Sarvodaya Village Project Sri Lanka

‘We build the road and the road builds us’.

‘Sarvodaya’ means awakening of all or everybody wakes up. It is a Buddhist and Ghandian inspired community development movement with popular participation of over 5000 villages in Sri Lanka. It actively engages people of all religions and ethnic backgrounds.

images (5)The problem here is the western model of economic development which undermines the traditional indigenous communities. Redefining ‘development’ was the key. The Sarvodayan workers redefined the real meaning of development as ‘waking up’. This was a process of the people waking up to their real needs, to their capacity to work together and their power to change.

The movement began in 1958 when a young science teacher organised a holiday work camp in a remote area to demonstrate how people could work together and learn from each other. This grew into a national self help movement. It was a spiritual as well as an economic awakening which promoted the social teachings of the Buddha and presented them as a challenge to the villager to take responsibility for their lives. This can be seen in the use of the 4 noble truths teaching which is applied directly to the village and its problems: e.g. first noble truth: there is a declining village.

images (1)It asserts that development is only meaningful in terms of fulfilment, while fulfilment includes production and consumption it also means much more. It can also mean the unfolding of collective wisdom and compassion. The message is that while materialistic societies do not encourage or reflect on this potential ‘it is real and can be awakened’. Sarvodaya sees this awakening not in monastic solitude but in social, economic and political interaction. It naturally cultivates deeper realisation of no self and interconnectedness by direct experience.

The Sarvodaya project’s perspective works on all levels starting from the Person to the Community to Country and the World. It believes social change requires personal change. Being Non partisan it was effective in gaining the trust of the people. Essential in its success is the fostering of inclusivity and tolerance in the same way that Buddha assailed social division, caste/class, narrow allegiances, doctrinaire and opinions. Respect and harmony is generated by the organised constructive work which practically improves the villages and their lives. Today the movement has grown into a large organisation with a membership and elected executive council. It has professional staff as well as volunteers. It has its own development educational institutes, village re-awakening centres, cooperative economic enterprises and other bodies. It is also involved with relief work after the tsunami in 2004 and has been severely tested by a civil war.

 Project Principles

images (3)Generosity (Dana) is encouraged as good social conduct. The concept of Dana is universal in acceptance as a virtuous act, the act of giving and the gift itself. Sarvodaya interprets it as sharing of one’s time, skills, goods and energy with one’s community.

The four sublime attitudes or Brahma Viharas are practised: The first is Loving Kindness (Metta), this is seen as the means and measure of your awakening and Sarvodaya presents metta as the fundamental attitude that must be cultivated to develop motivation for service, capacity to work harmoniously with others  and non violence. The second is Compassion, seen as putting loving kindness into action on behalf of others. The third is Sympathetic joy which is the joy one reaps in beholding the effects of service. The fourth is Equanimity when practiced it preserves workers from burnout as it can be applied in the face of praise or blame.

They believe that Buddha’s teachings devoid of this revolutionary meaning and application is incapable of facing the realities of the modern materialistic society.

images (2)‘On the one hand they are strongly spiritual and on the other hand strongly revolutionary; they will not concede revolutionary monopoly only to those who base all their social actions on hatred’. Baudda Marga Vesak  (World fellowship of Buddhists).

Respectful and honest speech promotes the subtle far reaching importance of the everyday language we use. This helps to avoid divisiveness and violence while promoting mutual respect and a sense of equality.

imagesConstructive work symbolised in the Shramadana (meaning the giving of energy) work camps, the sharing of labour is viewed as essential if persons and community are to awaken to their potential and capacity for self reliance and making change. It turns their words into real action.

What can we learn from Sarvodaya? We need to redefine what the real solutions to climate change are. They are not large scale technological fixes which are continually put forward by the media and politicians. Just like the Sarvodaya project rejected the colonial and governmental led large scale development. We can re-define what the solutions to our environmental instability and social inequality are.  A collective waking up based on practical communal work, mass re-skilling and personal awareness.

images (4)In the urban based industrial economy we are left disempowered by the lack of trust, prejudice and racism etc. The Sarvodaya  project gives us faith that by practically applying the social teachings of the Buddhas people can overcome distrust, prejudice and class inequality so we can work together to take action on climate change. It is a difficult path but one that is achievable by non-violent means which has great importance in our current blame culture.


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