We arrived from India Thursday, Dec 1, 2011, smack into 32 C degrees with lightning and rain. It remained 32 with rain and humidity the whole time we were there. We were brought, after 2.5 hours, to the headquarters of the Sarvodaya Movement. Waiting for us quietly was an 80 year-old man in whites, one of the greatest human beings I’ve met, Dr. Ariyaratne, or just Ari. I last saw Ari 15 years ago in Yonkers, and before that saw him on his rare visits to Greyston. He has been officially nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times.
Ari was a school teacher many years ago, teaching kids in the old British style in the 1950s, when he decided that was not the way. He went to a poor village, lived with them, finally assembled everyone and asked them what they needed. They said a well. He went to the next village and did the same thing. They needed a road. He began to bring the two together for shramadana, or shared work, in which both villages cooperated in building a well for one and a road for the other. And that was the beginning of Sarvodaya.
Sarvodaya literally means Enlightenment for all. It perfectly describes his philosophy, which is that first you work inside yourself spiritually to discover who you really are, the One consciousness that pervades and connects us all, and once you’ve experienced that then working with others is basically natural. You don’t cheat or lie or hate or abuse anyone, because they are you. Sarvodaya now is a network of 15,000 villages working together to improve their lives. They don’t rely on the government for running water or electricity because the government is corrupt; they help each other out to get those things. They build their own roads. Through an alternative banking system they get microcredit for small businesses. They run their own kindergartens and schools, youth programs and programs for young mothers and the elderly. Many, many people are part of the movement, certainly enough to create another political party. Ari long ago decided to stay out of politics, though at one time he was asked to serve as Prime Minister. He has also been under arrest and almost killed a couple of times, usually by government dictators who feel threatened by him.
We had a light supper. He asked us when we wanted to have breakfast and Bernie said 8. Eight? he asked incredulously. Who can stay in bed that late? How about 7? We compromised on 7:30 and went to our rooms. These were hot and airless because windows have to remain shut due to mosquitoes. We slept under mosquito nets with the fans going, but I was still bitten pretty well. The heat and humidity were terrific since Sri Lanka is a tropical country south of India.
The next day we had breakfast and then a guided tour of the headquarters of Sarvodaya, which employs some 3,000 people in business and social activities, not to mention even more volunteers, including some from abroad. I saw a special center for abandoned, malnourished babies, an orphanage, a kindergarten, a school, a special center for unmarried mothers, and a vocational center for young deaf mutes. There is also housing for the elderly. There are some 25 such centers around the country.
I also saw a large bank owned by Sarvodaya, which has a portfolio of $42 million in microcredit loans (only 6% of which are bad loans). I also saw the head office of the youth division as well as the international division. Sarvodaya is comprised of some 10 independent companies and organizations supervised by the central office. All are Ari’s brainchildren. Ari doesn’t believe in getting foreign donations due to the dependency that gives rise to. He subscribes to Gandhi’s principles of encouraging village economies and independence. At the end we had lunch with Ari and his wife, interrupted frequently by visiting grandchildren. They own nothing and live modestly in their rooms in the Sarvodaya compound. After that he quickly put us on a van to Kandy.
Can you imagine a lovelier name? Kandy is higher up in the mountains (still hot but air was clearer and not so heavy). Homes are all the way up or all the way down the mountains in Kandy.
A 5.5 hours drive brought us to their district office, one of 26 Sarvodaya operates throughout Sri Lanka, where we ate and slept. In the early morning we walked around Kandy, admiring many things, including the ever-prevalent monkeys.
We also went inside the ancient temple holding the Buddha’s tooth relic, with its many shrines filled with lotuses brought by devout congregants:
Ari is deeply committed to Buddhism and nonviolence. He told us the story of a major figure of Sri Lanka’s underworld who asked for a meeting. The man had once been in prison and had been trained, as had thousands of prison inmates, by Sarvodaya activists in nonviolence. He asked Ari for permission:
“For what?” Ari asked.
“To go back to violence. I must kill someone.”
“The president. He has put out a contract on your life and asked me to kill you.”
And Ari replied, “I would much rather die a hundred times than for you to go back to a life of violence. I am not afraid to die, I know I will live for a long time in the hearts of Sri Lankans, much longer than the president. On no account go back to violence.”
We visited Hippola, a village of some 800 people in the Kandy District and a member of Sarvodaya. With the help of other villages, they’d brought running water to the village.
We saw their kindergarten and school. We also saw the local branch of the Sarvodaya SEEDS bank, open 7 days a week, operated by two women who’d been trained in banking software to accept deposits from the villagers and process microcredit loans and loan payments. Their salaries depend on the profits they make, which all go back to the village. This is one of hundreds of branches of the Sarvodaya bank.
The women running the local Sarvodaya bank branch.
The villagers offered us a home-made dessert buffet.
When we asked about medical services, we heard there was no doctor or nurse in the village or nearby. But they have their own Peace Brigade of local youth trained by Sarvodaya in, among other things, first aid, including measuring pulse and blood pressure and taking diabetes readings. Some 120,000 young people have taken Sarvodaya’s youth programs, which involve some 14 units of study and lead in the end to scholarships for college (they estimate that some 25% have completed the entire course). The young people are also trained to provide emergency services, which they did with great distinction during the tsunami disaster. Below they show Roland, who’s a doctor, a local aloe vera plant and discuss its many uses in the village.
We saw a car mechanic business funded by Sarvodaya’s microcredit program, and a fascinating business of planting mushroom seeds in tightly-wound packages of sawdust, which give rise to beautiful oyster mushrooms over a month’s time:
We returned to Sarvodaya headquarters that night after another 5.5 hour trip.
Ari is no capitalist. His vision is huge; Sarvodaya owns businesses as well as a multi-branch banks, but the profits go back to the villages. Its motto is: Creating a sustainable life with no poverty and no affluence. Never in my life have I met anyone who has put his spirituality into such loving practice as this man has over a lifetime. His sense of spirituality is that it’s all about serving others. He is humble and softspoken, though he loses patience with bad work or lack of integrity. He has no use for fools or nonsense and is certainly not afraid to speak his mind.
He has little concern over the present political/economic systems. “They will bring themselves down,” he says, “we don’t have to do it for them. Our job is to continue our work so that when they do go down, there is an alternative system that can take their place.”
He has had deep disappointments and failures in his life. Interest from their endowment fund for headquarters work has shrunk so much they’ve had to lay off lots of staff. He had to sell land owned by Sarvodaya to repay huge losses incurred by a trusted lieutenant (“It almost brought the movement down,” he reflected sadly). And the present dictator of Sri Lanka does not like him and the government will not support any of their work. Still he goes on.
Our friends, Roland and Barbara, had scheduled to stay in Sri Lanka at a hotel for some 6 days vacation at the end of the trip, and Bernie wanted nothing more than to spend 1 day of rest with them before our long, grueling trip back. We’d had no time off for a long time and had travelled far, and I at least was going straight back to work. So when Ari arrived the following morning, Sunday, we told him we’d leave to rest for one day at a hotel with our friends. Vacation and time off is a western concept, Ari said, here in the East we don’t do it. He had wished to take us to another village and that evening he was speaking before 1,000 people. But he agreed that we leave for our one day off and walked us to the van to say goodbye.
I had no idea where we were going, but Roland and Barbara were only too happy to have us join them, and for my birthday they paid for our day there. If you want to see where we went, look at the website, www.kanilanka.com. It was a 4- or 5-star shock after Sarvodaya and the people they serve, and wonderful at the same time. Air-conditioned rooms, no mosquito nets, and exquisite beauty. We were there for less than 24 hours, but managed a massage and sleep and lots of great food and finally, the morning we left on the day of my birthday, my swim in the Indian Ocean.