We do this, the attribution to another's greatness, because we are not confident of what we need and want to say ourselves. Hence, in the 'Be the change' quote there is a poignant reminder of our own vulnerability. Three times this last week I have seen prominent thinkers use the attributed Mahatma Gandhi quote, which commonly reads:
"This first, be the change you wish to see in the world."
"We need to be the change we wish to see in the world."
"Be the change you wish to see."
The quote (seemingly) cannot be attributed to the written works of the 'Mahatma', Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948). It can, though, be attributed to the recollections of his fifth grandson, Arun Gandhi (1934 -) with the modification of Arun's own call to be the 'agent of change' you wish to see.
To come back to the original source of the intention of the quote held during Gandhi's remarkable life, in a recent rescue of other things people never said, Brian Morton (NYT, 29 August 2011) offers this closest parallel for the mis-quote (without reference):
“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.”
Yet, I am not sure that this is as close to the sentiment at its source that we can get. In wishing perhaps for others to embody the respect and care for checking another's words I would wish for all thinkers (and myself), I took the few moments to look further.
To trace a mis-quote, it is often good to begin with an authoritative source. In Dunphy, Griffiths, Benn's (2003) excellent resource 'Organisational Change for Corporate Sustainability' there is a reference for the Gandhi quote: "I must first be the change I want to bring about in my world." (p. 269) taken from D. Chatterjee, 'Living Consciously (p. 45)'. In Debashis Chatterjee's (1998) Leading Consciously: A pilgrimage towards self-mastery, a wonderful homage to the Mahatma as leader, there is in fact that quote on page 45 (unattributed). On page 146, though, the trail does get exciting as the quote is restated, this time with a reference to 'Fischer (1962)' - with no page source.
Now following this lineage of respectfulness, journalist Louis Fischer's works are considered authoritarian sources of Gandhi's own words. In his 'The Life of Mahatma Gandhi" (1950) and the edited works that he diligently compiled as "The Essential Gandhi" (1962) are references to the primary works of the Mahatma. In the distilled essence of 50,000 pages of writings in 100 volumes, surely the mysterious source of the mis-quote would be there ....
In looking, page by page, line by line I had the pleasure to be re-acquainted, not only with the words and biographical path of great struggle, but with the philosophy of Swaraj (self-rule) itself. The famous mis-quote is (not unsurprisingly) not to be found.
Yet from Fischer's referenced sources (to the primary works) there were for me over forty (secondary source) extracted quotations 'in the style of' the topical mis-quote - reflecting beautifully the central sentiment of Gandhi's demonstrated action as persuasion. Just these few jewels that follow - were worth the journey alone (Fischer, 1962):
"[We} are the makers of our own state and .. individuals who realize the fact need not, ought not, to wait for collective action." (p. 91)
"All would assume leadership and dictate to others, and there would be nothing done in the end. But where the leader himself becomes servant, there are no rival claimants for leadership." (p. 107)
"... we can see that if we become free, India is free. And in this thought you have a definition of Sawarj. It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves. It is therefore, in the palms of our hands ..." (p. 123)
"Our contribution to the progress of the wold must, therefore, consist in setting our own house in order." (p. 154)
"I adopt the change [loin cloth and chaddar] because I have always hesitated to advise anything I may not myself be prepared to follow." (p. 159)
"Firstly, we must acquire greater mastery over ourselves and secure an atmosphere of perfect calm, peace and good will." (p. 168)
"My strength lies in my asking people to do nothing that I have not tried repeatedly in my own life." (p. 186)
"Instead of thinking of improving the world let us concentrate on self-improvement." (p. 273)
And in the context of these riches, there is one passage, a full and beautiful quote, that for me does represent, in particular, the source of the 'Be the change' re-quote most completely. Wanting always to know context of passages within the ground of a philosophy, it is worth quoting in full:
"When it is difficult for millions to make even the two ends meet, when millions are dying of starvation, it is monstrous to think of giving our relatives a costly education. Expansion of the mind will come from hard experience, not necessarily in the college or the schoolroom. ... The golden rule to apply in all such cases is resolutely to refuse to have what millions cannot. This ability to refuse will not descend upon us all of a sudden. The first thing is to cultivate the mental attitude that we will not have possessions or facilities denied to millions, and the next immediate thing is to rearrange our lives as fast as possible in accordance with our mentality." (p. 236) (Source: 24, June 1926)
It is in this passage, in the context of the assumption of equality, and the challenge of the renunciation of inequality, without self-privilege - that we find the reason for the re-interpretation of the message. To first set our intention in a humanitarian sense of global equality, and then second to 'be' in accordance with that, is to ask of us the task that Gandhi asked of himself first. The stark irony of the 'bumper sticker' re-quote is too painful to truly appreciate. The gap of equality, perhaps explains for me, the gap in all those references used so unconsciously with authority. We may neglect the source as it reminds us of what it truly asks of us. We reflect on the man and, in our so beautiful human vulnerabilities, neglect to hold his vision. In conclusion: -
We seek to 'be the change' ... and forgot to think first, for whom it is - that 'we are'.