Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

Daily Email Edition

Get MN Daily NEWS delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday!


Editorial: The odyssey with Minnesota’s ‘Gandhi of Sri Lanka’

An international force for peace, and progress, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne’s death is mourned by many.
Image by Sarah Mai

When Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne was honored with the Hubert Humphrey International Humanitarian Award at the University of Minnesota in 1994, I hailed him as the “Gandhi of Sri Lanka.”

Dr. Ari — as he was known globally — left us on April 16 at 92. However, his message of “the awakening of individual personality for human progress” remains a living legacy for posterity. Former Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie consoled me that “humanity is less kind and less peaceful today with this loss; more for the rest of us to do.”

On human values

For over half a century, I called him Ari “Aiya,” which means the “elder brother.” He was a mentor and a friend in my formative years in Sri Lanka before I arrived in Minnesota on an AFS scholarship to attend the Perham High School in 1978, but I maintained contact with him and his Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement over the ensuing years. Sarvodaya meant “awakening of all” through Shramadana: the voluntary “gift of labor” for the common good to uplift the lives of the poor.

Aiya embraced all the religious and cultural values of Christian, Muslim and other faith traditions in the secularized Sarvodaya aimed at achieving human liberation. This was realized through poor people making collective decisions at Shramadana “family gatherings.” 

 This strategy aimed for a progression from the individual awakening of personality to the awakening of the village, the country, and ultimately the world. 

The American connection

Somewhat similar to the U.S. civil rights movement, the Buddhist-inspired Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement was an all-encompassing “personality-awakening social movement for human progress.” 

Indeed, Aiya drew equal inspiration from the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did. 

While teaching at Nalanda College in Colombo, Aiya inspired a group of students and teachers for an “educational experiment” in social change in 1958. The Nalanda College is one of over 250 Buddhist schools established by Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), a Union officer in the American Civil War who later became a Buddhist activist in Sri Lanka. 


In her book, Stone Soup for the World, Marianne Larned profiled Dr. Ariyaratne. I contributed the chapter on “Awakening,” in which I shared my first encounter with him. For me, the Sarvodaya conviction that “we build the road, and the road builds us” has deepened our understanding of the reciprocal nature of contributing to human progress.

While studying and teaching at the University of Minnesota, I often visited Aiya. When the University published my manuscript, The Political Economy of Poverty Alleviation, Prof. Vernon Ruttan highlighted the development paradox in Sri Lanka: despite having high life expectancy and literacy rates similar to Japan and South Korea, Sri Lanka’s GDP per capita income was relatively low. 

When I explained to Ruttan that Sarvodaya and Buddhism might offer an explanation for the development paradox, he was intrigued. I emphasized that the Buddhist values on education and health as essential for liberation from suffering. Thus, fostering human development. Fascinated by this linkage, Ruttan visited Sri Lanka to study Sarvodaya. Subsequently, I engaged in a series of enlightening conversations with Ruttan and Aiya.

These conversations and explorations culminated in the University publishing my next manuscript, Buddhist Equilibrium. Following its publication, Aiya later incorporated this framework in his “Schumacher Lectures on Buddhist Economics.” Two decades earlier, the Sarvodaya model for holistic human development had also influenced Sir E.F. Schumacher’s seminal work, Small is Beautiful. 

For his contributions, Ari Aiya was globally known as a visionary leader. He is the most decorated global citizen with over 100 honors, including the Magsaysay Award (i.e., the Nobel Prize of Asia), the King Beaudoin Award, the Niwano Peace Prize and the Gandhi Peace Prize.

Awakening for progress

Ari’s influence extended far beyond. Soon after the 2004 tsunami, for example, the U.S. channeled much of its humanitarian assistance through the Sarvodaya network of village centers.

When U.S. Senate Majority Leader Dr. Bill Frist and Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell visited Sri Lanka, they were impressed by the rapid transformation of these centers into effective tsunami relief hubs. Witnessing Sarvodaya’s democratic model and its operational efficiency, the senator met with Ari Aiya and described him as the “holy man.”

In her condolence, U.S. Ambassador Julie Chung expressed the gratitude of the American people for Sarvodaya’s enduring partnership, recognizing that Ari Aiya’s work helped “to uplift the lives of countless Sri Lankans” and continues to “inspire generations to come.” 

Aiya showed us the individual “awakening of personality” must precede societal change or the “awakening of others.” This reflects the immutable natural laws of our interdependence and impermanence that shape our individual Samsaric journey within this world and beyond.

Dr. Patrick Mendis, an alumnus of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is a presidential advisor to the National Security Education Board and the inaugural Taiwan chair and distinguished visiting professor of international relations at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Accessibility Toolbar

Comments (0)

All The Minnesota Daily Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *