"Be the Change"
Did Gandhi really make this statement?
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
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)
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
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
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
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
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