“Be the Change you wish to see in the World.” ~ (Not) Gandhi

Via Waylon Lewis
on Aug 30, 2011
get elephant's newsletter

Gandhi was here.

Bonus: Why Gandhi chose not to eat meat.

And: Gandhi’s Top Ten Fundamentals for Changing the World.

From the NY Times, excerpt “Falser Words Were Never Spoken.”

…Gandhi’s words have been tweaked a little too much in recent years. Perhaps you’ve noticed a bumper sticker that purports to quote him: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” When you first come across it, this does sound like something Gandhi would have said. But when you think about it a little, it starts to sound more like … a bumper sticker. Displayed brightly on the back of a Prius, it suggests that your responsibilities begin and end with your own behavior. It’s apolitical, and a little smug.

Sure enough, it turns out there is no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation. The closest verifiable remark we have from Gandhi is this:

“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.”

Here, Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.

When you start to become aware of these bogus quotations, you can’t stop finding them…”


Bonus: Gandhi: how to be an effective Activist.


About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now elephantjournal.com & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. elephantjournal.com | facebook.com/elephantjournal | twitter.com/elephantjournal | facebook.com/waylonhlewis | twitter.com/waylonlewis | Google+ For more: publisherelephantjournalcom


81 Responses to ““Be the Change you wish to see in the World.” ~ (Not) Gandhi”

  1. mfshearer says:

    You just harshed my mellow. -Gandhi

  2. Jessica says:

    Love this!

  3. Don't even get me started on famous "Native American" quotes…

  4. mamaya says:

    does it matter who said it? it's still a GREAT quote.

    • Cindy Wilcox says:

      I agree, whether Gandhi said it or not, the message to me means: if you want to see change in the world, get involved and help bring about that change. If people don't do that, how does anything ever change?

  5. Tony says:

    Didn't NYT also publish a quote about Gandhi having an affair with a German body builder? Blah blah, like I care what the NYT wants me to believe. Might as well watch FOX. One person can't change the world? How does change start then?

  6. […] The plot is just silly and unfeasible. Not to mention the whole thing seems to be based off of an incorrect Gandhi quote. Gorgon Reviews, helping you avoid bad movies, and fix your quote […]

  7. […] Your favorite Gandhi quote? He never said that either. […]

  8. Mandy says:

    the Goethe misquote about boldness is pretty pervasive

  9. […] Fighting censorship, saving the environment, changing the world. […]

  10. Pete.Caldwell says:

    I agree that it is an excellent idea so who said it is hardly as important as the liberating and inspiring message it contains.
    For the pedantic and detail obsessed that are more caught up with the Who than the What – here's one for you "While it may be true a single man can't change the whole world, he sure can get the ball rolling." –Pete Caldwell
    Feel free to quote me as often as you want. The rest of us will get on with actually being the people we should be to inspire others with not only words – but actions too! 🙂 🙂 🙂

  11. “Be the ball.” – Ty Webb (Caddyshack)

  12. Mee says:

    Are you fluent in Gujarati? Have you read everything he wrote? Maybe this is a translation issue, not a matter of whether he said it or not.

  13. In a way, men are also not as easily sexually objectified as women, physically.Studies have shown that the main 4 sexually attractive bodyparts in the world are breasts, penis, butt and feet. Everything else is way far behind. I dont recall if butt is only really the female butt or not.

  14. Michael says:

    "A smile don't cost nothin' sugar." -Mahatma Gandhi

  15. […] It doesn’t take much to make the world a better place. Common courtesy goes a long way. And you never know when you might be on the end that needs that helping hand. Set an example for the children of today by teaching them the values of tomorrow. […]

  16. AmyIsabella says:

    "it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence."

    You are not making a justifiable connection in these statements. A single person being unable to overthrow an entire government is not the same as being unable to make any change at all. Many many individuals made worthwhile contributions to regime change historically. Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't born with a following.

  17. […] the change you wish to see in the world” – Anon Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Motivation and […]

  18. Vlad says:

    I cannot agree with you: the quote doesn't suggest responsibilities start end with your own behavior – its your interpretation.

    There's really no need to be an arrogant prick. I just cannot call a person who would embed such a meaning to such a beautiful quote.

    Quotes don't realy require elaborating on, the are always straightforward for inteligent and kind people.

    • Michael Dean says:

      True, the quote was totally misinterpreted. It suggests that if a person sees the need for change, they are free to try to change that part of the world/life/etc. that is available to them. Not that one person can change the entire world alone. One wonders if Mr. Lewis is purposely misstating it or if he is really that obtuse.

    • Don says:

      I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. I'm not so much sure he was being an arrogant prick as simply reading his own assumptions into the saying. I remember a passage I read once, attributed to Buddha (perhaps erroneously), that one does not need to go out into wilderness and beat the brush looking for a wrong to make right, or a poor soul to save, but rather staying on your path you have chosen will soon enough present you with enough opportunities to assist humanity without being one of those annoying 'I think you should do' activists.

  19. eclecticspot says:

    Interesting stuff. I agree with you an am glad that you've pointed this out. While I can see where others are coming from that have been rubbed the wrong way by this entry, I mostly see it your way. When looking at the actual quote, it's much more meaningful. And, it just seems stupid to trivialize anything Gandhi may've said on a fucking bumper sticker.

  20. P. Avion says:

    I dig the research and clarification on this, BUT wouldn't you say there's something a bit smug about the fervor which this writer seeks to debunk a phrase that is, nonetheless, a fine paraphrasing of one of Gandhi's central ideas?

    There's also a deceptive "apples to oranges" slant to the editorializing here, by comparing a phrase to a paragraph.

    Let's do a one-phrase side-by-side, shall we?

    “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change."

    I.e.: By changing ourselves, we could change the world.

    "Be the change you want to see in the world."

    Now that's not so difficult, is it? : )

    • M. Darin says:

      I agree completely P.

      If you ever stopped to consider how small and illegible the full quote would be on a bumper sticker, you would have realized why it is commonly paraphrased.

      Just save the pointed joke about the stereotypical "smugness" of Prius owners for the comedy club. The only thing the author has called attention to is their own misguided self-satisfaction.

      Everyone has to get their story, right? You just should have kept searching.

    • Zuzzie K says:

      Agreed, it's just paraphrasing, the message is still the same. If you have an ideal what the world should be, get in there and do it! Don't wait for others to start a trend. Instead of escaping from the world and complaining, it is on you to become the change you wish to see in the world.

  21. […] it’s meant to serve as a reminder that although we often get accustomed to things as we think we know them, it is sometimes enlightening to see these things—or in this case hear them—from a different […]

  22. John says:

    when you Waylon have accomplished something, then you can speak that way. the great gandhi is no longer around to defend himself. i'm sure if he was, he would be grateful for others promoting such words.

    • ann says:

      erm, waylon didn't write this. it says right there at the top of the article: "From the NY Times, excerpt 'Falser Words Were Never Spoken.'" no need to go hating on the brother – he's just sharing an article he thought readers might find of interest. and i do. because putting words in the mouth of a profoundly eloquent man or woman isn't right. say what one will about gandhi, the dude could write and speak beautifully. apparently he did not say this. and with his level of intelligence and articulacy (see: "I like your Christ…"), if he wanted to say it or write it, he would have said it or written it. i'd rather be clear on what he DID say, than go around believing he said something he didn't. so thanks, waylon, for sharing.

    • Ashley says:

      I don't think he was putting it down . . . he was taking the time to clarify since we seem to have gotten a bit wrapped up in our own heads . . . . 🙂 I assume he would prefer his message was received with thoughtfulness, not swallowed whole

  23. […] is often misquoted as saying “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. According to Elephant Journal, the closest thing he said to it is: If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world […]

  24. […] Gandhi’s famously misquoted advice, let me try to “be the change I want to see in this […]

  25. […] can “be the change” (which is so true, so true, but sometimes I’m so sick of hearing it. Can someone else be the […]

  26. Amy Putkonen says:

    I'm with P. Avion and Jacky. It's close enough. I just watched the Gandhi film the other day and marveled at how much this one man had impacted the world in his small lifetime. He truly was the change he wanted to be in the world and I think the quote should stand.

  27. […] Gandhi here with “Be the change you wish to see in the world” but I would have both Waylon Lewis at ElephantJournal and the NY Times arguing that Gandhi did not actually say that, so I will refrain with my apparent […]

  28. […] Gandhi here with “Be the change you wish to see in the world” but I would have both Waylon Lewis at ElephantJournal and the NY Times arguing that Gandhi did not actually say that, so I will refrain with my apparent […]

  29. […] “Be the change you want to see in the world” (Gandhi or NOT) […]

  30. Fon Juhnson says:

    In no way does the quote imply that personal change is enough, all it says is "Be the change you wish to see in the world" not "Be the change you wish to see in the world and that's all you have to do" that'd be like if I said "I would like a sandwich" and someone inferred it as "I would like a sandwich and nothing else ever."

  31. […] apparently Gandhi may not have actually said that famous […]

  32. […] apparently Gandhi may not have actually said that famous […]

  33. […] apparently Gandhi may not have actually said that famous […]

  34. […] we want to be different in the world. As Gandhi is supposed to have said (but apparently might not have): “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.”Since I will soon be leaving […]

  35. […] NOTE: Frequently misquoted—especially on bumper stickers—more succinctly as “Be the Change you wish to see in the World.” […]

  36. Brenda says:

    Maybe it is a loose translation of what he once said. In any case, it makes people FEEL better to know that he said it and how can THAT be wrong? Whether he said it or not, it IS something that makes people think about. Inspire GOOD change,,, not BAD. 🙂

  37. […] how useless it is to expect people to lift themselves up from the mire of ignorance. Or I could do something positive to advance good research habits, including educating myself and sharing that experience with […]

  38. Nicolas says:

    I have to totally disagree with the writer. This quote does not suggest that your responsibilities begin and end with your own behavior. It actually suggest that if you would like to see a world that is kind and compassionate, that you must find that compassion and kindness inside yourself first, and then let it out into the world, by treating others with compassion and kindness. And if everyone were to take the same action, we'd have a kinder and more compassionate world.

  39. guest says:

    do u know brian morton??? u seem to think very much alike..

  40. guest says:

    okay so…as long as one puts…'from', at the beginning…no special permission needed. thanks….enjoyed the article.

  41. Virginia A. de Paula says:

    It does matter who said the quote. Respect is important. To change what somebody else said and use his name is disrespect.

  42. Mirela Horvath says:

    To be honest, the first time I came accross this quote was while watching Prison Break (it was on Michael's grave stone). It had a huge impact on me as this is a principle that keeps me going, drives my ambitions both professionally and personally. Later on I discovered it is attributed to Ghandi. As most of you mentioned above, it doesn't matter who said it or the context, the most important thing is that makes you reflect on it.

  43. Anders says:

    Talk about having nothing better to write about. First of all, getting stuck in that kind of details would only make Ghandi himself laugh. This is nothing but your own ego talking and your desire to be looked at as smart. Second, you're actually wrong since the quote doesn't at all imply what you're saying it does. Ghandi is famous for his view on holism. That's probably why he also said: "The one contains the many and the many contains the one", i.e. change yourself to the better and your actions will change the world. It's happening as we speak. You'd probably know that if you weren't so busy writing dumb articles that doesn't contribute to anyone but yourself.

  44. […] action against tyranny and political discord (as Waylon Lewis of Elephant Journal points out, the veracity of that quote is questionable to begin with). I find it irritatingly ironic that when calling for a radical re-imagining of politics—one […]

  45. guest says:

    It just seems like someone was trying to paraphrase Ghandi. It wasnt that far off. Cut them some slack Waylon. No need to be tense about it.

Leave a Reply