Of all the important ideas that have convulsed the modern world, a good number have set forth from India and almost every one of them has washed up on its shores. The great English historian, E.P. Thompson, was absolutely right when he once wrote of India that "all the convergent influences of the world run through this society: Hindu, Moslem, Christian, secular; Stalinist, liberal, Maoist, democratic socialist, Gandhian. There is not a thought", Thompson concluded, "that is being thought in the West or East that is not active in some Indian mind". This motley intellectual flotsam has been picked up by Indians and turned by them to all sorts of uses-often to the surprise and chagrin of those who first cast these ideas into the world.
These ideas have fed conflicting visions of our society-sometimes they have impelled change and just as often they have obstructed it. The last millennium has been a series of struggles between clashing visions of the world. The contents of these conflicts have differed: they include struggles over whether some-kings, colonialists, religious majorities-can claim a natural or providential right to rule or whether all, at least in principle, should be free to rule; struggles over whether India ought to be a society rooted in hierarchy or one based on equality; and struggles over whether India should be a land of multiple or singular religious and cultural beliefs.