The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka is said to be “probably the largest participatory democracy movement on the planet”. Today, of the 38,000 villages in Sri Lanka, more than 15,000 of them are part of the Sarvodaya Shramadana network.
The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement aims for systemic change from the bottom up, and I first read about it in this series of articles a couple of years ago. As Craig Mackintosh explains:
In contrast to the rapid centralisation and government dependence we witness today, the ideal for every Sarvodaya village is Grama Swarajya, or self governance, where every village effectively becomes its own village republic.
Building these decentralised communities – “those that nurture the values of self reliance and self restraint” – is the central thrust of the movement.
It was in part two in this series of articles that Craig shared an interesting story which is the topic of this article:
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?”
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
9. total education related to life and living
10. cultural and spiritual needs
“… what more do we need?”, indeed.
I don’t know about you, but I think that list pretty much covers it. But when you look around you, you see everyone scrambling and working and stressing out about so many things that are not on this list.
And this is a problem, possibly the problem of our age, that we grow up thinking that happiness can be bought. As the author of the article series says:
It is what people want, or can be made to want through media and peer pressure, that is at the heart of our problems. We simply can’t constrain ourselves, and industry and government encourage and manipulate this to their own ends.
And, while we know we must stop consuming the planet, for us to suddenly depart from this entrenched system would translate to widespread economic turmoil and immense suffering.
It’s not what we have, it’s how we see it. This is a truth that has come up again and again from spiritual and philosophical teachers.
Stoic philosopher Epictetus said “People are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of them.”
People in Kerala in southern India for example have been shown in research to be among the happiest people in the world, but they have 1/50 the income of people in the United States.
The plain truth is that most of us in the “developed” world have all the things we need to survive. We have the food, the water, and the shelter.
Advertising and marketing wants us to believe otherwise. They want us to be unhappy with what we have, that if we buy something more we’ll be happier.
They’re very clever at telling us we can’t be happy until we get these things. As my favorite swedish thinker, Vilhelm Moberg, said on the topic:
As the artificial needs have increased in number, so has the discomfort and unease of modern man. You wear yourself out prematurely to get all the things that you could very well be without. You’re plagued by the anxiety of not being able to enjoy all the new things that this time has to offer. You’re plagued by the fear of losing all the things that you’ve with sweat and effort have acquired and see as indispensable. And the more needs you’ve acquired, the harder it has become to satisfy them all. Always, somewhere, there’s a whimper of dissatisfaction. And so you’re hurried along to try and ease the pain. It’s like when you try to stop a barrel from leaking, where new holes are constantly appearing.
So what is one to do?
Smarter people than me have given this question a lot of thought, over the course of centuries. Here’s Vilhelm Moberg again:
We must free ourselves from the imaginary notions it (industrialism) has imbued in us about what we can and can not live without. The artificial needs must be cut away, even if it hurts. Thus our daily worries and work for survival are eased. Time is freed up for man to grow his purely spiritual possibilities. The Age of the Machine is primarily material. Our time has not had the peace and quiet to bring forth anything else.
I struggle with this myself, but I know it’s something I have to do if I want to build my freedom and self-reliance. I’m trying hard to identify the artificial needs in my life, material things and commitments that I don’t really require to be happy, and then cut them away.
It hurts. It really does.
But I can also tell you though that once I’ve gotten rid of an artificial need I feel… lighter, like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. And I feel like it’s a worthy thing to pass on to my children.
What do you think about these “10 basic needs”? Have they missed anything? Could you be happy if only these ten needs were satisfied?
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