Victor Hugo’s statement, that there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come, is used so often to buttress arguments that we have stopped questioning its true import. It has led us to think that the pen is mightier than the sword, or that soft power is more important than hard power, etc. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh used Hugo’s sentence in his path-breaking 1991 budget speech to justify something he was forced to do following the country’s external bankruptcy. Others use Hugo to suggest that the idea of India is as powerful as they think it is.
In short, we use Hugo to glorify any idea we currently espouse rather than to examine a more fundamental question underlying his statement: what makes an idea powerful, and when does an idea actually become powerful?
Here is my conclusion, which, in true journalistic fashion, I will state upfront, even before I present historical arguments in support. An idea becomes powerful only when it is convenient for a power elite, or a wannabe power group, to adopt it to consolidate or enhance their own power. Put another way, an idea becomes powerful when it serves the purposes of someone or some group that seeks to legitimise, acquire or deploy power. Ideas may or may not be powerful in themselves; they become powerful when someone with power in mind finds a use for them. Ideas are the courtesans of power. Courtesan power is derived from hard power.
Hindutva is about Hindu-ness, but it is even more an idea about power. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. The idea of Hindutva is useful for disempowerd Hindus because it is about the acquisition of power.
Every instance from history proves the point I am making about ideas being subservient to power. Why did Bolshevism and Marxism take off in the early twentieth century when the idea of the poor fighting collectively for their rights was as old as the hills? Answer, the idea became useful only when there was a new elite which wanted to appropriate the power of the Tsars, and the Bolsheviks used the poor to build their empire on. This empire lasted about seven decades, from the second decade of the twentieth century till the late 1980s.
Why did the Chinese communists opt for authoritarian capitalism in the 1980s? Why did the old idea of socialism fade away? The communists in Deng Xiaoping’s China wanted enhanced power, and capitalism was an idea whose time had come for them.
To what do we owe the idea of monotheism? We trace it to Moses, but Sigmund Freud suggests that monotheism was an important idea in an age when tribes had to live in amity and consolidated into larger kingdoms and the age of empires was just beginning. The first ruler to think of monotheism was the Egyptian Pharoah Ikhnaton (or Amenhotep IV), who ruled for 14 years from 1352-1338 BC. But that was a period of flux, and so ancient Egypt reverted to its pagan orientation after his demise. That idea was too early for its time. But the idea of monotheism germinated in Judaism after the death of Moses, and later became the norm with the birth of Christianity and later Islam and communism. The idea of monotheism is closely related to the idea of using religion or religious ideas to consolidate power. Monotheism as an idea needed someone or some group to think of power as an end in itself to find favour.
Ask yourself more questions. Why did Constantine privilege Christianity, who were no more than a rigid minority group in his empire? He found the essential intolerance of these Christians useful for his own consolidation of power and empire. Why did Hitler regret the fact that his was not an Islamic kind of faith? It was because Nazism lacked that essential core that could have sustained Hitler’s racist claims to Aryan superiority — a complete ecosystem that includes divine sanction. Islam contains totalitarian ideas that would have helped Nazism sustain itself instead of fizzling out after the Second World war. Hitler regretted that Germans were not as willing to die for the cause as Muslims were for theirs.
Then again, why did the idea of Islam rise in the seventh century and subsequent centuries? Well, it was not because of the Prophet’s religious teachings. In his religious phase in Mecca, he got very few converts. The power of his original idea did not fly. Else he would not have had to flee to Medina. It was only when he reached Medina that he realised Islam had to acquire hard power. Once his Quran became political and intolerant to kafirs, Islam became unstoppable. Again, religious ideas were appropriated to consolidate political power, and political power then conferred power on the religious idea itself. It is not without reason that Islam developed the idea of abrogation, where an original idea is superseded by a later idea. The Medinian Islam trumped the Meccan part of the Prophet’s divine revelations. Jihadi Islam has appropriated the Medinian idea of intolerant Islam, not the Meccan one which was more benign.
The power behind the idea of Islam is not really the Quran, but the life of Mohammed as written in his first biography, collected from stories about him a century later by Ibn Ishaq (Sirat Rasool Allah). That copy did not survive; what we have today is a text dated to around 833 CE, compiled by Ibn Hisham, 200 years after the Prophet died in 632 CE. The question is simple: was the Prophet all that his biography claimed him to be (an intolerant religious and political leader), or were these attributes added to his religious teachings later, when Arab armies were spreading all over northern Africa, southern Europe and west Asia? The powerful Arabs needed an ideology to consolidate and legitimise their expansionist and imperial visions, and what better than to make the Prophet himself the guiding principle and his book the final word of god? Arab expansionism after the death of the Prophet may have had more to do with the propagation of jihadist ideas than the Prophet himself. His violent actions can be seen in his historical context; the idea of jihad can be appropriated by anyone seeking power even today.
There is also historical evidence to suggest that soon after the Prophet died, some of his new followers were considering reverting to their old pagan faiths. But the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, made it plain the apostasy meant war and death. Islam was saved not by the power of its ideas, but the use of power itself.
Coming to our own history, consider Sikhism. Now, why would a dharmic faith powered by ideas of reform and nine successive gurus suddenly choose an Abrahamic path? The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, declared himself to be the last Guru, and that in future the final word of god would be with the Guru Granth Sahib. This is an idea borrowed from Christianity and Islam, where Jesus and the Bible are the final ideas about god and his message, as are the Prophet and the Quran in Islam’s case. Guru Gobind Singh appropriated the Abrahamic idea for the consolidation of Sikh power and protection of Sikhism itself. Sikhism was not the idea whose time had come, but the consolidation of Sikh power needed Sikhism to embrace an idea that was not originally a part of Sikhism.
Or consider Emperor Ashoka, widely seen as a convert to pacifist Buddhism. But Buddhism was always there in his empire, and he could have taken up the idea anytime. But he chose to do so only after the brutal Kalingan war. The idea became relevant to Ashoka only after his political power was consolidated.
Why did Akbar embrace a new religious idea called Din-e-Ilahi, supposedly an admixture of the best elements of Hinduism and Islam? That it did not work does not abrogate the fact that consolidation of his political power needed both Hindus — the majority of his subjects — and his own ulema (the minority religious elite) — to compromise and become the basis of his power. The idea could not be appropriated as neither Muslim nor Hindu was willing to accept this as legitimate. The purpose of this new synthetic faith was Akbar’s political consolidation, not religious progress.
Now consider why the idea of secularism is so dear to our English-speaking elite when Indian pluralism is an even better idea? The reason is simple: secularism is targeted to eviscerate Hinduism by denying it legitimacy as a religion. Without secularism Hindu power will rise. As long as secularism can be used to keep Hinduism in check and at war with itself, the power of the old post-colonial elite will consolidate. Or why else would the old elite invest so much effort and capital to “dismantle Hindutva”? Clearly, they see in Hindutva the possibility of another powerful idea rising. It suits them to paint Hinduism as a pacifist and defanged power which is at odds with the idea of Hindutva.
If you want to understand how power is key to ideas (and not the other way around), find the source of an idea. The idea of “Dismantling Global Hindutva” or Hinduism is emerging not from India, but from the academic institutions of America, which is the handmaiden of the Christian Deep State. The power of genuine ideas is subservient to the ideas that the Deep State wants to propagate. The American Deep State, and its Islamist and Leftist allies, want to Dismantle Hindutva.
If you think the American media is 'independent' of the Deep State, think again. In dethroning Donald Trump, the entire American media covertly and overtly aided the rise of Joseph Biden. In the war against Iraq, The New York Times and the mainstream media establishment played their parts in spreading the idea that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be a total lie. The media helped justify a war that had no purpose beyond the assertion of American power in West Asia. Still think ideas have more power than power itself? In all these cases, it is power that is choosing which ideas to keep alive and which ideas to kill.
Now consider the opposite proposition. Power flows from the barrel of the gun (Attributed to Mao). Islam follows the prophetic saying that “Paradise if to be found under the shade of swords.” In contrast, an apocryphal story has Winston Churchill asking Stalin to consider including the Pope in discussions on a post-Hitler peace conference. To which Stalin is supposed to have remarked: The Pope? How many divisions will he have contributed to victory?”
The meaning of these statements is clear. Power is the key to change and the ability to project power through a war-making capability is the key to peace. If we were to bring this analogy to bear on the power of ideas, we need to modify Victor Hugo’s statement to read thus:
Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. But these ideas depend on which power seeks to appropriate the idea, and how useful the idea is to the acquisition and consolidation or power.
Sure, ideas have power, but power can commandeer available good ideas even better when required. India and Hindus should focus on the acquisition of power in the coming decades because ideas of power usually trump the power of ideas.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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