Opinion

A.T. Ariyaratne, a Hero in Sri Lanka for Helping the Poor, Dies at 92

A.T. Ariyaratne, a Sri Lankan who fought to alleviate the terrible living conditions of his country’s rural poor, creating a Buddhism-inspired social services organization that operates in thousands of villages, died on April 16 in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. He was 92.

His death, at a hospital, was confirmed by his son Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, in an interview.

Sometimes styled in the country’s media as a Sri Lankan Mahatma Gandhi, Mr. Ariyaratne preached brotherhood across ethnic divides and, with the help of volunteer labor and outside donations, brought aid to Sri Lankan villagers struggling with poor sanitation, insufficient food, broken roads and inadequate shelters and schools.

Hailed as a national hero and modeling himself on Ghandi’s ideals, he grew his Sarvodaya, or “Awakening of All,” movement from a presence in a handful of villages to operations in more than 5,000 of them a half-century later, digging wells, building schools, fixing roads, providing credit and more.

“Sarvodaya,” a term first used by Gandhi in India and inspired by the writings of the English critic and essayist John Ruskin, meant “the well-being of all,” especially the least fortunate, in Mr. Ariyaratne’s interpretation, as he explained in an essay in the anthology “The Sri Lanka Reader.” Ruskin’s essay “Unto This Last,” with its egalitarian, anticapitalist underpinnings, was a particular inspiration.

But Mr. Ariyaratne worked primarily in a time and a place largely unreceptive to his peace message: during Sri Lanka’s vicious civil war from 1983 to 2009, in which mass murders, civilian executions and torture were the norm. The war limited his impact, according to some scholars and observers, as the country reeled from repeated bouts of violent conflict between the majority Sinhalese Buddhists, like Mr. Ariyaratne, and the minority Tamils, mostly Hindu.

In the midst of the war, in 2001, Barbara Crossette, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, wrote in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, “Sarvodaya’s success has been small, and the carnage continues.”

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