A Mythical River Flows Through Indian Politics

One scorching May afternoon in 2015, as nearly a hundred men and women employed by an Indian government project dug across villages in search of the mythical river Saraswati, a trickle of water appeared, bubbling out of a paddy field.

For days, national newscasters reported on the miracle of finding a river we’d only read about in the Vedas — ancient religious texts — drumming up Hindu nationalism across the country. Pilgrims and tourists thronged from far and wide. “This is groundwater. Dug out at a mere depth of seven feet. Can you see that this is not a flowing river?,” questioned a farmer, Jarnail Singh, one of the few reasoning voices.

Among the believers was Manohar Lal Khattar, the chief minister of Haryana State, who rushed in to worship the river and her namesake goddess. He had announced a grant of 500 million rupees ($7 million) to revive and regenerate the river, which is believed to have disappeared more than 5,000 years ago. The Haryana Sarasvati Heritage Development Board, which Mr. Khattar heads, wants to change the name of the Indus Valley civilization to the Sarasvati river civilization.

With the discovery of river Saraswati, the Hindu right wing in India is jubilant because it aligns with its nationalist claims that Hindus are indigenous inhabitants of India and that Hindu civilization is the oldest in the world. The argument is simple: The Vedas were written 10,000 years ago, and they mention the river Saraswati, proving that an advanced civilization existed then. Disregarding a majority of historians, who date…

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