Gandhi didn’t actually ever say “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Here’s the real quote…

You know that whole quote: “be the change you want to see in the world” that we attribute to Gandhi all the time?

Well, he didn’t actually say it.

Gandhi did NOT say: Be the change you want to see in the world.

No, Gandhi Did Not Say Be The Change You Want To See In The World

Now this actually is good advice, and even though he didn’t actually say it the way we attribute it to him, I believe he’d support the idea. This notion of be the change you want to see in the world does 3 powerful things when we adopt it:

  1. It stops us from judging others;
  2. It replaces complaining about others with  reflection on self;
  3. It stirs us into taking action within the only thing in the world over which we have any control: ourselves.

These things lead us to the beautiful notion embodied in the Michael Jackson song, Man In The Mirror.

What Gandhi Actually Said

And while all of this “be the change” talk is good counsel, if we dig a little bit deeper, we realize that he wasn’t just telling us to lead by example, or to not get caught up in other people’s business while we still have our own issues to deal with.

What he actually said was something much, much deeper.

Here’s the actual quote:

“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.” – Mahatma Gandhi

He was revealing a profound spiritual truth that what we see in the world is no more and no less a reflection of what is unseen inside of ourselves.

"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." - Mahatma Gandhi

We see here in this quote that Gandhi was pointing to the foundation upon which a lot of today’s “spiritual” teachings draw their rationale. (Things like The Secret, etc.) But we also see that he was directing us much deeper. He was guiding us to do the inner work that we often shy away from; the inner change beyond simply wishing or visualizing.

Reading the original quote, one could understand how or why we might paraphrase what he said down to “be the change you want to see in the world” but doing so only gives us part of the story.

The real change comes when we go within and do the work of inner transformation. To examine ourselves openly, honestly, vulnerably and to purge out any resemblance of selfishness, depravity or insecurity.

The source of Gandhi’s power: Zero

Gandhi’s power came from this inner work. When asked by a reporter “what his secret was” to gain such power over the ruling British empire, he responded: “I try to make myself zero.” He was referring to develop such a selfless love that each thought, word and deed was motivated for the welfare and well-being of others, and not for his own gratification. Gandhi was able to have as broad of reach as he did because he went as deep as he did. He had purified himself so that he was motivated by love for others… One does not arrive here without a significant amount of inner work, but it is also requisite to creating a change of that scale. We can’t create lasting change by teaching precept alone, but by embodying the precepts.

There is no more important work one can undertake than to raise human consciousness, and to do so requires us to start within.

Are you ready to be the change?

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  • “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.” — What a wonderful quote. It points out that The Secret and other books and teachings are nothing new. It’s the old “what goes around comes around.” What I put into the world is also what I get back. I’ve been explaining this to my children, and their eyes glaze over a bit. They’ll get it when they have lived a little more life. I love the simplicity of this, and that we can apply it to ourselves right now, without delay, over and over again. Thanks for sharing!

    • So true, Donna. In today’s fast-paced world where we feel so much pressure to keep up, it’s just as important (if not more) to slow down and tune in to timeless principles. True wisdom is exactly that: timeless.

  • Christine Sandy Bull

    Really interesting. I often wonder how many of our famous quotes were actually said by that person. Regardless, as with beliefs, it doesn’t matter, the point is the message not the messenger.

    • Like this one? 😉

      • Christine Sandy Bull

        Ha ha yes I’ve seen this and it made me chuckle!!

  • wendikelly

    I was aware of the actual quote, but love hearing it each time. It is so very true and so inspiring. Of course, “Be The Change!” Is also good. Like Nike’s “Just Do It!” It gets right to the point and reminds us to get off our duff and get going. Either way, no matter how it is said, the power is deeply held within our own nature, and change is only a choice away!

  • Thanks for sharing this! I always kinda figured that those words weren’t ACTUALLY what Ghandi said — they just weren’t poetic enough for him.

    And I get frustrated with people blindly repeating them – with no thoughts to the context or consequences of what it really MEANS. So thanks for enlightening me and others! This is powerful!

    • You’re welcome Kim, thanks for stopping by and speaking up. 🙂

  • Thanks for this great post! Love the principle of “be the change” and how you explain the power of doing the inner work on ourselves. I’m a great believer in this as I’ve seen the results it can create all around us. It’s an ongoing journey and it’s so important to have figures such as Gandhi to inspire us on!

    • Yup, it really is an inside game. Whatever it is we’re seeking… it’s found by first shifting the inside. Thanks for stopping by Gabrielle, appreciate you sharing your insight.

    • SortingHat

      Wouldn’t it be weird if our entire existence is just a collection of our inner thoughts/desires and not knowing how to reach them properly?

  • marta6162

    I must be weird. I interpreted the mistaken quote as his actual intention. Or I’m not grasping the difference.

    • Not weird, maybe just already illuminated. 😉

    • Aurelio

      There is no real difference. I think.
      Typically when you “quote” someone you are supposed to use their actual words and the “quote” that he is credited with is more a paraphrasing of his real quote and should be stated as such.

  • rr

    It’s too bad the quote has been overused to the point of meaninglessness. I think I saw it used in a car commercial the other day.

  • hillarysleftone

    I’m glad he didn’t say it. I always thought it was sort of est- or Landmark-ish, and questionable grammar too.

  • boulcut

    Does this mean the bitching about Donald Trump will end?

    • Theoretically, it means that complaining should stop about everything… But the complaining about political candidates is a great place to start. 😉

      • Jan Pieter Kastelein Bfa

        I talked with an activist who fights for social justice for poor families who have no secure housing contracts 9meaning they sleep on the street sometimes.. between houses). He said that positivite spirituality works as censorship, “Ooh these negatives again” and makes us believe in an impossible “manufacturability ; feasibility ; manipulability” ideal, while no low class worker will become middle or high class in a year with using “The Secret”.

        • Jan Pieter, I agree completely. There’s also a tendency for us to condescend others because of their station and ascribe it to their state of mind, etc. This practice amounts to spiritual egotism. While there are exceptions to the rule (those who receive the Horation Algier award, for example) the general reality is that social mobility is a myth. This isn’t simply because of an individual with a deficit in their level of consciousness, but because of the collective deficit we have in our consciousness. One of the big things that Gandhi and Dr. King both (as well as others) fought for was the raising of the economic standard for the least privileged in a society, not just the most privileged.
          To try to address the mental/spiritual, with no regard for the physical is also the same thing that Jesus preached against. We’d all do well to avoid that hypocrisy, and not just talk a good game, but to embody it at every level, with ourselves and others.
          Thanks for chiming in, you raise a great point. (And my apologies for the delay, I’ve been traveling.)

  • Amanda Jeffs

    Very good blog post 🙂

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  • Joseph, do you have the source for Gandhi’s original quote? Was it from a speech, a letter? Just curious. I love digging into source material! 🙂 Thanks for the post!

    • Hartley Banack

      “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is a phrase which is often put into Gandhi’s mouth. It is paraphrased from this paragraph, originally printed in the Indian Opinion 1913: “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” (reprinted in Gandhi, M. The Collected Works of M.K. Gandhi; The Publications Division: New Delhi, India, 1960; Volume 13, Chapter 153; p. 241. [Google Scholar]
      http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/6/2/1018/htm

      • Okay, fine, but who made the paraphrase? Full citation needed.

  • Rob Lowe

    I am with Marta6162, I considered this his intention. If you want to see a revolution in action, check out #DoSomethingForNothing. @JoshuaCoombes is being the change and calling in people.

  • SortingHat

    That’s what politics on both ends need to realize and quit screwing people around and misusing tax money. They are only fooling themselves and no amount of bunkers will fix that.

  • SortingHat

    The only reason we haven’t had the big crash is China hasn’t asked us for our debt because they know if they do we will have no more money to buy their cheap slave labor stuff. If we don’t have money to buy their slave labor stuff it will send huge shock waves across the world markets.

    If the USA sneezes the world catches a cold. Everything about our economy is being paid with interest with federal rescue bills that only temporary hold back things like kicking the can down the road and letting the next set of idiots get the blame.

  • NeoFit

    Thanks Joseph. I agree with you that there’s a deeper meaning, more mystical. I think it’s the difference between pop psychology and real psychoanalysis.

  • Who made the paraphrase usually attributed to Gandhi, then?

    • David, you may appreciate this recent article by Professor Buzzkill: http://professorbuzzkill.com/gandhi-be-the-change-you-wish-to-see-in-the-world/ He elaborates more on the history of it, while my article is more focused on the essence. Thanks for stopping by!

      • Thanks for that great link. I added a comment there pointing out that this is a concise statement of an ancient teaching, part of the Shankaracharya teachings of ancient India. While we do know that the quotation can be attributed to Ms. Arleen Lorrance of Brooklyn, its essence goes back much farther.

  • Hi Joseph!
    I’m inclined to agree that Mahatma Ghandi did say “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Why complicate things? Have you any idea how often he’s quoted as saying that in different languages? Have you any idea that no matter what the language or configuration of the grammar that it all comes to the same thing: “Be the change you want to see in the world?”
    It’s a correct quotation. I think it’s best for us to work on simplifying our approach to life. And, it’s always a good starting point for each new step we take for us not to complicate things unnecessarily. What you’ve presented here is an unnecessary complication. Let’s hope this isn’t your m.o.. It could interfere with following the blueprints, especially, for your own peace in life..

    • RB, thanks for stopping by. Did you read the entire article? To say that the two quotes are the same, seems to be quite a stretch. As I mentioned in the article, the essence may be congruent but the real wisdom he was pointing us to is glazed over in the common paraphrase, whether he actually said it or not. I also agree that a good starting point is to not complicate things. Some people are beyond starting point, though, and ready for a broader context. Appreciate you weighing in, thanks again.

      • Snoops1

        I was glad to see the original quote and also the Man in the Mirror video that was posted! Both are qood words but the original goes much deeper without being so long you may loose some people before they finish reading…The video was wonderful and I hope it affects others as it did or does me…

      • Flows S

        So I think that the starting of the hendline you did on how you present your article is can lead as a conflic because everyone have their own mirror. Your wallpaper say it all 99.99% as you scratch his name. I know that a part of the meaning of your topic is to attract the interest and it works, and of cause many different people is here who came from different thought which you had open.

      • Rakel Aurora Breivik

        You are indeed wrong. To understand the true meaning of Ghandi and other great prophets you must understand the language he’s speaking from. It is a much more refined language, and you can say the most complicated things in just a few words. But as you see from your perspective, with the empty yet complicated language of the white man, the colonists, you can not see the true meaning. The quote is correct. To the rib. The lazyness of this time would make no one read the whole quote, and the meaning can be written in a few words in f ex arabic, or sami, which is my mother tongue. Please learn about the old languages of the world before you try to interpret what it says, in english… The language is very different the newer invented ones, with wordsfor everything, but less meaning in the words.. Example inuits have 100 words for each specific type of snow.

        • Alexej

          Uh-huh. So you think because your mother tongue is Ghandi’s or similar you can better understand his message ?

          “Learn about the old languages of the world” lol. You’re just so full of yourself, the fact that people can’t understand original languages of artists/thinkers/philosophers doesn’t mean their message can’t be delivered.

          And what the hell do Inuits have to do with anything?

  • Jesse Cane

    It’s a fantastic quote no matter who said it.

  • Elvin

    Thanks for this article, Joseph. (First time in your site.)

    I’m really interested with the quote “I try to make myself zero”. I’ve been reflecting about this “zero-ness” for a long time. (I didn’t know there’s a quote of Gandhi about this.)

    Then you wrote “He was referring to develop such a selfless love…”. Is this your own interpretation of the zero concept of Gandhi or did he explicitly explain this elsewhere?

    • One of the primary teachings of Gandhi was that of selflessness. When you look at his life, even in his weakness and mistakes, he was searching to purge himself of selfish desires and develop his capacity to be used as an instrument in the service to his fellow beings. The concept of “ahimsa”, or non-violence as it is generally interpreted, revolves around the consideration of the welfare of other beings. The more we are consumed with our own affairs, the less room we have for others, for truth, for God.

      There are 2 quotes about “zero” that are powerful. I’ll paste them below.

      The first refers to the need to become humble and selfless if we are to acquire truth: “Truth is not to be found by anybody who has not got an abundant sense of humility. If you would swim on the bosom of the ocean of Truth you must reduce yourself to zero.”

      The second, much longer, extends beyond simply acquiring wisdom, but to serving God and our fellow beings:

      “Identification with everything that lives is impossible without self-purification; without self-purification the observance of the law of ahimsa must remain an empty dream; God can never be realized by one who is not pure of heart. Self-purification, therefore, must mean purification in all the walks of life. And purification being highly infectious, purification of oneself necessarily leads to the purification of one’s surroundings.
      “But the path of purification is hard and steep. To attain to perfect purity one has to become absolutely passion-free in thought, speech and action; to rise above the opposing currents of love and hatred, attachment and repulsion. I know that I have not in me as yet that triple purity, in spite of constant ceaseless striving for it. That is why the world’s praise fails to move me, indeed, it very often stings me.
      “To conquer the subtle passions seems to me to be harder far than the physical conquest of the world by the force of arms.
      “…I have had experiences of the dormant passions lying hidden within me. The knowledge of them has made me feel humiliated, though not defeated. The experiences and experiments have sustained me and given me great joy. But I know that I have still before me a difficult path to traverse. I must reduce myself to zero. So long as a man does not of his own free will put himself last among his fellow-creatures, there is no salvation for him. Ahimsa is the farthest limit of humility.”

      I hope this helps a little. (And my apologies for the delay in responding.)

  • Virginia Abreu de Paula

    Who did say it?

  • Tamika Todd-Horace

    I happen to stumble across this site looking for a source to quote one of my favorite quotes for a class. I ask this question: if the quote that you say he didn’t say and the quote that he did run congruent of one another then why the need for the article? does it make anyone more enlightened to know who said or did not say it? I mean if the message is to first change self before trying to change the world, if the message is to live what you preach before you preach it why all the kerfuffle? We can look at this issue from so many ways but what matters most in my own opinion is to understand the principle rather than the origin and author. ( I am sure some might argue that cant without those but truly it doesn’t)