Eco-Religion of the Bishnois of Rajasthan

  • By Dr Kiran Prasad
  • July 2001

Courtesy & Copyright Prabuddha Bharata  

The roots of environmental conservation go back to religion which emphasizes harmonious living with nature’s creation. Several environmental practices had religious sanction and there were proscriptions against harming nature. One of the out-standing cases is the eco-religion of the Bishnois of Rajasthan who are anunusual community with a philosophy of protecting plants and animals. They follow a set of 29 rules, which include instructions on how they should live and what should be done after their death.

The faith that God adequately compensates the cultivators for all the losses caused by animals underlines the basic philosophy of the Bishnoi religion; all living things (including animals) have a right to survive and share resources. It is astonishing that more than 450 years ago, a simple villager from a remote desert area, without even the basic education, clearly understood the importance of preserving bio-diversity. He not only understood it himself, but also had the wisdom to influence generations of people to preserve it by weaving it with their religion.

The Bishnoi religion was launched in 1542 AD by Guru Jambeshwarji, or Jamboji as he is affectionately referred to by his followers. He was a great saint and philosopher of the medieval period. He prescribed 29 tenets and the followers of the tenets are called Bishnois (literally ‘twenty-niners’ in Hindu). The tenets were tailored to conserve bio-diversity of the area but also ensured a healthy eco-friendly social life for the community. Out of the 29 tenets, 10 are directed towards personal hygiene and maintaining good basic health, seven for healthy social behavior, and five tenets to worship God. Eight tenets have been prescribed to preserve bio-diversity and encourage good animal husbandry. These include a ban on killing animals and felling green trees, and providing protection to all life forms. The community is also directed to see that the firewood they use is devoid of small insects. Wearing blue clothes is prohibited because the dye for coloring them is obtained by cutting a large quantity of shrubs.

The Bishnois are presently spread over the western parts of Rajasthan and parts of Haryana and Punjab. They are more prosperous than the other communities living in the Thar Desert, probably because of their eco-friendly lifestyle. Their villages are easily distinguishable with plenty of trees and other vegetation, and herds of antelopes roaming freely near their homes. The fields are ploughed with simple ploughs using bullocks or camels and this causes minimal damage to the fragile desert eco-system. Only one crop of bajra is grown during the monsoon season. The bushes, which grow in the fields, protect the loose sand from wind erosion and provide the much-needed fodder for animals during a famine.

The Bishnois keep only cows and buffaloes as rearing of sheep and goats, which devour desert vegetation, is taboo. Though they are Hindus, they do not burn their dead but bury them to save precious wood and trees. They store water during the year in under-ground tanks by collecting rain water as it is precious in this dry desert area.

In 1737, when officials of the king of Jodhpur started felling a few Khejri trees in Khejerli village, men, women and children hugged the trees that were being axed. In all, 363 Bishnois from Khejerli and adjoining villages sacrificed their lives. Later, hearing about it, the King of Jodhpur apologized for his action and issued a royal decree engraved on a copper plate, prohibiting the cutting of trees and hunting of animals in all Bishnoi villages. Violation of this order by anyone including the members of the ruling family would entail prosecution and a severe penalty. A temple and monument stand as testimony to the sacrifice of the 363 martyrs. Every year, the Bishnois assemble there to commemorate the extreme sacrifice made by their people to preserve their faith and religion.

The Bishnois aggressively protect the khejri trees and the antelopes, particularly the blackbuck and chinkara, even now. According to them, if a tree is saved from felling at the cost of one’s head, it should be considered a good deed. They not only protect antelopes but also share their food and water with them. In a number of villages Bishnois hand-feed the animals.

The Bishnois immediately detect hunters who come to their villages and catch them. If the poachers escape leaving a dead antelope in an agricultural field, the owner will mourn its death like that of the passing on of a near or dear one and will not eat or drink water till the last rites are performed. On many occasions the Bishnois are injured and even killed by hunters but they fearlessly provide strict protection to the blackbuck and chinkara, which fearlessly roam in their settlements. Its foe this environmental awareness and commitment that Bishnois stand apart from the countless other sects and communities in India.

Hinduism and Eco-Religion

In ancient India, nature was regarded as God’s most beautiful and precious creation. In fact, many plants and animals were worshipped for their services to humankind. Since water is regarded in many cultures as life sustaining, its purity was preserved and several religious practices revolved round the use of water. Rivers, lakes and ponds were places sought to refresh the body and mind. Even today, a dip in the river on special religious occasions is regarded as an important event. Many religious fairs like the Kumbha Mela involve millions who take a dip in sacred rivers. But today the declining fresh water sources render such religious events unfeasible.

Hinduism in its pantheon of gods has a special place for nature with various gods and goddesses representing it. The wind god is the carrier of gentle, calm and cool breezy gusts soothing the body and mind. The forests host a variety of flora and fauna. All human settlements were carefully sited so as not to encroach upon forests. Ancient sages, seers and philosophers set up their religious centres in the forests, advocated nature worship and protection as a part their philosophy. According to the Hindu philosophy, all elderly people should lead the last phase of their lives in the forests, in meditation and worship. Thus the forests served as ideal places for retirement and worship.

Agricultural lands are regarded as the gifts of Mother Earth and a part of the agricultural produce is offered to God during worship. The coconut tree and the cow are given a special place in most households and great care is taken to nature them. The tulsis shrub is regarded as auspicious and grown in the front courtyard of many Hindu households. Flowers and leaves are used for worship. Even in big cities potted plants are used to select flowers for daily worship many plants have medicinal properties and some, used for curing common ailments, are found around the household. The banyan tree, the neem tree, and the mango grove are favourite spots for places of worship. These trees are therefore spared from being felled and offered protection.

The fishing community worships the sea as the goddess who provides them with the means for their livelihood and ensures their safe return from the sea. Several seashore temples and places of worship can be found even today. Thus Hinduism encompasses an eco-religion with a philosophy of protecting and nurturing nature including living creatures, the seas, forests, landscape and flora.

Buddhism and Jainism

The Buddha preached compassion for all beings and non-injury to all creatures, which forms the basis of a Buddhist eco-religious philosophy. The careful and judicious use of environmental resources would be possible only if we inculcate the values of compassion and simplicity among people. The great waste generated by the materialistic consumption trends by people could be minimized if the values of simplicity and compassion could be ingrained in the future generations.

The eco-religious philosophy of Jainism has absolute non-violence at its core. It advocates both physical and verbal non-injury towards all beings. No animal is injured even if it lacks economic or aesthetic value. Thus environmental education for appreciation of all life forms can be found in Buddhist and Jaina religious literature.

Long Live Sanatan Dharam

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