In this recent blog article,
Dr. Elst writes…
“For a different information given by the epic itself: Balarama misses the battle because he goes on pilgrimage reaching the place where it stops flowing, thus after the drying of the Sarasvati ca. 1900 BC.”
Dr. Elst has not quoted corresponding Mahabharata text for his claim that Balarama went on a pilgrimage and reached a place where river Sarasvati had stopped flowing.
Instead of quoting one selective reference that made Dr. Elst jump to the conclusion of ‘Dry Sarasvati’ during the Mahabharata War, I will copy an entire passage that describes the state of river Sarasvati at the time of the Mahabharata War.
The passage is from my first book: When did the Mahabharata War happen? The Mystery of Arundhati, (The numbers are reference numbers of Mahabharata text as it appeared in my book)
“The Mahabharata text states that rivers began flowing, only after hiding themselves under the sand, in describing the time of the destruction of Vrishni dynasty. This Mahabharata observation may refer to disappearance of rivers such as Sarasvati under the Sand (187). We do not have to depend on such indirect references though. Numerous references to Sarasvati appear in Vana, Bhishma and Shalya Parvas.
The Mahabharata text refers to benefit of taking bath in Sarasvati where it meets the sea (188), and also refers to benefit of taking bath where Sindhu meets the sea (189).
The Mahabharata text describes Vinashan as the place where Sarasvati disappeared from the surface (190, 204, 212, 213) (i.e. began flowing underground) and describes ‘Kurukshetra’ as the land south of Sarasvati and north of Drishtavati (196, 198, 203).
The Mahabharata text describes Bindu Sarovar as the place of origin for seven different rivers, one of them being Saraswati (205) and Plakshapravana as the place for the origin of Sarasvati, the best of best rivers ( 199, 202).
Sarasvati was filled with Tirthakshetras (holy places of pilgrimage) on its banks and many of them had mythologized stories associated with them, even at the time of Mahabharata (188-215). Markandeya narrates to Yudhishthir historical events that took place on the bank of Sarasvati and describes location of Kurukshetra as near Saraswati (202).
Lomash describes Saraswati (204) as magnificent and fast flowing river. Lomash also describes Sarasvati meeting the sea (207, 208). It is not clear if his description refers to the time of Yajna of Prajapati he is narrating or the time of his conversation with Yudhishthir. This is critical because in the same line Lomash also refers to ‘Vinashan’, the place where Sarasvati went underground in the desert and thus disappeared.
Lomash also mentions ‘Chamasod’, another place where Sarasvati reappeared and also where all sea going rivers had come together. Lomash describes Sarasvati as the river that disappears and reappears multiple times.
Lomash goes on to describe river Sindhu after describing Sarasvati.
Descriptions of the Tirthayatra of Balarama (206) mention an unnamed city on the bank of Sarasvati, a big city with active international marketplace, filled with people of different types (races?)! Balarama purchased horses originating from various countries, chariots, cows, jewels, pearls, and corals, plates made out of pure gold, silver, iron and copper. Balarama purchased these to distribute to Brahmanas.
Balarama visited Udapana, a place of pilgrimage, and the Mahabharata text mentions that experts recognized the existence of underground Sarasvati at Udapana, based on wet soil and moisture content generated by medicinal plants and trees (209). Sarasvati turned east at one location and Balarama was awestruck at the magnificent view of the river, which shifted its direction at this location (214).
One could infer from above references that Sarasvati was indeed a mighty river before Mahabharata. The existence of mythologized stories in Mahabharata times also alludes to ancient nature of Sarasvati, i.e. ancient with respect to Mahabharata. One could also infer that Sarasvati was still flowing in many places during the Mahabharata War, but it had also appeared and disappeared (205) in many places including disappearances at Vinashan (190, 204, 213) and at Udapana (209, 210, 212).
Balarama did not do tirthayatra of dry Sarasvati. River Sarasvati was indeed flowing in many places at the time of the Mahabharata War.