: Sarvodaya Movement

Ariyaratne’s relentless pursuit and commitment to social change transcended borders. He earned several accolades for his life’s work, including the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 1969, often referred to as the “Nobel Prize of Asia,” and the Gandhi Peace Prize from the Indian government in 1996. He also received Sri Lanka’s highest civilian honour, the Sri Lankabhimanya, in 2007 and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite these prestigious honors, Ariyaratne remained deeply rooted and connected to the village communities that he empowered, working and learning alongside them. He lived a life of service to society, truly embodying the Gandhian and Buddhist values that he ardently espoused.

The legacy of Ariyaratne’s ideas

There is much to explore and learn from the ideas and life work of A.T. Ariyaratne, which point to the awakening of the individual, the family, the village, the city, the nation, and the world. Now is the time to study his ideas because they offer a clear, courageous vision for revolutionary change and the non-violent artillery needed to face the battles that await us. Here are four theses derived from Ari’s writings that can help guide movements for social change:

We can’t afford to rest on our laurels or hope we’ll be lucky.

We can’t even rely on our revered elders such as him. Ari emphasizes this in his autobiography, quoting some folk wisdom: “Horaata ganadeviyoth paraadai – even the God of wisdom is defeated by thieves.”[3]

We can’t afford to avoid the big picture.

To quote David Graeber, another dearly departed comrade: “For a very long time, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions. Increasingly, it’s looking like we have no other choice.”[4] Individuals, families, villages and cities are all backed up against the wall of national and international politics, and to fight our way out to the horizon, we need a clear vision of the kind of world order and development we desire:

“The old world order is crumbling down. The creation of material wealth for an endless portfolio of artificially created wants has been the predominant trend during the last several decades… As a result of the historical forces operating in the last four centuries, we, in Sri Lanka were also brought into the orbit of this shaky world order. The industrialization processes which are introduced to our country also appear to be based on the same false foundations that placed the western nations on their present perilous plight… Are we going to accept the western paradigm of growth-centered development? Are we going to be led by endless materialistic greed rather than by well-thought out basic needs of our people? …. We should, without fear or hesitation, reject the western paradigm of development because it has not led even those societies into happiness and contentment.”[5]

Posters in the Sarvodaya HQ in Moratuwa. Pics: Quincy Saul

We need to focus on the details too.

Once we have clarified the big picture, it is important to get into the details. How must we go about the epic mission of revolution with which Ari has entrusted us?

“To effect a complete social revolution, the common man should be in the forefront. The real revolution of the proletariat is a dynamic attempt comprising three aspects… [1] speeding up and ending the conflict between capital and labor and freeing the common man economically; [2] entrenchment of the inherent entitlement of people in government participation and [3] elevation of the total population culturally. It is not the privileged class feeding on others’ labor who should lead this trifold revolution, but the populace who invest their own labour and intelligence. Hence our belief that the full responsibility of our social revolution devolves on our working class.”

A.T. Ariyaratne’s ideas are urgent, relevant, and important for the Sarvodaya movement and beyond

We can only hope that as death scatters the five aggregates of his samsaric being, his death may also broadcast his ideas in what Gandhi called “ever widening, never ascending circles.” A.T. Ariyaratne’s ideas are important for struggles for social change around the world. In Sri Lanka, the mandate is more specific. The Sarvodaya movement and the people of Sri Lanka have recently faced unprecedented challenges, from the COVID-19 pandemic and the supply-chain collapse to the false-flag organic agriculture experiment and the aragalaya (mass protests in 2022). Even greater problems are sure to surface.

With over 60 years of history, Sarvodaya as an institution and a movement has a very complex task ahead: to preserve its legacy but not stagnate into nostalgia; to celebrate the past but also transform itself to serve the present and future; to revere its founding visionary father while also following the essence of his vision; to leap headlong into a revolutionary process which will be controversial, critical, and perhaps calamitous – requiring not only compassion but courage, not only equanimity but militancy, not only loving-kindness but decisive action, not only joy but tremendous sacrifice on behalf of future generations whose fate is in our hands. 

Posters in the Sarvodaya HQ in Moratuwa. Pics: Quincy Saul

The Sarvodaya movement has touched thousands of individuals, families and villages, and now it struggles with something new, something supremely difficult and fraught with internal and external obstacles, yet something inevitable and implied from the very first shramadana camp back in 1958 – to scale up its political practice from the village to the nation. As Ari puts it:

“You who have accepted the Deshodaya philosophy and principles and are assembled here have a great responsibility before you. That is, when you get back home you have to educate people as to what you learnt… to organize… groups in every locality and village, and to prepare them for a total non-violent revolution.”[6]

This stage of the Sarvodaya movement’s vision – embarking from the awakening of the village (gramodaya) to the awakening of the nation (deshodaya) – is announced and discussed in A.T. Ariyaratne’s 10th volume of collected writings, published in 2020[7]. I had the honour of writing an introduction to this volume, which comprises Ari’s speeches delivered across Sri Lanka, India, and Vietnam from 2014 to 2019. Below is a brief summary of my introduction, offering an overview of the speeches and ideas in the book.

Introduction to A.T. Ariyaratne’s 10th volume of collected writings

This book, like the man who wrote it, is revolutionary. Each chapter delivers thunderbolts. A.T. Ariyaratne’s oratory and prose comprise an unusually potent fusion of form and content; his use of language is always respectful, kind, modest, and reverential – a model of priyavachana (pleasant speech). His engagements with diverse audiences – students, Sarvodaya employees, bankers, religious leaders of multiple faiths, NGO workers, development experts, and doctors – reveal his radical and uncompromising vision. 

For instance, when speaking to development experts and micro-financiers, Ari condemns “mega” projects and takes a strong stand against economic growth and the whole concept of ‘development’ as we know it, reminding everyone that the current economic system of profiteering and endless growth is a mortal threat to all life on earth. When engaging with NGO workers in the field of human rights, he suggests that the political concept of ‘human rights’ may be too narrow and insignificant compared to more fundamental issues such as the satisfaction of basic needs and the large-scale transformation of society. At an interfaith peace summit with religious leaders, he emphasizes that peace cannot be achieved unless we overcome organized religion, which has “become an integral part of an unjust political and economic system.” When speaking to physicians, he praises the accomplishments of the Sri Lankan medical profession while also reminding them of the catastrophic health crisis of chronic kidney disease in the country, calling upon them to lead the movement to “remove the vicious multinational and local business gangsters’ holds over their families.” He invites his Sarvodaya colleagues to work selflessly to ensure a fair and peaceful election, while still denouncing the whole Sri Lankan electoral system as harmful. He insists that the only hopeful future resides in the system of dual power based on village self-governance. He is at his finest when speaking to students. He advises them to be selfless rather than self-centred, and thereby to not underestimate their potential to make a significant change in the society they live in. He concludes with a question foreign to most modern institutions of higher learning: “Shouldn’t the educated class… educate the masses and together launch a non-violent revolution?”

Sarvodaya from Serendipity. llustrated by Rashmi Thalagala

Ari flourishes as a radical Buddhist in the 21st century, expressing sincere respect for the innovations of technology and the people who promote it while also calling into question the course of modern history. He argues that the ‘ruling classes” and “imperial powers” have reaped the benefits of industrialization, electrification, and digitalization, while the farmers and labourers have always suffered. In a material and cultural world saturated with technology and blind faith in the manifest destiny of technological advancement, he champions the values of pre-industrial societies and laments their deterioration: “I wonder whether all these advancements contribute to the degeneration of our historical, intellectual and cultural roots.” He suggests that for any new technology to be beneficial to mankind it must be rooted in a philosophy of respect for all life.

To conclude, I have seen first-hand how A.T. Ariyaratne’s revolutionary vision resonates profoundly not only in Sri Lanka, but also around the world in places that have never heard of him or the movement he founded. Hopefully, this collection of his writings will not only allow his words to reach a much wider audience but will also give readers a chance to meditate upon his revolutionary vision as a whole.

Quincy Saul is a writer, musician, and a co-founder of Ecosocialist Horizons. He is the co-editor of Maroon the Implacable: The Collected Writings of Russell Maroon Shoatz. Saul has authored “Truth and Dare: A Comic Book Curriculum for the End and the Beginning of the World.” He is also the co-producer of The Music of Cal Massey. Saul’s articles have been published by Truthout, Counterpunch, The Africa Report, Capitalism Nature Socialism, Telesur, and more.


[1] A.T. Ariyaratne was known as “loku sir” at the Sarvodaya headquarters in Moratuwa, and “Ari” by close friends

[2] Bond, George. “Buddhism at Work: Community Development, Social Empowerment and the Sarvodaya Movement”. (Kumarian P, 2003), p.7

[3] Bhava Thanha: An Autobiography, by A.T. Ariyaratne, in 4 volumes.

[4] David Graeber, Rest in Jubilee. From “Debt: the first 5000 years”

[5]A New Trail of Enlightenment, speech on 7.3.1981 by A.T. Ariyaratne

[6] “The Path Deshodaya National Movement should follow for a Total Non-violent Revolution in Sri Lanka” 23 June 2018)

[7] You can download the full book online here: https://sarvodayausa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Book-Final-2.pdf

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