Mahatma Gandhi Hoax Quote Greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way that its animals are treated

N.B. The following text in this blog-post Mahatma Gandhi Hoax Quote Greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way that its animals are treated is Copyright © 2013 Philip Johnson.

Many people who care about the welfare and rights of animals make use of a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi (Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, 1869-1948).

Internet websites and blogs, popular books and magazine articles, books by professional academics (animal rights lawyers, ethicists/philosophers, theologians) all claim that Gandhi said this:

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way that its animals are treated.

I have just transcribed the above quote from Lewis Regenstein’s Replenish The Earth (New York: Crossroad, 1991, page 225). Regenstein does not offer an endnote to document where he obtained this quote from. Regenstein is not alone in doing this with regards to these words attributed to Gandhi.

Kenneth C. Balcomb III is another typical example:

I really like Sam Ridgway’s (2008) inclusion
of Mahatma Gandhi’s quote in his Historical
Perspectives piece: “The greatness of a nation and
its moral progress can be judged by the way its
animals are treated.” I would extend that to say
how its wildlife fellow beings are treated, and I
would remove any thought that we possess them
in any way. It is more that we travel with them
through time on this planet we call Earth, but I am
sure Gandhi knew that.

(Kenneth C. Balcomb, “Whales in a Changing World,” Aquatic Mammals 36 (2010): 407 [401-408]).

It comes as no surprise that following Balcomb’s suggestion I looked at Sam Ridgway’s essay “History of Veterinary medicine and marine mammals: a personal perspective” Aquatic Mammals  38:4 (2008): 471-513. Ridgway has the Gandhi quote as an epigraph statement at the start of his article BUT has no footnote/bibliographical citation as to where the Gandhi quote is to be found!

Other writers do supply a footnote but the source is always as Balcomb has done to cite it from another author, and no-one ever points directly to anything that Gandhi actually wrote.

In a series of previous posts on this blog I exposed the “hoax” of two animal friendly prayers that are attributed to the Christian Father St Basil the Great (start here for Part 1 of the 7-part series). In my posts about St Basil I exposed the poor chain of evidence: the prayers could not be found in anything St Basil wrote nor in the Liturgy of St Basil. I established in fact that the two prayers were composed in the early 20th century. I pleaded then as I do again here for animal activists of all stripes (popular and academic) to do their homework properly when it comes to quotations and the original sources of the quotes.

A good initial reason to be suspicious about the validity of the Gandhi quote revolves around the fact that just like the St Basil prayers, variant versions of the same quote exist.

One variant on the above reads:

The moral progress of a nation and its greatness should be judged by the way it treats its animals.

Another variant appears in the book What is Hinduism? The text was prepared by the editors of Hinduism Today. Here is the quote as it appears on page 309:

One can measure the greatness of a nation and its moral progress by the way it treats its animals.  Cow protection to me is not mere protection of the cow. It means protection of all that lives and is helpless and weak in the world. The cow means the entire subhuman world.

I have just finished a painstaking search of all 98 volumes of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi that were issued in 1999 by the Publications Division of the Government of India (there are earlier collections with slightly fewer numbered volumes). The collected works contain his speeches, letters, transcriptions of even telegrams, newspaper and magazine articles, prefaces he wrote to other writer’s works and so on.

The result of my search is that there is no such quote to be found in any of the 98 volumes! The quote in What is Hinduism is partly true, namely from the second sentence onwards “Cow protection … entire subhuman world”. Gandhi did make those remarks about cow protection. However when one consults the Collected Works the first sentence about moral progress is nowhere to be seen!

Yes Gandhi did write letters and other items expressing his views on cow-protection, stray dogs, his views on vivisection, his doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence) as shown to non-human creatures, his pilgrimmage from meat-eating to vegetarianism (influenced by the secular animal rights activist Henry Salt), etc. None of his writings in the Collected Works has the above quote (in either of the three variant versions).

At the moment I am unable to say “who” is the originator of this quote or who started the ball-rolling in claiming that Gandhi said these words. It is sufficient to note that the quote is not an authentic Gandhi quote (or if it is then will someone please supply an unambiguous and verifiable source?).

This is not the place to discuss Gandhi’s views on animals as that will require another arduous task of describing and understanding what he said in context. However, it is just worth noting that many animal activists have a romanticised picture of Gandhi on animals, which simply does not gel with what the man wrote, believed and practiced. Similarly, there is a romanticised view of Hinduism being more animal-friendly than many other religious faiths.

Gandhi was committed to the doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence) but he was forced to admit that he could not be consistent in living up to it as a principle in regards to some animals. Here are a few examples (in context) of what Gandhi had to say, and his remarks cast a somewhat different light on the man that runs counter to the impressions some western writers have about him.

Is there a wolf at large? A search should be made for it. Someone should be on the watch. Now I consider it our dharma [i.e. teaching] to destroy such animals. It will be a different thing if we discover an alternative.

(Letter from Gandhi to Y. M. Parnerkar, dated August 20, 1945. See Volume 87 of Collected Works page 387. Context of the letter is about a farm that seems to be endangered by a wild wolf on the prowl).

In a piece called “The Monkey Nuisance”:

My ahimsa is my own. I am not able to accept in its entirety the doctrine of non-killing of animals. I have no feeling in me to save the lives of animals which devour or cause hurt to man … I will not feed ants, monkeys or dogs … Unlike the animal, man has been given the faculty of reason.

(See Volume 90 Collected Works page 310. The context is Gandhi speaking about feral animals or wild animals being nuisances to human habitations. Notice that Gandhi’s remarks refer to the superiority of human beings possessing reason  as a defining mark of difference. While Gandhi accepted organic biological evolution, and at times also spoke of kinship with animals, he nevertheless consistently maintained a view of human superiority vis-a-vis non-human creatures. According to many animal activists Christianity is to be blamed for an “anthropocentric” view of animals. Strange to say the same critics are silent in pointing out that Gandhi held to anthropocentrist views too.)

Again, when discussing the differences between animals and humans Gandhi said in reply to a question about animal and human souls:

True, there is a difference between the souls of men and of animals. Animals live in a sort of perpetual trance; but men can wake up and become conscious of God. God says, as it were, to man, “Look up and worship Me; you are made in My image.”

These remarks of course must be situated in the context of the notion of karma and rebirth, and so the souls of animals are in a lower state of spiritual development (often being human souls from former lives now reduced to the life of an animal while the law of karma is worked out in that soul’s experience of the cycle of life, death and rebirth).

Gandhi upheld human life over animal life:

My non-violence is not merely kindness to all living creatures. The emphasis laid on the sacredness of subhuman life in Jainism is understandable. But that can never mean that one is to be kind to this life in preference to human life.

(Volume 91 Collected Works page 61).

In a series of 7 pieces called “Is This Humanity?” Gandhi addressed the difficult problem of dealing with stray dogs in India, especially those being carriers of rabies. In the 7 pieces Gandhi defended the position of killing stray dogs because of the problems associated with dogs being feral, harming humans etc. The items appear in Vol 36 Collected Works pages 389-392, 410-412, 425-429, 449-451 and 481-484; and in Volume 37 Collected Works pages 20-23 and 52-54. It might also be noted that Gandhi believed that the “answer” to the problem of stray dogs could be found not in Indian society but by looking to the West:

There is a regular science of dog-keeping which the people in the West have formulated and perfected. We should learn it from them and devise measures for the solution of our own problem.

(Vol 36 Collected Works page 412).

Years later Gandhi alluded to his 7 piece series on stray dogs in the final decade of his life and reiterated:

Humanitarian instinct demands destruction of such animals in an instantaneous and painless measure.

(Vol 92 Collected Works page 428).

Finally (but this still does not exhaust all he ever said about animals):

Though I myself refrain from violence toward animals I must admit that I am not fit enough to dissuade others from it. I know that we have a duty towards animals, but cannot make others feel it. For that I need to have far greater purity, compassion and self-control in me. Without these, I cannot have deep spiritual knowledge and, in the absence of such knowledge, I cannot find the proper language. Without this kind of knowledge one cannot have self-confidence. I do not believe that I have the strength to persuade others to refrain from violence towards animals … I have surrendered all my powers to Lord Krishna. If, therefore, I ever acquire the strength to stop violence to animals, I will not let it remain unused.

(Vol 31 Collected Works pages 474-475; written in 1925).

Gandhi concluded the above piece on page 476 explaining why he cannot act on anti-cruelty to animals:

… and explain why I do not at present engage myself in this highest dharma of ending cruelty to animals.

We must let Gandhi be who he is rather than reinventing him into an image of our own liking. Its high time that we all admit to the hoax of believing that Gandhi ever made the “moral progress” quote.

For some discussion about Gandhi’s views on animals start with these:

* Ryan P. McLaughlin, “Non-Violence and Nonhumans: Foundations for Animal Welfare in the Thought of Mohandas Gandhi and Albert Schweitzer,” Journal of Religious Ethics 40 (2012): 678-704.

* A. Whitney Sanford, “Gandhi’s Agrarian Legacy: Practicing Food, Justice, and Sustainability in India,” Journal for the Study of Religion Nature and Culture 7 (2013): 65-87.


16 thoughts on “Mahatma Gandhi Hoax Quote Greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way that its animals are treated

  1. Pingback: Ghandi no dijo lo de los animales y la grandeza de una nación. [ENG]

  2. Thank you so very much for sharing your exhaustive research on this quote which is widely attributed to Gandhi. I too, before I was going to add it to a text, began to seek the quote’s source, when I came across your post. You have saved me many hours of work, and, I hope, have helped turned the tide of misattribution of this quote.

    • I’m delighted to know that you found it helpful. I’m afraid that the quote will not “die” in its attribution to the Mahatma, just as the animal prayers attributed to St Basil will persist as being “his” despite the evidence contradicting it.

    • It is a fine sentiment. My point is about calling fellow advocates for animals to account to raise the standards very high when documenting quotes. The credibility of claims in the advocacy for animals goes down, is undermined and simply not helped by false quotes attributed to famous figures.

  3. Pingback: „So geht sächsisch“? Notizen zur Bestattung von Khaled Idris Bahray – Journal ohne IsmusJournal ohne Ismus

  4. Yes, I am signing up to this blog, very matriculate work carried out on Mr G. I strayed here today looking precisely for that quote to reproduce in a video re ‘wrap up tridant’. It may be a hoax but it is nevertheless a good phrase which could work well in conjunction with Tolstoy and Izac Singer. Someone obviously came up with the quote, and I think its something that rings true, or comes to mind even without contemplating the quote itself, especially with those seeking closure of animal cruelty etc. Maybe someone want to summarise a particular verse of Gandhi etc, but I recall in his autobiographer that he did express that if it weren’t for pursuing independence / equality for his fellow Indians that he would be more proactive on animals rights etc. Hence I’m impressed with the quotes at the end, and think none the less of him for various of his imperfections !

    A similar quote for the record, again we tend to reason upon this same logic, that harm to one is to another and manifests in our being:

    Kant, you can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals etc,

    So yes we can derive these views with or without the author, and of course there is plenty of evidence that supports the fact that there is an undeniable link between violence and animal cruelty.

    Hence it is certainly true though that civilisation is pretty lame while it denys basic protection of other animals, and take advantage of them etc.

    Finally, there has been quite a meticulous analysis of Gandhi’s writings recently which the suggestion that he was racist and sexist. And there are quite a few articles that go to town on him on these claims. Anyway it seems like his writing in the Indian opinion were more so strategic than expressing of any substantial hatred of Indigenous Africans etc, there is also counter evidence of course which deny the former claims etc.

    If any of you folk, have any writings that you don’t mind being reproduced online with references etc, please let me know. Many thanks.

  5. Have you ever considered that it is possible that Gandhi said something *similar* to the misattributed quote, and that quote is a derivation of the inscription on the Horse Memorial at Port Elizabeth, South Africa, erected in 1905 to honor the animals who perished in the Boer War? Gandhi was living in South Africa at the time and fought in the Boer War. He certainly would have seen newspaper references to the unveiling of the monument, or seen the monument itself.

    The inscription reads:


    I like that quote better. 🙂

  6. This quote in my opinion is just a rewrite of Dostoevsky’s quote “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Thank you for a very interesting and in depth article.

  7. Thanx.
    I have used this Gandhi “quote” many times, and have always wondered about its authenticity. It appears to be much more prevalent than the silly Einstein faux-quote about “if all the bees disappeared…”, which thankfully is dying a slow death.
    Anyhow, I’ll bookmark this page. Even if Gandhi did not say it, the sentiment rings true.

  8. Thanks for this thoughtful article. I, too, was about to quote it in an article, but as you previously responded, it’s a noble sentiment. And I’m mentioning it this way.

    • I think what should be ‘copyrighted’ is that regardless of the quotes origins is that Gandhi was for pro animal rights although Independence was his priority.

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