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Meet Gandhi of Sri Lanka: AT Ariyaratne

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Photo: sarvodya.org
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By Aanya Wipulasena

Moratuwa, Sri Lanka: The Gandhi of Sri Lanka, an 84-year-old Buddhist who has worked for nearly 60 years to bring education to rural areas, is stepping up his public role. Appointed late last year as one of three civil society representatives to Sri Lankas Constitutional Council, A. T. Ariyaratne now helps ensure democratic rule and good governance by taking a primary hand in appointing high-ranking public officials.

But the revered peace advocate remains dedicated to his grassroots efforts, which he says are steeped in his personal heritage.

I was born in a village and I know how important it is to empower people at the root level for real development, Ariyaratne says.

Ariyaratne is from Unawatuna, a small coastal village in Sri Lankas south. He became a science teacher at Nalanda College, a boys school in Colombo and, in 1958, he led a group of teachers and students in a program to help students in a remote village in Kurunegala District, in the North Western Province of Sri Lanka. That was the first of many trips by groups to help rural schools, and soon, the focus expanded from education to overall improvement of life in remote villages.

That work became Lanka Jatika Sarvodaya Shramadana Sangamaya, a social service organization known in Sri Lanka as simply Sarvodaya, which means awakening of all in Sanskrit. Ariyaratne is its founder and president.

The child development center represents just one type of Sarvodayas work. Villages submit requests for specific projects, whether a new well, medical clinic or other infrastructure or development. Projects are built by volunteers from all over the country. Sarvodaya District Centers also identify projects in needy areas.

In the process, people build bonds across religious and ethnic barriers, Ariyaratne says.

Caste, creed or religion does not affect us, he says.

For Buddhists, the Sarvodaya movement is an avenue for learning more about their religion.

A. Perera, a former additional secretary to the Ministry of Education and a former director general of the National Institute of Education, says that though he was born a Buddhist, he didnt understand the essence of Buddhism until he met Ariyaratne in Sarvodayas early years.

As a youth, Perera, now 85, joined his grandmother in worshipping at the temple every Full Moon Poya Day, which is a Buddhist religious holiday in Sri Lanka. But he only carried out these outward gestures of Buddhism, to identify as a Buddhist, rather than to live as one. Perera says his focus was earning money.

Ariyaratne, on the other hand, lived out the Buddhist principles that were preached in the temples, Perera says.

He takes Buddhist principles and applies them in daily life and communal work, Perera says.

Ariyaratnes message of serving people challenged his single-minded focus on income, Perera says.

Until I joined Ariyaratne at Sarvodaya I was finance-oriented and did not have any spiritual development, Perera says. Ariyaratne changed these attitudes in people.

Perera has been working closely with Ariyaratne since that time, both as a volunteer and, at one time, as Sarvodayas general secretary.

Ariyaratne stands apart from other social leaders because he treats everyone he meets with equal respect, says Fazrul Rahman, the senior chief moulavi (Islamic leader) of Kandy, the capital city of the Central Province and one of Sri Lankas major cities. He has been partnering with Sarvodaya for more than 15 years.

What Ariyaratne follows applies to Islam, Hinduism or Christianity alike, he says in a phone interview.

Ariyaratnes wife of 55 years, Neetha Dhammachari Ariyaratne, 73, says her husband lives out his beliefs in everyday life. Their six children grew up with children from various ethnicities and social backgrounds, she says.

Not once did he stop our children from interacting with others, she says. And the children did not need lessons of religious harmony 8211; they saw how their father did it and followed his steps.

In spite of the accolades and high position, Ariyaratne says his wish remains the same as when he began his community work more than 50 years ago.

I want everybody who comes in contact with me to look at the world and society with loving kindness, he says. Then translate that loving kindness into compassionate activities.

(The story originally appeared in bignewsnetwork.com)

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Pakistan And India To Construct a ‘Peace Corridor’

Indian pilgrims currently must seek visas to enter Pakistan and travel more than 200 kilometers to visit the Kartarpur shrine.

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India Pakistan, Sikh
Indian Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu, third left, stands for the national anthem during the foundation stone-laying ceremony for the planned road corridor to the Pakistan border, at Dera Baba Nanak,. VOA

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan will lay the foundation stone Wednesday for what is dubbed as a cross-border “corridor of peace” to allow religious devotees from India’s minority Sikh community to make free visits to one of their holiest gurdwaras, or temples, on the Pakistani side after more than seven decades.

The temple, known as Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, is considered to be the first temple ever built and the final resting place of Guru Nanak, the Sikhism founder.

Indian leaders, on behalf of the Sikh community, have long been demanding Islamabad provide unrestricted access to the holy site in Kartarpur, in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

India’s and Pakistan’s independence from Britain in 1947 divided the Punjab province, where Sikhism was born.

Imran Khan, Sikh
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan is seen during talks in Beijing, China. VOA

Indian Vice President Venkaiah Naidu performed the groundbreaking Monday on his side of the corridor at a ceremony just two kilometers from the Pakistani border.

The mutually agreed-to project is rare between the two nuclear-armed South Asian rivals. Historically strained ties have deteriorated in recent years and bilateral official talks remain suspended.

The fenced corridor of about five kilometers aims to connect the Kartarpur temple to the Sikh holy shrine at Dara Baba Nanak in India’s Gurdaspur district. Officials say the corridor will be in place for the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak’s birth in November 2019.

Khan’s government has invited, among others, Indian officials and journalists for Wednesday’s groundbreaking in Kartarpur, three kilometers from the border with India. An Indian ministerial-level delegation is expected to attend the ceremony as special envoys of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Sikh
A Delhi-based Sikh organization Urges UN to Support Turbans as Religious Symbol. Pixabay

“Pakistan calls this a corridor of peace. I call it the corridor of infinite possibilities of peace,” Indian Punjab provincial minister Navjot Singh Sidhu told reporters shortly after arriving in Pakistan for the ceremony. He crossed the border by foot at the Wagah crossing near the eastern Pakistan city of Lahore to attend the event at the invitation of his friend, Prime Minister Khan.

Members of the Sikh community on both sides have welcomed the construction of the cross-border corridor linking the two holy sites.

Indian pilgrims currently must seek visas to enter Pakistan and travel more than 200 kilometers to visit the Kartarpur shrine. The temple is visible on clear days from a viewing stage on the Indian side, where religious devotees gather every day to have a glimpse of it.

Also Read: Vow To Hold Peace Talks With India: Pakistan’s Prime Minster Imran Khan

India and Pakistan have fought three wars, and mutual tensions often hamper pilgrims’ plans to get timely visas to visit the shrine. Two of those wars have been over the disputed Kashmir region, which remains at the center of tensions. (VOA)