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Letters from Sri Lanka – The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, and the Ten Basic Needs

Part II of a series – If you haven’t already, read Part I before continuing.

What do we really need?
Grandma and grandchild in their home garden, near Telulla village, Sri Lanka

All photographs © Craig Mackintosh

Civilization is not an incurable disease, but it should never be forgotten that the English people are at present afflicted by it. – Gandhi

Sarvodaya – ‘Everyone Wakes Up’

The word Sarvodaya, originally coined by Mohandas Gandhi from two Sanskrit roots – sarva (all) and udaya (uplift) – meant ‘universal uplift’, or ‘progress/welfare of all’. Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne also redefined it to reflect the Buddhist ideal – becoming ‘the awakening of all’, or (my preference) ‘everyone wakes up‘.

Gandhi created the term for the title of his 1908 translation of John Ruskin’s book Unto This Last, that, according to his autobiography was a major turning point in his life – and thus, in the lives of many millions of people….

The book was impossible to lay aside, once I had begun it. It gripped me.

… I could not get any sleep that night. I determined to change my life in accordance with the ideals of the book. – Gandhi’s Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, part IV, chapter xviii

Gandhi’s lucid understanding boiled Ruskin’s work down to three central tenets:

1. That the good of the individual is contained in the good of all.
2. That a lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s in as much as all have the same right of earning their livelihood from their work.
3. That a life of labour, i.e. the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.

The first concludes something Gandhi (and I think, we) already knew – that the health of a nation and that of the individual are intimately connected, inseparable. Personal development of the individual of course translates to development of the family, the village, and ultimately the entire country. Conversely, a nation prioritising the good of all provides the positive developmental environment that enriches the individual experience. The second, which Gandhi admitted he had before only dimly realised, disparages inequality, with all its social consequences, and the third, which was a complete revelation to him, holds aloft that fundamental secret to personal fulfillment and peaceful coexistence – the elimination of superfluous ambitions by paring one’s aspirations down to meeting basic needs.

As we’ve already shared, Shramadana means ‘gift of labour’ or to ‘donate effort’. So, the combined terms essentially become ‘the awakening of all through shared labour’. Implicit in this statement are the concepts of cooperation, service, moderation, restraint and non-violence – rather than the competition, greed and excess encouraged by western policies, industry and media, and the plundering facilitated through these and their military.

In our contemporary North, the health of the nation is measured by the health of the economy, and thus the health and value of an individual is measured by his/her ability to consume. (Incidentally, my dictionary defines the word consume as ‘to destroy’ or ‘to exhaust’.) Where a persistent desire to purchase non-essential, rapidly-obsolete items – exhausting finite resources and converting one’s labour into landfill as quickly as possible – would be seen in the Sarvodaya context as weakness of character and a dangerous blight on society, in a culture where the short term economic health of the nation is the primary focus this perverse personality trait becomes a nurtured necessity instead.

The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement turns these absurdities on their head.

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement Takes the Development Road Less Travelled

As mentioned, the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement evolved out of the work of Sri Lanka’s Department of Rural Development in the late 1950s. But, why did Ariyaratne venture to start an entirely new movement, rather than aligning with the government’s development arm and building on that instead? Some have questioned the motives of Ariyaratne over this move – going so far as to consider it pure, manipulative, self-aggrandisement. His most outspoken critics state that the growth of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement has come at the expense of the Department of Rural Development, which, they propose, would have done the work as well or better.

But, I think, the question to ask is what would be the ultimate aim of each?

Is he on the right bus?

Sitting aside the coffee table in Ariyaratne’s library, I asked him to describe, in his own words, how the movement began. From this we may begin to comprehend his intent. You see, while both groups were seeking to improve the lives of their ‘wards’, the ultimate destination of development was likely quite different – purely because their understanding of what ‘development’ was weren’t necessarily the same.

I was thoroughly dissatisfied with the system of education and the kind of education we were giving our students. It was classroom confined, textbook oriented – the ultimate objective only passing examinations…. There was no totality of approach, to awaken the personality of the student to the fullest. So total personality awakening was absent from that education system. And, more than the educational philosophers, the educational beaurocrats were running the whole show. So the Sarvodaya movement began as a response to that situation.

We took students into rural areas, got them to live with village people and work with village people, and this went on as a series of educational extension camps in villages. – Interview with A.T. Ariyaratne, Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, 11 August 2009

Like Gandhi, Ariyaratne’s views on education were entirely holistic, and practical – he believed education should be targeting personal development, or awakening, and aiming at the individual being better able meet the circumstances of the environment within which he found himself.

The following statement from 2008 sums up his healthy views of what education really should be:

Education is totality of the methods and techniques adapted by the civilized society to bring about positive changes. – Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, delivered at the Sub-Regional Consultation Meeting on Development of Education for International Understanding Policy in South Asia, 4-6 September 2008, in Colombo, Sri Lanka

The aim and end result of education should be ‘positive changes’ for society. This contrasts to the conventional, generic trend of education within so-called ‘developed’ countries, which simply turns out production/consumption oriented drones for the captains of a centralised, corporate economy.

The schools and colleges are really a factory for turning out clerks for Government. – Gandhi

Ariyaratne explained further:

Together these students and teachers, along with their rural counterparts, and all members of the community – men, women and children – gifted their labor, know how, wealth and resources for the common well being of the village. New access roads, new village water reservoirs, new irrigation canals, wells, wattle and daub houses, preschools, community centres and even school buildings were built in these camps without any cost to the government. Here was an example of linking the school with the community and education merging with development.

The hidden potential of people’s strength for self reliance and community participation surfaced and people became less dependent on government and other external resources. A self-development initiative swept across these communities and adjacent villages which were at that time neglected by all governments. Governments at the time did not believe in people’s participation in their own self development. They promoted more dependence. – Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, delivered at the Sub-Regional Consultation Meeting on Development of Education for International Understanding Policy in South Asia, 4-6 September 2008, in Colombo, Sri Lanka

While governments aim for economic growth, globalised integration, so-called ‘trickle down’ economics, and, inevitably, more control – the Sarvodaya movement targets village scale self-reliance, cultural and economic equality and true bottom up democracy.

And, it must be noted here that, for Ariyaratne, village development and social improvement were not ends in themselves. The ultimate goal of the movement is Sarvodaya, or, awakening for all – it is the beginning, the end and the means of development. All here means the individual, the village, the country, and, ultimately, the entire world. Grounded in Buddhist values, this awakening, or enlightenment, is achieved through Shramadana – the selfless acts of sharing one’s labour – and through this, gaining empathy with one another’s experiences and sufferings.

While these principles are found in all the world’s major religions, Ariyaratne is one of the few to have the gumption to find a way to actually apply them, and on a scale, and in a way, that peacefully but profoundly challenges the western capitalist system they are juxtaposed against. The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement has effectively become a parallel, or alternative, grass roots form of government – self government – through a massive groundswell of acceptance among the common people.

The Ten Basic Needs

Last century, a history of poverty and pain brought forth the phrase ‘The Great American Dream’. It symbolised the rags to riches story. Cheap energy brought a seeming golden new age, where we could reach for the stars – where we could be whatever we wanted to be. It was a pleasant fiction, and some of us even got to live it. Just some.

The dream, however, as dreams do, missed a few elements of reality.

The American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun. – Kurt Vonnegut, US novelist.

Cupidity. Covetousness. The dream was, ultimately, all about ‘me’. As we rushed to embrace an energy-rich new world, we failed to be circumspect. We came to a fork in the road, but didn’t look at the signs. The path we chose wasn’t about service and cooperation. It wasn’t about community, contentment and peace. Rather, it was about idleness and excess; possessions and prestige. Nowhere in its charter were the fundamentals considered. The quest for riches ran roughshod over all – family, society, the laws of finiteness, connectedness, the laws of nature and of cause and effect. We tried to bend nature to our will, but nature could only bend so far. Where nature wouldn’t accommodate, we bent our economies to compensate, and our dream began to be fueled at the expense of poorer nations. Colonialism and slavery continued within our modern economic framework, while we sat on the porch and sipped lemonade.

But now we awake from the dream to find our environment unravelling, our economies collapsing, and our communities so dismantled that – as with Humpty Dumpty – we don’t seem to know how to put it all back together again. We are being forced to face nature’s balance sheet – the invoice from hell, as it were. We’re starting, at last, to see the true cost of our lifestyles.

And, while all this was going on, right at the time baby boomers were living the dream but creating a nightmare, Ariyaratne was building an alternative.

Continuing from above:

So while we were going on like that, quite accidentally, in one of the villages [was] an old traditional physician, who was basically a farmer. But, from his grandparents he inherited particular medicine for some things like cancer. So I happened to accidentally talk to him, in order to take a patient to him. Then we started talking about life, and he used for the first time I heard, these words ‘basic needs’.

He said, "If our basic needs are satisfied, what more do we need?"

That struck me very much, and I asked, "What’s your number one basic need?"

He said "Environment".

"What do you mean by environment?"

He said "The psychological and physical environment in which we live. It should be something that would not bring fear to us. We should feel comfortable in that psychological atmosphere. Similar with the physical environment." – Interview with A.T. Ariyaratne, Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, 11 August 2009

Ariyaratne and his colleagues then sought to find out what were the basic needs of villagers – asking them to list ten, in order of priority. After surveying 660 villagers, and averaging the results, they end up with the following list:

  1. a clean and beautiful environment
  2. an adequate supply of safe water
  3. minimum requirements of clothing
  4. a balanced diet
  5. simple housing
  6. basic health care
  7. communication facilities
  8. energy
  9. total education related to life and living
  10. cultural and spiritual needs

"… what more do we need?", indeed.

Continue to Part III – The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement and the ‘Third Way’



  1. Thankyou Craig for posting these two uplifting accounts of grass roots social movements. Being someone who is intensely interested in social change, I have come to conclusion that change must occur on a deeper consciousness level. To hear of a movement, which can bring together 650, 000 people to mediate is quite profound.
    In my experience with social movements in Australia, often contest policy, or CEO’s decisions, however rarely is the question raised, what does it mean to be alive? However, this seems to be what was at the crux of Ariyaratne question to the villagers when he started the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement. When humans ask this question, and self reflexively answer it, we will see in ourselves that living in a capitalist consumer world is not what it means to be alive.
    The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement is truly inspiring. The question now sits before, how do we play out something like this in Australia?
    Does of any groups in Australia who are doing similar things, please let me know. Also, has there been any book or papers written which are available?
    Peace to all

  2. The values promoted by Sarvodaya are soooo remote from those of current Western culture… Can you imagine a politician speaking in the election campaign about ten basic needs instead of economic growth and increasing consumption? That would be something! :)

    The great thing about the Sarvodaya movement is that it places spirituality in the heart of rural development process. By spirituality I don’t mean religion, but the quest for awakening and nurturing compassion. Thanks to this the petty materialistic desires are reduced and in consequence the ecological footprint as well. It is interesting that when you speak with someone engaged in spiritual practice then he or she can easily grasp the need for ecological solutions or change in lifestyle.

  3. What more do we need? How about music, poetry, entertainment, dancing… places and tools to do and learn those things. Valuable work. Maybe that’s all rolled into “cultural needs”, but that term expands into a pretty huge set of needs.

    I think a lot about minimalism, and I’ve decided that “necessary” is different than “optimal”. For example, if PA had lived with just his needs and not had a workshop, metalworking equipment, books, and supplies, he wouldn’t have designed his plough. Countless examples abound.

    Essentially, do we want to be only lifeforms, sitting as still as possible, consuming nutrients and excreting wastes? Or do we want more for ourselves, society and humanity? If so our material “needs” expand beyond just the basics to keep us alive and healthy.

    Yes, yes, I know much of how our society has “progressed” has just meant more destruction of the earth, but there is a counterexample to go with each example. Humanity is both beautiful and ugly.

  4. I was thinking along the same lines as greg, as I read this. I am very much opposed to ridiculous, destructive waste (in both senses of the word) that ends up destroying the quality of the whole environment.

    If I were queen I’d give the companies of the world a year, or some irreducible minimum, to clean up–nothing made that had residual toxicity or piled up in oceans, etc. Everything made, that was toxic or subject to piling up as junk, would have to be un-makeable.

    BUT, I am not drawn to a life of enforced agrarian simplicity (though it is a choice I would honor) for everyone. Gothic cathedrals are over the top, from a standpoint of physical necessity. I would put no restrictions on what a person could make or have, except that of consideration for the whole environment and other people.

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