“Be the Change”: Did Gandhi really make this statement?

GandhiNOTE: I first published this on my web site on June 5, 2009, as a static file. I’ve now rather substantially changed my ideas on this subject; Arleen Lorrance is the author of the earliest written source of this saying, from 1971. But I include the present article in case people are interested in how I reached my conclusions.

One of the most widely-quoted aphorisms of Mahatma Gandhi is, “We must be the change we want to see in the world.” But when, and where, did Gandhi make this statement? Or did he say it at all?

This quote seems to be everywhere in various forms. I first heard the slogan “Be the Change” in conjunction with the Senate candidacy of Mike Miles, who ran in the Democratic primary in Colorado in 2004. At the time, I didn’t even realize that it was attributed to Gandhi. I have since seen it in print in various places. Governor Joe Manchin of West Virginia has an article on the internet about it. A Google search on “we must be the change” gets 176,000 hits, and a Google search on the slight variation “we must become the change” gets 115,000 hits. But when I tried to track down the source, there was a problem: no one seems to know where the quote came from, or when and where Gandhi actually said it.

The earliest reference I can find is actually rather recent. It is to interviews of Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. (Wikipedia gives these two sources: as quoted in “Arun Gandhi Shares the Mahatma’s Message” by Michel W. Potts, in India – West [San Leandro, California] Vol. XXVII, No. 13 (1 February 2002) p. A34; Arun Gandhi indirectly quoting his grandfather. See also “Be the change you wish to see: An interview with Arun Gandhi” by Carmella B’Hahn, Reclaiming Children and Youth [Bloomington] Vol.10, No. 1 (Spring 2001) p. 6.)

Arun said that he heard this saying from his grandfather’s mouth himself. But these two articles were published in 2001 and 2002 — over 50 years after Gandhi’s death. I sent an e-mail to the M. K. Gandhi Institute, founded by Arun Gandhi, asking about this quotation, over a year ago, but never received a response. I also asked at the Denver Public Library and was unable to find a reference to it in standard collections such as Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

So I raise the question: did Gandhi actually make this statement? Unfortunately, I do not have an answer to this. It is interesting that this question about a historical figure who is still within the living memory of some people alive today, is in a way almost as obscure as questions about sayings from the historical Jesus.

Let’s ask two slightly more specific questions: is Arun Gandhi the earliest source for this saying? And did he first publish something about this quote about 50 years after the fact?

If the answer to these questions is “yes,” and it appears to be, then I submit that we cannot really attribute this quote to Gandhi. I have several reasons:

1. Fifty years is a long time to remember anything. If you asked me to remember a specific quote from my parents or grandparents even one decade ago, I wouldn’t trust my own memory. If you asked me whether my grandfather said something 50 years ago, even if I remembered it as clear as noon-day, I’d be hesitant to proclaim it as gospel truth.

This objection could be answered in an instant. I could get an e-mail tomorrow from Arun Gandhi, saying, “it’s in his Collected Works, volume 3, page 286.” This objection might even be alleviated, though not completely answered, if it had been something that Arun Gandhi had written about for a long time — say, if he had published something in the 1970’s containing this saying, instead of waiting over a half century to tell the world about it.

2. Arun Gandhi sometimes seems to change Gandhi’s message to suit the circumstances. Specifically, he is not a vegetarian in spite of Mahatma Gandhi’s ardent vegetarianism and in spite of the tradition of Indian and Hindu vegetarianism.

I first encountered this in 1997 when he spoke at a local event at the Mile High Church of Religious Science, when he announced in response to a question that he was not a vegetarian.

A number of people who were vegetarians in the audience heard this remark and were at first stunned and then furious. We figured that many Hindus were vegetarians anyway, and surely an Indian who was the grandson of the Mahatma himself would be vegetarian.  Arun Gandhi and I exchanged several e-mail letters on this subject, and he has also elaborated on his views in print.  It was partially in response to this controversy that I wrote “Truth Force and Vegetarianism.”

To be clear, Arun Gandhi didn’t deny that his grandfather was a vegetarian, he just denies it was an integral part of his thought, and sees no reason to follow his grandfather on this subject. I quoted from the Mahatma’s autobiography, where Gandhi specifically contradicts this idea, but to no avail.

3. The saying  seems to be primarily aimed at uneasy, well-to-do Westerners in the 21st century.  It does not seem to be appropriate for Gandhi’s own contemporaries, who were Indians mostly subsisting in poverty under colonial rule. This saying basically concerns consistency — a variation on “practice what you preach.” It is certainly something that Gandhi could have said. But it seems to be directed more towards those who might have difficulty in practicing what they preach.

If Gandhi did say it, it would be very interesting to know the exact context in which he was saying it. Was it really a private remark just for Arun Gandhi himself? If it was, then we are back to the issue of Arun Gandhi’s memory.

I do not have a problem with the quotation itself; I agree with it. It would not ruffle my ideological feathers if I found out decisive proof tomorrow that Gandhi in fact said this very thing. Along with such figures as Leo Tolstoy, George Bernard Shaw, and Jane Goodall, Mahatma Gandhi is a prominent example of a modern ethical thinker who was vegetarian. Everyone, and especially Westerners, could use a good dose of “practice what you preach.”

The question is solely, did Mahatma Gandhi actually say it? He may have. But in the meantime, it is my suspicion that this saying is legendary.

Keith Akers
June 5, 2009

Update November 22, 2009: a friend of mine mentioned recently that she had seen the phrase “be the change” as a rubber stamp-pad slogan on letters she got during the 1970’s.  If this is true (I haven’t actually seen any such letters or rubber stamp-pads) then it would mean that this slogan has been around earlier than I thought, perhaps for 30 or 40 years, although it still wouldn’t be clear that Gandhi is the source.

UPDATE February 5, 2011: the slogan “be the change” has now been adopted by a pamphlet on Beef.org, a website funded by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

UPDATE March 28, 2011: Someone wrote to me and pointed out that the phrase “be the change” (attributed to Gandhi) appears in Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance.  It turns out that I have a copy of the 1992 edition of “Earth in the Balance” and there it is, on page 14.  This means that the quote originated no later than 1992.  It is also less likely that this phrase originated as an “internet phenomenon.”  The commercialization of the internet began in the mid-1980’s and the “World Wide Web” started in 1991.

UPDATE April 9, 2011: I’m hot on the trail!  I wrote to the person that Al Gore quotes in his book, and he referred me to his own book, The Great Turning, by Craig Schindler and Gary Lapid (Bear and Company, 1989).  Note that this is NOT the book by the same title written by Dave Korten.  On page 121, they quote Gandhi and relate the same incident about Gandhi and sugar which Al Gore uses.

Unfortunately, the authors do not provide a footnote with the source of their information.  The only work by Gandhi in their bibliography is his Autobiography.  I purchased this (translated by Mahadev Desai) for 99 cents as an e-blook, and did a scan using both the terms “change” and the term “sugar.”  Neither search turned up what I was looking for.  It’s possible the search engine or my use of it was defective, of course, so please correct me if it’s really in his Autobiography.  I actually read about half of this book some decades ago, but got bored about the middle of the book and gave up.  I have written to Craig Schindler in hopes of getting further information.

If you do a Google search on the terms “Gandhi” and “sugar,” by the way, you will get a number of different accounts of the sugar story.  The interval between the mother’s first and second visits to Gandhi is listed variously as three days, one week, or two weeks.  This suggests that the story may originate in an oral tradition about Gandhi rather than a print collection of Gandhi’s sayings or a standard biography.

However, one of my main concerns about this quote —  that the only source of this is Arun Gandhi, from about the year 2000  —  is clearly not warranted.  Arun Gandhi may have heard it from his grandfather, or he may have seen the story in print (or both).  If Arun Gandhi is still the original source of the story, it would need to be before 1989.  And I’m still interested in the context of the quote, namely when and to whom Gandhi addressed his remarks.

UPDATE August 30, 2011: An article by Brian Morton in the New York Times opinion pages disputes that Gandhi ever made the “be the change” statement.  Morton notes that the quotation as attributed to Gandhi is “apolitical,” but says there is “no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation.”

Morton quotes Gandhi as saying something related to the idea of personal change as follows: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” However, Morton does not cite a source.