Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement: An Ingenious Grassroots Organization

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a multicultural and multilingual country that has had a long history of armed conflict. Sri Lanka’s rich multiethnic communities that make it a diverse country today were once a source of conflict that led to lasting civil war. In the colonial era, the Portuguese, Dutch, and British tried to colonize Sri Lanka, however, in 1948, the country gained its independence. In 1956, the passage of the Sinhala Only Act, which declared Sinhalese to be the official language of Sri Lanka, caused internal turmoil. The Tamil speaking communities violently opposed the passage of the Sinhala Only Act and organized into Tamil militant groups. Communal violence broke out in 1983 followed by a civil war that lasted twenty-six years, ending in 2009.

Last week, the Buffett Institute, Northwestern IPD, Center for Forced Migration Studies, EDGS, and Department of Religious Studies co-hosted a lecture titled “A Holistic Approach to Development and Peace Building: the Sarvodaya Movement in Sri Lanka.”  The guest speaker was Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, General Secretary of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, which is Sri Lanka’s largest non-governmental grassroots development organization.

While Sri Lankans are in the post-war era today, the impact of the war is experienced daily on the economy and the livelihood of individuals.

In order to promote social change in the post-war era, the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, which originally started forty-seven years ago, has successfully mobilized 15,000 out of Sri Lanka’s 38,000 villages to engage in a process of self-help and self-development initiatives. Sarvodaya Shramadana is an intriguing movement because it is based off Buddhist teachings that encourage psychological transformations at the individual level prior to addressing social and economic development.

The Sarvodaya movement insists that changing the consciousness of individuals and allowing them to feel empowered is a critical step in initiating economic and social development. Participants of the Sarvodaya movement practiced kindness, altruistic joy, equanimity, and compassionate actions through meditation and community programs. In addition, the four principles of social conduct – sharing, pleasant language, sharing of motivation/energy – were also practiced at the individual level. Only after individuals went through a “Personality Awakening” were they trained for social infrastructure development and economic development strategies.

The Sarvodaya idea of first altering the psychosphere and spiritual forces to counter violence and social stagnancy is ingenious. Sarvodaya is a unique movement because unlike most organizations, it doesn’t tackle the issue of economic development until the community has been mobilized with capable elected officials. Other organizations, such as Kiva, try to transform communities by starting with economic development through microlending. In contrast, the Sarvodaya movement is a holistic approach to development and peace building since it begins by encouraging an individual awakening prior to addressing the larger problems facing the community. The Sarvodaya model is particularly ingenious for a multiethnic and multilingual country such as Sri Lanka because the movement aims at first uniting people of different backgrounds. In order to make long-lasting changes, the citizens must take it upon themselves to initiate self-help. Therefore, the process of “Personality Awakening” is critical to creating self-sustaining developments.

As a result of the Sarvodaya Movement, significant progress has been made in terms of resettlement and infrastructure development, with slow progress towards reconciliation and addressing the root causes of war.

The Sarvodaya mission’s long-term goals are to create lasting peace, promote enduring community, and secure a certain quality of life in Sri Lanka. Ultimately, the Sarvodaya mission hopes to initiate discussion about the root causes of the war.


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