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Meet Gandhi of Sri Lanka: AT Ariyaratne

Sri Lankan

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

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Hardline Buddhist Monks in Sri Lanka Celebrate Creation of New Buddhist Entity in Ladakh

New Delhi has also been keeping a steady gaze on Sri Lanka where Buddhist, Muslim and Christian factors came into play during the April 21

Buddhist Monks, Sri Lanka, Ladakh
The projection of Ladakh as purely Buddhist is odd because in the combined population of Kargil and Leh, Muslims are a majority according to the 2011 census. Pixabay

Hardline Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have celebrated the creation of a new Buddhist entity in Ladakh. It is an optical illusion that Jammu and Kashmir has been neatly divided into Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, that is, Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist entities. The projection of Ladakh as purely Buddhist is odd because in the combined population of Kargil and Leh, Muslims are a majority according to the 2011 census.

New Delhi has also been keeping a steady gaze on Sri Lanka where Buddhist, Muslim and Christian factors came into play during the April 21, Easter Sunday massacre. Indian Intelligence had alerted their counterparts in Colombo as early as April 4 that a major act of terror would be executed in the island nation, possibly near Easter. When the bombs were detonated in Colombo’s churches and hotels killing nearly 300 people and injuring 500 more, Indian Intelligence looked very impressive after the event. Then Intelligence agencies from the US, UK, Israel, Australia, India, all descended on Colombo with state of the art technology. Everyone was out to hold Colombo’s hand. A petrified establishment, it was hoped, would fall into the Western lap. Machinations would then follow to steer Sri Lanka away from the Road and Belt Embrace.

Spanish Anthropologist, Joseba Zulaika’s famous dictum is worrisome: “Counter terrorism is terrorism’s best friend”. Hints of terror cells in South India, the cover up in Sri Lanka, the political turnstile in the Maldives makes this Indian Ocean triangle a source of anxiety.

All the more worrisome because the current phase of terrorism is not just Muslim anger, revenge, vendetta. It has been identified as energy to be harnessed as an asset. It all began with the Afghan Mujahideen in the 80s. Just take a look at what some scholarly investigations in Sri Lanka have found.

Buddhist Monks, Sri Lanka, Ladakh
Hardline Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have celebrated the creation of a new Buddhist entity in Ladakh. Pixabay

Sniffer dogs, making a round of the Hilton hotel found nothing but the hotel staff asked the handlers to examine another branch of the hotel. At this new location something mysterious was experienced. The dogs would not stop barking in front of one room. There was some humming and hawing, and excuses by the management as to why the room could not be opened. It was occupied by employees of the US embassy. According to Dr. Michael Roberts of the University of Adelaide, Australia, when the embassy officials ultimately opened the room, Sri Lankan police found two bomb detectors which, the officials explained, were for their own safety. The overawed Sri Lanka police appears not to have pursued the obvious line of inquiry. Sniffer dogs would bark only if the detectors had been in contact with material which went into the manufacture of bombs.

One complicating factor is the divergent foreign policy preferences of the President, a votary of China’s Belt and Road initiative, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who has exerted every muscle to sign the Status of Forces Agreement which would give the US Military a free run of an island. Note the head on conflict. The Prime Minister is keen that SOFA is signed before the Island’s general elections next year.

There are some tell-tale details. I have earlier mentioned a research paper, “Weaponization of Religion” by Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake. According to her, the growing Chinese influence on the island may well have been the target of the Easter attacks.

Not only were hotels targeted which had Chinese affiliations, but the six Chinese who lost their lives were from the South China Institute of Oceanography. Western agencies would not look at this data. They were, quite tellingly, focused only on the clash of civilizations and conflicts across faiths.

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Tibet, Ladakh, Bhutan, Sikkim, Mongolia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, are all bound by Buddhism, though sometimes of distinct Mahayana and Hinayana strands. How many of these would possibly be brought into play in President Donald Trump’s strategy of encircling China?

When Trump entered the White House in 2016, his avowed aim was to upturn everything Barack Obama had ever erected in the arena of foreign affairs, as in other areas. But his demoniacal desire to eradicate Obamaism from its root has run into that constant called American national interest.

The Obama-John Kerry team’s priority became the nuclear deal with Iran, signed in 2015 for a reason: focusing on West Asian affairs on a daily basis was keeping the administration away from other global priorities that required urgent attention – the pivot to Asia, for instance. Despite Israel and Saudi Arabia throwing every monkey wrench at hand into the 5+1 discussions with Iran, the team determinedly concluded the deal with several objectives but one which often goes unnoticed.

Buddhist Monks, Sri Lanka, Ladakh
It is an optical illusion that Jammu and Kashmir has been neatly divided into Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. Pixabay

Lyndon Johnson’s colourful image was instructive. “It is better to have the camel in the tent, peeing out, than to leave him out peeing in.” Iran was going to be part of West Asian balance of power along with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar. Washington would then have the time to focus on Asia Pacific.

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To be characteristically contrary, Trump walked out of the nuclear deal, made a mess with Europe, North Korea, raised stakes everywhere. But eventually he picked up the thread where Obama had left it: “Pivot to Asia” but only after having soiled much turf enroute. The US support to the protests in Hong Kong, playing up the Taiwan-China differences, shady US behaviour in Sri Lanka, the Economic showdown with Beijing are all part of Trump’s risky, untidy “contain China” movement set by his predecessor. But with Trump you know nothing until you do. Who would have expected him to propose a meeting with President Hassan Rouhani on the margins of the UN General Assembly? Or that he would initiate direct talks with the Houthis in Yemen either with Saudi concurrence or without it, sailing above their heads? Either Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be hopping mad at this turn or he will be pleased as punch in case he was in the loop and these leaks are only designed to set up adversaries. Who knows? (IANS)