Gandhi’s Play on Words

The most famous, and most clichéd, Gandhi quote is without a doubt “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I wish there was an official count of how many organizations use that to “inspire” people.

In a close second, though, is this rather impish remark:

Reporter: Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western Civilization?

Mr. Gandhi: I think it would be a good idea!

The exchange always appears in searches of Gandhi quotes, but I haven’t encountered one that actually supplies the time and place where this back-and-forth is supposed to have occurred. In any case, the reporter is obviously seeking a good quote, and Gandhi basically dupes him. His reply is quite in character with the tongue-in-cheek sense of humor he is credited with having.

DOUBLE MEANING - Gandhi was famous for his impish sort of humor, evident here in his response to this reporter's question.

Western Civilization was a frequent theme in Gandhi’s writing and speeches. He did not hold it in high regard and firmly believed industrialized civilization to be a disease because of its materialistic, consumer-oriented focus.

In one of his speeches, Gandhi pounces on Western materialization, saying, “I wholeheartedly detest this mad desire to destroy distance and time, to increase animal appetites, and go to the ends of the earth in search of their satisfaction. If modern civilization stands for all this, and I have understood it to do so, I call it satanic.”

In several speeches, actually, Gandhi is quoted with comparing Europe to the spirit of Satan. More than anything, Gandhi feared India becoming a ‘westernized’ nation. In another speech, he expounds on this idea:

“India’s destiny lies not along the bloody way of the West, of which she shows signs of tiredness, but along the bloodless way of peace that comes from a simple and godly life. India is in danger of losing her soul. She cannot lose it and live. She must not therefore lazily and helplessly say, ‘I cannot escape the onrush from the West.’ She must be strong enough to resist it for her own sake and that of the world. European civilization is no doubt suited for the Europeans, but it will mean ruin for India, if we endeavor to copy it.”

But I digress. Back to the quote.

The joke relies on a sort of pun. When the reporter uses the word ‘civilization,’ he’s using it as a noun. In other words, “what do you think of the Western model of civilization?” When Gandhi replies, however, he uses the word ‘civilization’ in the verb form, ‘to civilize.’ In other words, “I think it would be a good idea to civilize the West.”

Gandhi makes his opinion of Western Civilization perfectly clear by implying that it doesn’t exist—the current model of Western Civilization cannot, in Gandhi’s opinion, be viewed as civilized at all.

Cleverly put. And the reporter can’t even complain. In the end, he got a better quote than he was hoping for.

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