The Greatest Power of All Time: The Imagination
“Of course it’s happening inside your head Harry. And why on Earth should that mean it is not real?”
- Albus Dumbledore (The Order of the Phoenix)
Words are truly amazing things. So amazing in fact that sometimes words can be so imaginative that they- a simple collection of random sounds and symbols- can take you on a journey. A journey to places far away and times long gone and yet to come. Remember it’s not how you travel that matters.
Words create things. Words formulate our thoughts for others to understand. Human beings are the only sentient species able to create worlds in our heads with our words and then bring these worlds into this reality, this reality where we are speaking to one another here in this evening, with words.
Perhaps professor Dumbledore and Ms. Rowling were insightful in spotting the invisible link between the mind and the observably real, and the good news is that with language, we are able to do far more wonderful things with the ‘make believe’. We have the ability to make the make believe… real.
I don’t exaggerate when I say that we muggles are actually one and all wizened wizards and warlocks, most of us just don’t realise this. Human beings have been magicians and creators to rival the feats of the gods we believe in. Our greatest collective invention is language. The oral, and the written. The source of our power, as I hope to convince you this evening, is the imagination. Our own little unique, shapeless, formless, all encompassing imaginations. We harness this power with language.
Now, let me tell you a story… about the greatest story ever told. A true story make no mistake, but a story of fiction and non-truth and imagination, but true just the same. This is the story of us, of people, and the power of our imaginations. A power, that took us from being in the middle of the food chain for hundreds of thousands of years, and helped us utterly dominate planet Earth in less than ten millennia.
It is a peculiar characteristic of our species alone; language. Our language has two things that no animal (or no other animal) has, not only are we are able to talk about language using language, it is only human beings that can talk and write about and convince one another of things that do not exist at all.
You could never convince a monkey to suicidally attack another band of chimps with the promise of 72 virgin chimpanzees after death, in monkey heaven. Only Sapiens can believe such fictions.
Now why is this even important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting. People who go to the mountains looking for fairies and Bigfoot would seem to have less chance of survival than people who go looking for mushrooms and rabbits.
Fiction is also as dangerous as it is important, because of and resulting in the fact that fiction also enabled human beings to imagine things collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Yashwamedha Yagna birth of Ram, and myths of nationalities, nations, borders, corporations and money. To name a few. It is these very imagined myths that enable human beings alone to cooperate flexibly with millions of complete strangers. Human beings rule the world because we can gather by the thousands and together organise and reorganise trade networks, mass festivals and political institutions. I will now attempt explain how we’ve imagined religion, nations, economic systems, companies and money into existence. I’ll tease you with this though; all we did was think them up.
The core of any mass cooperation network is always composed of fictional stories that exist only in people’s collective imaginations. Two catholics who have never met one another can pool funds to start a clinic simply because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. And on May 21st, 1991, a number of fanatic Sri Lankan Tamils cooperated and gave their lives to assassinate Mr. Gandhi and take the lives of others simply because they believed that Mr. Gandhi had been useless in keeping the Sri Lankan Army out of the Tamilian dominated Jaffna.
In the same way, two lawyers who have never met can combine efforts to prosecute a complete stranger because they believe in the imaginary existence of laws, justice, human rights- and the money they get paid as salary.
Let’s leave gods and nations aside for the moment, and focus on economics for now. Take Tata Group for example. It is the oldest car maker in India. It was founded in 1898 by Jamsetji Tata who died in 1904.
This is 2017, and Tata the company is still alive and well. Today it employs 695,669 employees around the subcontinent. These strangers cooperate so effectively that just one subsidiary of the company, Tata Motors, became the worlds largest producer of commercial and domestic vehicles at about 40,000 units. Just so you know, the parent corporation earned a revenue of US$100 billion this year. (Courtesy the tatamotors website).
In what sense though, does Tata really exist? There are many Tata vehicles but they are not the company named Tata. If every Tata vehicle was junked and sold for scrap, Tata would not disappear. It would continue to function. The company owns factories, showrooms and employs mechanics and managers, secretaries and security, but none of these things together comprise Tata. A truly splendid and beautiful disaster might kill every Tata employee and destroy all of its factories and offices, but even then the company can borrow money, hire employees, and build new factories. All managers could be dismissed and the company’s shares sold, but the company would still remain.
The power of corporations like Tata is that they are impervious to all these things, because they are fictional stories. Coca Cola, Tata, Apple, Nike all of them. They belong to a peculiar genre of imaginative legal fiction called ‘limited liability companies’. LLCs are among humanity’s most ingenious inventions. In the 13th century, you were responsible and taken to account if your business of cart making went bust. But then people began to collectively imagine into existence the concept of limited liability and the imagined corporations that run by this imagined ideal.
How did Jamsetji Tata start the company back in 1898? In the same way that priests and sorcerers have created gods and demons throughout history and in which thousands of Catholic priests. conjure up Christ’s body every Sunday in Church. Yep, religion is the same thing. According to this fiction made sacred by faith (or imagination for lack of a better word), if a Catholic priest dressed in sacred garments and solemnly said the right words in the right way, common bread and wine were turned into God’s or Jesus’s flesh and blood. The priest exclaims “Hoc est corpus meum” (Latin for ‘this is my body’) and – hocus pocus – the bread turned into Christ’s flesh. Seeing this magics always feat, millions of devout Catholics behave and believe that God really exists in the now ‘consecrated’ bread and wine.
Now, let’s relate this to how we’ve imagined common legal codes to function, we’ve done it the same way. This story goes that if a certified lawyer followed all the proper liturgy and rituals, wrote all the required spells and oaths on a wonderfully ornate piece of paper, and affixed her esteemed signature to the bottom of a document, then – abracadabra – a new corporation is created. Which is funny because the word ‘corporation’ derives from the Latin word ‘Corpus’ which means ‘body’, the one thing that a corporation truly lacks, all things considered. This brings to light what the prominent scholar and historian of Hinduism, Devdutt Pattanaik in his ‘Myth or Mithya’ tells us. He writes that “Ideas such as rebirth, heaven and hell, angels and demons, fate and free will, sin, Satan and salvation are religious myths. Ideas such as sovereignty, nation state, human rights, women’s rights, animal rights and gay rights are secular myths.“
Whether we’re monotheists or polytheists or atheists and the like, we all ascribe to religions we’ve imagined into creation as well. We’re all religious and ascribe to different myths whether we know it or not.
Let me illustrate an example out of wonderful and romantic France, je suis desole, merci beaucoup. France was only nation in World War II to fight both alongside and against the Nazi Third Reich. The strangeness of the French can be traced back much earlier as well, when on 17th July 1789, they went practically overnight, from believing in the imaginary dictum of the divine right of kings to the equally imaginary inalienable right of human beings.
Religions aren’t just theist, there are religions of secularism and liberalism as well. Secularists believe in the imaginary concept of human rights. If Moses’s 10 commandments were the foundation stones of the Monotheist religions, then human rights are the foundations of secularist religions. Violate religious dictum and you will (theoretically be) punished, violate human rights and well, you will still theoretically be punished.
One final example to iron out any confusion, let us compare the theist religion of Islam and humanist religion of Communism. While Islam believes that Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) discovered the laws of nature in gods word, Communists believe that the laws of nature were discovered by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engles and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The similarity between Marxism and Islam does not end there. Freud, Sigmund. Comparing it with Islam and other religions, Professor of History at the University of Jerusalem Yuval Noah Harari in his book ‘Sapiens’ e plains that, “Communism has its holy scrips and prophetic books like Marx’ and Engles’ Communist Menifesto and Das Kapital, which foretells that history would soon end with the inevitable of the proletariat. Communism has its holidays and festivals, like May Day and the anniversary of the October Revolution (This year was the 100th anniversary). Communist theologians are adept at Marxist lingo, and every unit of the Soviet army had a chaplain, called a commissar who monitored the piety of the officers. Communism had martyrs, holy wars and heresies, such as Trotskyism. A devout communist could not be Buddhist or Christian, and was expected to spread the gospel of Marx and Lenin even at the expense of her or his life.” All this, for the sake of ideas imagined by old men who imagined nature and natural a little differently than the capitalists and the mullahs.
Oh and money, the difference between religion and money is that while religions are based on a ‘infallible supreme superhuman order’ which people must collectively believe in to attain the imagined concept of heaven and salvation… while money exists only because everybody believes that everyone else believes that it exists and has a value. Much like the concepts of honour in medieval Europe and caste in modern India. When demonetisation happened, we let our imagined governing body tell us that two kinds of coloured bits of paper no longer possessed the imagined economic value they formerly did.
Not all is dark though.
Another wise old man once said that “with great power comes great responsibility”. And there are fewer powers greater than the human imagination. With the power of writing, an idea can travel across space and time, and if an idea can be seen as a unique piece of someone’s soul, traveling in the form of say J. D Salinger’s 20th century and cynical ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ across oceans and centuries to the soul of a reader today in 2017, both Salingers’ and the readers souls enter into a of a kind communion. A communion of time travel and of teleportation… if one were to agree with Stephen King in his Guide and memoir, ‘On Writing’. And this idea tickles my pants off, if anything.
Our imagination got us to the moon and might get us to Mars in a couple of years. It is in light of this that we truly have an obligation to imagine. While it is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and that as individuals we are less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field… the truth.. is that individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.
Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in Bangalore right now without us all getting rained on. This room and the wonderful books in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things. We have an obligation, to believe in strange, wonderful and unreal things. I’ll end my tirade with a reference to Neil Gaiman taken from his essay, “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and day dreaming” in which he reminds us… of one of his favourite people: he reminds us of Albert Einstein who was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. He was a child at its creative best, himself. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand. A world in which they can criticise, imagine, and create.