The Bishnois: 15th Century Legacy of Vaishnava Theology and Ecology Conservation
Salman Khan made headlines after he was sentenced to five years in prison by a Jodhpur court for his role in the blackbuck killing case of 1998. He was lodged in the Jodhpur jail for two days after which he was granted bail. It was the Bishnois’ compassion for wildlife that led to Salman Khan’s conviction. Now they are all geared up to approach the HC against the bail granted. Who are the Bishnois? How did they emerge as protectors of blackbucks? How are they related to ecology conservation?
The Bishnoi community has a long legacy of protecting the environment. They are well known for the sacrifices they have made to protect wildlife and nature. The pledge to protect nature and wildlife is imbibed into their religious beliefs. There are many Hindu communities in India that follow Nature conservation practices as part of their religious actions and beliefs.
In the present scenario where natural resources are under heavy pressure with deforestation, mining, industrial pollution, etc. taking a toll on the ecological balance, the earth ceases to be a safe place to live in. Though numerous organizations, NGOs and groups have emerged across the length and breadth of the world in the name of environmentalism, yet they are not able to make any difference to the ecological imbalance. Hindu communities have been playing an instrumental role in environmentalism, for years, conserving Nature and wildlife as part of their religious practices.
Dr. Pankaj Jain, Associate Professor at University of North Texas, in his book Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability delves on a number of rituals that exist in Indic religious traditions wherein the environment is revered. The book highlights nature worship and how it inspires Hindus to act in an environmentally conscious way. Dr. Pankaj Jain draws example of three Hindu communities, viz. the Swadhyaya movement, the Bishnoi, and the Bhil communities in this context. He presents the texts of Bishnois, their environmental history, and their contemporary activism.
Bishnois hail from the Jodhpur and Bikaner area of Rajasthan. The word Bishnoi is derived from the Rajasthani term for bish meaning twenty and noi meaning nine, which refers to the 29 principles of the adherents of the Bishnoi sect. It also refers to ‘Vishnu’, meaning followers of Vishnu.
Guru Jambheshwar, also known as Jambhaji, founded the Bishnoi sect in the 15th century. The only child born to Hansa Devi and Lohat Panwar in 1451 at Pipasar (Nagaur, Rajasthan), Jambhaji spent his youth herding cows. At the age of 34, he founded the Bishnoi sect. He advocated the worship of Vishnu and recorded his preaching in poetic form. He announced a set of 29 tenets or principles to be followed by the Bishnois. These are contained in a document called Shabadwani, containing 120 shabads written in the Nagri script. According to him, God is a divine power that is everywhere. He advocated the protection of plants and animals, citing their importance and their peaceful coexistence with nature. For the next 51 years, until his death in 1536, he traveled across the country, preaching the 29 principles.
The 29 principles of the Bishnois revolve around preserving biodiversity and encouraging good animal husbandry (8 principles are dedicated to these). These tenets encourage ban on killing animals and felling green trees and advocate providing of protection to all life forms. They consider blackbucks and many other animals as sacred. The Bishnois ensure the firewood they use is devoid of small insects. They avoid wearing blue clothes because the dye for colouring them is obtained by cutting a large quantity of shrubs. Seven principles are dedicated to directions for maintaining healthy social behavior. Ten tenets focus on maintaining personal hygiene and basic good health and the rest of the principles provide guidelines for worshipping God daily.
Not many are familiar with the Khejarli massacre that saw the sacrifice of 363 Bishnois in an effort to save trees from being cut. In September 1730, Abhay Singh, the Maharajah of Jodhpur sent soldiers to cut Khejri trees in the village of Khejarli, located 26 kilometres south-east of the city. The trees were to be burned to produce lime for the construction of a new palace. The Khejri trees were sacred to the Bishnois.
Amrita Devi, a local Bishnoi woman, protested and prevented the soldiers from cutting down the trees. She considered it an insult to her faith. She declared that she would lay down her life to save the trees. She and her three daughters Asu, Ratni and Bhagu hugged the trees so that the axes hit them first before hitting the trees. More Bishnois joined them. The soldiers warned them to move away. But they remained adamant and remained as they were, hugging the trees. The soldiers struck them and they fell dead. 363 Bishnois sacrificed their lives to save the Khejri trees until the news spread and the Maharajah intervened and stopped the massacre.
Brian H. Collins, who reviewed Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability writes, ‘Chapter 4 examines Rajasthan’s Bishnoi community, founded in the fifteenth century by Guru Jambheśvara following a severe drought that drove farmers to cut down trees and hunt local game to survive. Out of this ecological catastrophe, the result partly of the drought and partly of the human response, Jambheśvara had a spiritual awakening and began to spread a teaching of conservation and living in harmony with nature. Jambheśvara’s Vaiṣṇava theology, which contained elements of both nirguṇa (“God without Qualities”) and saguṇa (“God with Qualities”) teachings, resulted in a list of twenty-nine rules for the community, eight of which concern protecting animals and trees, including an injunction against wearing blue clothes because “the dye for coloring them is obtained by cutting several shrubs”. One striking story Jain recounts about the Bishnoi is the legendary “Khedajali sacrifice,” believed to have taken place in 1730 and commemorated with a festival since 1979, in which 363 Bishnois were killed protecting their sacred khejari trees from the ministers of the local ruler Abbay Singh. In 1983, the Bishnoi actively lobbied to ban hunting in their state, threatening to follow the example of a non-Bishnoi who burned himself alive to protest the poaching of a blue bull. Like the Swadhyayis, the Bishnoi do not see themselves as environmentalists, despite their willingness to put the wellbeing of plants and animals before their own lives….only in the Bishnoi does he find “the evolution from a religious ethos into ecological ethos.’
This saga of valor and sacrifice of the Bishnois for preservation of the ecology continues to this day. The Vaishnavite sect has been conserving the flora and fauna of the region for centuries, even to the extent of sacrificing their lives. Protecting the environment is part of their religious tradition. Yes, religious actions and beliefs of certain communities can contribute to environmental protection!
2. Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability, Pankaj Jain.
3. Review of Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability by Brian H. Collins
Featured image courtesy: True Indology (twitter).