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Prof. A.T. Ariyaratne marks 90 years: A great humanitarian, with Buddhist principles 

BY Dr. Leel Gunasekara 

The founder of Sarvodaya, Prof. A.T Ariyaratne marks 90 years on 5 November and it is my fervent hope that he would be blessed with the ability to continue serving society for many long years. 

The very first occasion which accorded an opportunity for me to associate Prof. Ariyaratne was when I was appointed as the Government Agent of Anuradhapura in 1958. The Poson festival of the said year was arranged in Anuradhapura, and I was entrusted with the tasks of providing food and sanitary facilities to the devotees who attended the festival. 

Prof. Ariyaratne, who was serving as a teacher in Nalanda College at the time, through his shramadana (provision of free labour) project, initiated a cleaning project to clean the area, in preparation for the Poson festival and I was also afforded an opportunity to participate in the project. It is through this project that I first became acquainted with Prof. Ariyaratne. Pursuant to the service provided to the Buddhist devotees, Prof. Ariyaratne was courteous enough to invite me to deliver a speech to them, on any topic I desired. 

I then reflected on the ancient historical prosperity of Anuradhapura, Mahavamsa and Jathaka books, Buddhist literature and I was heavily admired by the devotees. Thereafter, Prof. Ariyaratne invited me to join the Sarvodaya movement and provided a membership form, which, I agreed to and received membership. I started my journey at Sarvodaya and this year marks 63 years since I have been a part of Sarvodaya, and I can therefore vouch for the service extended to society by Prof. Ariyaratne and Sarvodaya. 

When I was serving as the Government Agent in Mannar, Anuradhapura, Ratnapura, Kegalle, and Kalutara, the members of Sarvodaya convinced me to be of assistance to the Sarvodaya movement. In my acquaintance with Ariyaratne, what strikes me as a prominent quality was how he associated educated citizens and academics and made them develop an interest towards serving the community through social service.

“Asevanacha balanam               

Pandithanancha sevana”

“Not to follow or associate the foolish /imprudent,
to associate the wise”,

He strongly believed in this phrase and strictly conformed to it in his daily conduct. The initiative taken by Sarvodaya, on par with the influence of Buddhist books, to uplift people irrespective of their age, was praised by people all over the world. 

I recall a statement made by Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra highly commending Ariyaratne, 

“The eminence of Ariyaratne can be traced to the fact that he has comprehended the sad realities of life as enunciated by Buddhim; his lifestyle is woven around buddhist principles. The ultimate key for humans to be pain free and happy is to detach themselves and to attain nibbana, which is a concept Ariyaratne lives by.” 

I must say that, this is one of the most accurate descriptions about Prof. Ariyaratne 

Lord Buddha has recited to monks that:  

Charitha Hikkawe Charikan 

Bahu Jana Hithaya 

Bahu Jana Sukaya 

Which translates as “For the welfare of many, for the happiness of many”. 

Following this dictum pronounced by Lord Buddha and following the footsteps of Gandhi, Prof. Ariyaratne visited people’s houses, in an attempt to maintain cordial relations with them. He endeavoured to uplift the lifestyles of many of those poverty-stricken individuals, provided advice to overcome adversity and provided them with financial assistance. 

Another great virtue of him is that he upholds equality; what he considers to be growth is not material success, as one might assume. He has accustomed himself to a very simple and unpretentious life, that it has inculcated a desire in us, to follow his footsteps. His eloquence and philosophical knowledge led to the fame and success of Sarvodaya, as evidenced by the books and journals written by Prof. Ariyaratne.

His knowledge, on almost any subject, is extensive. Ever since he was in school, he has been habituated to reading; he is an eminent personality whose life is entangled with Buddhism and Buddhist principles.  I am profoundly grateful for being fortunate enough to associate someone of his calibre in my lifetime.

In Sarvodaya, he has ensured that the right person would be reciprocated with the right position which is evident through the way he got local and foreign graduates of universities to partake in Sarvodaya. As a recognition for his tireless efforts to serve humanity, he received many foreign awards including the Ramon Magsaysay award for community leadership in the Philippines.

It is also noteworthy to mention that he is the Sri Lankan who has received the most number of foreign awards. The monetary gifts he received during the awards were also perused for Sarvodaya, and consequently, for the upliftment of the general public of this country.

Prof. Ariyaratne paid special recognition to citizens who provided an exceptional service to this country and ensured that they were paid the tribute they deserved, he even provided monetary awards to 5 of those eminent personalities every year. 

Among the vast number of activities he does for social service, he has initiated many projects catered to villagers, one of which is the discussion of issues faced by villagers and providing solutions to the same. 

He has paid attention to monks of Sri Lanka and developed training centres for them, spearheaded by the late Ven. Henpitagedara Gnanasinghe Thero. I was serving as the Government Agent of Ratnapura at the time, pursuant to which, I was also granted the opportunity to take part in Sarvodaya. 

Another social service act initiated by Prof. Ariyaratne through Sarvodaya were projects catered to take care of children. This was initiated by Nitha Ariyaratne and this service served many children. Sarvodaya initiated many projects catered for women as well as youth and also introduced career training institutions to contribute towards self-employment. 

In 1971, at a time when youth were considered to be rebellious, despite the request of the Prime Minister at the time to rehabilitate the youth, many refused to bear the burden of it. Ultimately, I was given the responsibility to execute the rehabilitation and I followed Prof. Ariyaratne in accomplishing my duty. The rehabilitation process which I employed, following Prof. Ariyaratne’s approach was a complete success and pertaining to the same, I was even offered government executive posts. I am truly grateful to Sarvodaya and the government at the time for the fact that around 20,000 young people were rehabilitated and they later turned out to be virtuous and noble citizens. 

Metta, Karuna, Muditha, Upekkha, giving, speaking kind words, equality and having good manners were always prominent for Prof. Ariyaratne. At times, the harassments Prof. Ariyaratne had to overcome, he rose to the challenges, with patience and this reflected his integrity and righteousness.

Prof. Ariyaratne would never be revengeful or say hurtful words and truth be told, he is the epitome of patience. Prof. Ariyaratne was very fortunate to have a wife like Neetha as she stood in the shadow of his social service. Their children are well educated, and many of them have joined Sarvodaya for social service, especially his son, Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne followed in his footsteps.

I would like to mention the recognition and praise Prof. Ariyaratne has received when he was aboard. I was provided the opportunity to attend many international programmes on behalf of Prof. Ariyaratne and in 1971, I was assigned the task of addressing a conference on health service in Calcutta, India. 

When Sirimavo Bandaranaike was appointed the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, as soon as anyone saw the Sri Lankan flag and the Sarvodaya logo in airports, they inquired about Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Prof. Ariyaratne. This speaks to the extent to which he has received praise and respect from people that even officers of the airport welcomed Prof. Ariyaratne with respect. 

On the occasions where Prof. Ariyaratne flew abroad, he made it a point to wish me even when he was seated in the aeroplane. I once wrote a poem about my dearest friend, Ariyaratne, in the Thrikonaya Aragala collection of poetry.

Meththa (kind hearts; as revealed by Buddha)

Shall expel darkness

Act with determination 

To please all the creatures

Creating courageous people 

Going forward with them

Brother, I will also be committed

To your sustainable mission 

Prof. Ariyaratne, the far-reaching service you have provided to this country cannot be put into words, it is indeed, immeasurable. You have been a reason for our tiny island to receive so much fame and appreciation and the service you provided is unfathomable. I would like to end this by stating that Sarvodaya has contributed immensely towards building an exceptional culture and literature for this country. May you be blessed with longevity and may you be able to continue this extensive service to this country, for many more years. 

 (The writer is a former Government Agent and Chancellor of the Rajarata University of Sri Lanka)