My Experiment with an Untruth

If it sounds too good to be true it usually is. I don’t know who coined that. But I’m using it, ok.

I am writing this to apologize for a mistake I made in a couple of my previous posts. The problem started on a pleasant Bangalore morning when I was walking down Mahatma Gandhi Road (where else?) in central Bangalore on my way to work. There was a large poster of Mahatma Gandhi seated at his spinning wheel with the quote,

“Be the change you wish to see in the world”


Mahatma Gandhi Road, Bangalore

At the time, I liked this idea and I have used it on a couple of occasions on this blog. But it is too good, too sharp, too pithy, too well packaged. It is a meme meant to stick in the mind. The work you might say of a master marketer. Having read a least some of Gandhi’s autobiography, “The Story of My Experiments with the Truth” I should have known better. Gandhi did not write bumper stickers.

I now realize my mistake. In 2011, the New York Times tracked down the closest approximation to this in Gandhi’s writings to be

“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.”

At a quick glance, the two statements may sound similar at least in intent. Please look again. Gandhi does not imply that if you change yourself, the world will change as well. That is a self-help mantra. Gandhi of all people knew the weaknesses of his followers. He had personally brought to a halt his first great attempt to oust the British from India after he found Indians resorting to violence. Gandhi had changed himself, but the world wasn’t ready to follow.

The fact that many others have made the same mistake as me (try typing “Be the change” on Google and see the results) does not ameliorate my disappointment. When we paraphrase modify or just plain put things in other people’s mouths, we are not only being dishonest we are insulting their character.

This practice was pretty common in the ancient world. Cicero regularly put his own essays into the mouths of long dead Romans of distinguished reputations. Thucydides invented most of the speeches he attributed to Pericles and other Greek leaders. Aren’t Shakespeare’s plays full of lines never uttered by Caesar, Cleopatra, Richard or Henry?

Booths_Caesar.jpgLife and death of Julius Caesar or a toga party?

But these are not histories and one would not look at them for guidance. That after all, is what we seek when we read the thoughts of great men and women. But when we corrupt the words, we corrupt the wisdom in them. We lose the flavor, the sentiment, the raw feel of the person.

The worst part is that I don’t think this is the end of it. This is merely the symptom. There is the mistaken belief that the wisdom it took a great man a whole book to encompass can be had in a single well polished sentence. Don’t believe me? Count the number of times you said to yourself “the book was better than the movie“.



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