Exclusive! The Origin of the “Be the Change” Movement


Missy Crutchfield
Gandhi’s Be Magazine

Melissa Turner
Executive Editor
Gandhi’s Be Magazine

Editor’s Note: As we celebrate the Season of Light and the Season of the Greatest Gift, we reflect on Mahatma Gandhi’s famous words and his philosophy of nonviolence which was inspired by Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount” and shares a message of peace for people of all races and religions. Gandhi’s words: “You must be the change we wish to see in the world,” have inspired many people and movements around the world. Here we share the true origin of these famous words and how they serve as a broad reminder that love is the foundation for change, in our lives and in our world. As the Hopi Elders have said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Let change begin with us.



You can find the phrase everywhere—t-shirts, mugs, magnets, bumper stickers, signs at protests and rallies. Even the name of our own Gandhi’s Be Magazine is inspired by it. “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” said Mahatma Gandhi, right? Wrong…

Actually, it is only just recently with its viral spread across the marketplace and among activist circles, that the origin of “Be The Change” has been uncovered.

New York Times columnist Brian Morton became so intrigued by finding out where various famous quotations originated that he did some of his own sleuthing, only to discover that the phrase is no where to be found in Mahatma Gandhi’s “Collected Works.”

“Sure enough, it turns out there is no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation,” Morton writes. “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.”

While attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, the phrase “Be The Change” was actually coined by his grandson, Arun Gandhi, as an effort to interpret and capture the flavor of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy, writings, and speeches (which was mainly in Indian dialect) in a nutshell, something that could be more easily understood by Westerners.

It all began shortly after Arun Gandhi and his wife Sunanda decided to move from India to the United States to study the effects of racism in the South. Settling in Memphis, Tennessee, they started the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence.

Arun part 1 photoAs Arun began traveling the lecture circuit on behalf of the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, sometime in the mid-nineties, he started using the phrase “Be The Change” in his talks and it evolved over time to what we now know as “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

“I started using it in my talks and the next thing I knew it went viral,” Arun Gandhi says. “People started searching grandfather’s ‘Collected Works’ to find it and of course they couldn’t. Then some people turned to me and I told them what I did. Now someone has written about it on Wikipedia revealing that I coined the phrase.”

As a boy, Arun Gandhi spent almost two years living with his grandfather. “I’m really grateful to my parents for making that decision,” Arun Gandhi says. “I think in many ways the 18 months I spent with grandfather and the lessons he taught me were so profound they made a tremendous change in my life.”

Arun has dedicated his life and work to continuing his grandfather’s legacy through sharing the message with student groups. “I do not come to student groups telling them I have a message to share with them and they need to hear it,” Arun says. “I come to student groups who have heard about what we are doing and they are inspired to service and they invite me to come and share the message with them—this message has inspired many young people to service.”

As Arun spoke to student groups over the years, he began thinking about his grandfather’s life and work in the ashrams and the lessons taught in that model for living and how that could apply to everyday life now on college campuses, corporate board rooms, and in our neighborhoods.

“His ashrams basically invited like-minded people to live together, expand their concept of family, and change their old habits while adopting new ones. His message was always: change from what you are, to what you can be,” he shares.

As Arun Gandhi continued to reflect on his grandfather’s ideas, he wanted people to really think about what peace means. “We have been talking of peace and working for it over the years, but it has not taken us anywhere because all we wanted was an end to war,” he explains.

“But how do wars begin?” Arun Gandhi continues. “I thought about this and came to the conclusion that it is passive violence that has become so much a part of our nature an attitude that fuels physical violence. So how can we put out the fire of violence if we keep pouring gasoline on it?”

What is passive violence as opposed to physical violence? Arun Gandhi explains in his talks to student groups that passive violence is perhaps the more pervasive form of violence in our world. While passive violence does not include pushing and shoving in the school hallway or dropping bombs on an occupied nation, it is the ideas and attitudes of racism, prejudice, and indifference that lead to conflict and physical forms of violence.

On an everyday level, we might ask ourselves how passive violence creeps into our own lives and work:

  • How do we speak to one another?
  • What personal choices do we make about how we use the planet’s resources?
  • Who does our business exploit in getting ahead in the marketplace?
  • Where is our tax money going and is it funding programs and initiatives that support peace, nonviolence, justice for all?

“It began to make sense to me,” Arun Gandhi continues. “Unless we change our bad habits of exploiting, discriminating, and all the other oppressive tendencies we have, how can love be possible? So I realized the crux of grandfather’s message was ‘We must become the change we wish to see in the world’.”

Arun Gandhi recently co-founded the Gandhi Global Center for Peace with Gandhi’s Be Magazine Editor-in-Chief Missy Crutchfield to build peace around the world by educating young people about Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence and peace.

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