An Encounter with Sri Lanka's Gandhi

Dec 8, 2005

A large, SUV-like car rolls in and half a dozen people get out. As a part of the host committee, I need to spot Dr. Ariyaratne among the guests. Having never seen a picture of him, I wasn't sure how I'd spot such a celebrated personality but I anticipated a garland around his neck or strikingly unique clothes or a "Gandhi of Sri Lanka" halo or something. But nothing. I simply can't tell.

By any analysis, A. T. Ariyaratne is a living legend on this planet:

In the spirit of Martin Luther King, he has led peace marches and meditations with millions of poor people. In the mold of Mahatma Gandhi, he has quieted angry masses through his personal example. Like Jimmy Carter, he has successfully mediated intense conflicts and helped build hundreds of homes. Like the Dalai Lama and the world?s greatest preachers, he has an impressive ability to rally ordinary citizens to see the spiritual wisdom of looking beyond their own salvation to help ensure the salvation of others.

Such larger-than-life personalities, I figure, are easy to spot. But then I remember asking a friend about her impression of the Dalai Lama, after having spent half an hour with him. With a profound look on her face, Jean had responded, "He is so ordinary. Extra ordinary, in fact."

And so it is with Dr. Ariyaratne -- the most ordinary of the lot, a short man with a slight hunch back to match his humility, a simple white-shirt overhanging on his darker pants, and a pair of sandals on his old feet. The motto of his Sarvodaya movement is a prefect fit for his personna: "We build the road and the road builds us."

"What is your message for youth of the world?" I ask him during an interaction session. Without hesitation, he replies, "To destroy all that is bad." "Nonviolently," he adds after a slight, humorous pause. "We must remove all man-made barriers that separate life. Race is a man-made barrier, caste is man-made barrier. We must work to bring people together."

As we are walking out, Dr. Ariyaratne is asked to plant a symbolic tree on this Gandhian campus. Very carefully, he sits down on the ledge and looks to the sky to find the sun. With folded hands, he tilts his head up towards the sky, as if to request authorization from a power stronger than his own. Then, he immerses the unplanted shrub into the ground and covers up its roots with the rich soil. While washing his hands, he carefully ensures that the water is recycled back to the roots, caresses the leaves in a grand fatherly way, and whisphers a few murmurs that sound like prayer.

Since Buddha and Gandhi are the two major inspirations in his life, I ask Dr. Ariyaratne what role meditation plays in his life. Almost as if he was waiting for my question, he clasps his left hand into my right and cracks up with a jolly smile. "This is the role of meditation in service," he says while slanting his eyes towards the newly planted tree. It's actually blatantly obvious but I'm glad I asked because, for those couple of minutes, my hands got to be in the direct company of hands that have touched millions of lives with selflessness.

Right before he's about to leave, someone blurts a question, "What motivates you to serve?" Very simply, in a matter-of-fact tone, he says, "To find myself. Who am I?"

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