Gandhi Be the Change You Wish to See in the World

Today we’re going to look at one of the most widely-known and widely-publicized quotes in modern times. As the spiritual and political leader of Indian independence, Mohandas K. Gandhi is one of the most admired people in the world history. Next to Winston Churchill, Gandhi is perhaps the most quoted. And, the most misquoted. In fact, he’s probably the Mahatma of Misquotation.

You’ve seen this quote everywhere: inspirational posters, Facebook posts, coffee cups, and on and on.

Quote?: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Answer: No quote. There’s no absolutely no evidence that Gandhi ever said this.

First of all, let’s not forget that Gandhi spent his early life as a lawyer and a political journalist. His published writings are voluminous, and when he later became one of the leaders of the Indian independence movement, practically his every word was recorded. So if there’s no record of him saying, “be the change you wish to see in the world,” it’s more or less certain that he never said it. At least not really. The closest he ever got was when he wrote, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”

That line comes from something he wrote (and I’m not kidding, Buzzkillers) about snake bites. Gandhi, as you may know, wrote and philosophized about almost everything under the sun, including personal health. But he wrote about health in order discuss Hindu teachings about the relationships between good health and life in general. In an article in the journal Indian Opinion in 1913, Gandhi wrote that having a pure body and spirit would prevent animal attacks. According to him, Indian mystics and ascetics who were pure were able to live among tigers, jaguars, and snakes in Indian jungles without being harmed. He even used the unfounded stories of St. Francis being able to befriend wild animals as a European example of the same thing. Gandhi argued that, if a person cleanses himself or herself, then the natural world around them will also change. And if everyone did that, in theory, there won’t be any hatred or violence, from snake-bites all the way up to humans making war on each other.

Here’s what Gandhi actually said:

We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. 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. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.

Originally published in Indian Opinion, August 9, 1913, and reprinted in: The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 13, chapter 153, page 241.

Close, but no cigar.

But if Gandhi didn’t originate the “be the change you wish to see in the world” quote, who did?

The earliest instance of this quote comes from 1970, and its author was a school teacher in Brooklyn named Arleen Lorrance. Ms. Lorrance taught at Thomas Jefferson High School, which was going through difficult times in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Local poverty and violence were having very negative effects on the school and the students there. Ms. Lorrance started something called The Love Project as a way to improve the lives and education of the students at Thomas Jefferson High. The idea was that, if kids growing up in a rough neighborhood had an oasis of calm and acceptance at the school, it would improve their lives as well as their learning, and they would bring these positive benefits out into the community every day when they left school.

The concept of “be the change you wish to see in the world,” began in a report about The Love Project written by Ms. Lorrance, and published in an education reform text. The first two sentences of her report were, “One way to start a preventative program is to _be_ the change you wish to see happen. That is the essence and substance of the simple and successful endeavor of The Love Project.” [emphasis in the original]

Source: Arleen Lorrance, “The Love Project,” in Richard D. Kellough (ed.), Developing Priorities and a Style: Selected Readings in Education for Teachers and Parents (1974), p. 85.

According to school reports and newspaper articles from the time, The Love Project was a great success at Thomas Jefferson and the school was transformed in a very positive way for the rest of the 1970s. So we have Ms. Lorrance to thank both for the concept of “be the change you wish to see…” as well as the practical and immediate effects it had in Brooklyn.

And that leads me to my final thought here. You know, Buzzkillers, that we admire Gandhi very much here at the Institute, both as a thinker and as a leader. But when it comes to a true story that’ll put a smile on my face and make me think about about a visionary putting positive change into practice, give me that Brooklyn high school teacher every time.

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  1. Joseph Ranseth on February 1, 2017 at 2:50 pm

    Professor Buzzkill! I recently commented about you and this article on my original post about this topic. I’ve included you in the comment links here:

    Appreciate the homework you’ve done on this and your attention to the details. All the best!

  2. David Spector on February 1, 2017 at 4:15 pm

    Very nice correction to this common misquotatiion. Note also that this is a familiar teaching belonging to the ancient Shankaracharya tradition of spiritual teachings, so this quotation (in its Sanskrit original) actually goes back several thiousand years before 1970. I suspect that Ms. Arleen Lorrance might have had some familiarity with ancient Indian philosophy, since this truth is not exactly obvious to most of us citizens of the West.

  3. Ben Goldberg on August 20, 2017 at 12:26 am

    Just because a modern idea is similar to an ancient idea doesn’t mean that one was derived from the other. I think everyone has at least heard of the phrase, “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it,” which explains that powerful ideas, both bad and good, are reinvented many times over in many parts of the world.

    So unless Ms. Lorrance was a history teacher, I’d give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she thought of that idea herself without having read a word of Sanskrit.

    • Dr. Kelly Booth on March 7, 2024 at 2:04 pm

      Thank you, Ben, and well said, my friend!!!!!!!

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