The Vishnoi philosophy teaches us how to nurture nature and live
peacefully with plants and animals, writes UDAY SINGH
and fauna is their religion. The Vishnois, a Vaishnavite sect living on the
fringes of the Thar Desert in western Rajasthan, could well be called the
world's first environmentalists. They believe in the motto, Sir santhe rooke
rahe to bhi sasto jaan, meaning 'if a tree is saved from felling at the cost
of one's head, it should be considered as a good deed'.
The Vishnois' spiritual mentor, Guru Jambheshwar was an ecologist. He taught that man must protect plants and
animals. Born in 1451 CE at Pipasar in Nagaur, Rajasthan, he is regarded as
an incarnation of Vishnu by the Vishnoi community. In fact, the word Vishnoi
comes from two Hindi words -- Vishnu and anuyayi, or followers. So, one who
chants the name of Vishnu is a Vishnoi, or Bishnoi.
In 1485 CE,
Rajasthan was hit by a terrible drought and famine, forcing people to cut
trees and kill animals to sustain themselves. Overwhelmed by the desperation
and hopelessness of the situation, Jambheshwar, also referred to as Jambhoji,
went to a lonely spot and sat in meditation. Living life as a hermit, he
experienced a vision that only a respectful co-existence of humans and
nature can prevent misery and disaster. And his green philosophy took birth.
Jambheshwar succeeded in getting the 'green' message across by forming
an army of men -- drawn from all castes and denominations -- to protect the
flora and fauna of the region. Wherever he went, he created groves, which
are still held sacred by the Vishnois. A fine example is the flowering
Khejri plantation in Rotu, a village between Nagaur and Didwana. He
personally arranged fodder and forage for the livestock. The prime task of
the group was to guard forests and protect animals. His group of men was,
perhaps, the first active army in the world involved in forest conservation
and biodiversity preservation.
As his green philosophy that
emphasised the protection of the desert's flora and fauna spread, people
began to integrate his teachings in their daily lives.
His teachings, in poetic form, known as
Shabadwani, came to us as 29 commandments. These were compiled by the
poet-saint Udoji Nain as easy-to-remember verses. Of these, eight prescribe
preserving biodiversity and encourage good animal husbandry, seven provide
directions for healthy social behaviour, 10 are directed towards personal
hygiene and following good health practices, and the remaining four
commandments provide guidelines for daily worship.
commandment exhorts the Vishnoi community, 'To be merciful towards all
living beings''. In a similar vein, the 11th reiterates, 'Demonstrate
feelings of mercy and forgiveness.' The 28th orders them not to consume
flesh and the 22nd, not to sell domestic animals to butchers. The 19th asks
the followers to 'Never hew green trees.' It is primarily these five canons
which evoke unbending and exacting commitment from the Vishnois, making them
exemplary environmentalists and biodiversity protectors.
righteous and ethical living implies protection of plants and animals. For
them, it is a cardinal sin to cut green or flowering trees. For this reason,
perhaps, the community does not burn its dead but buries them. Female
foeticide is unknown to Vishnois; and women and men are treated as equal.
Vishnoi women are known to let orphaned fawns suckle along with their own
infants. It is not uncommon to see chinkaras, deer, black bucks, and
migratory birds scampering fearlessly in and around Vishnoi villages; they
are safe havens.
Several endemic species of plants and animals which
are either rare or endangered in other deserts of the world thrive in the
Thar Desert, because of the support and attention being given to the
environment by the Vishnois.
For Environment's Sake
They are willing to go to any extent -- even sacrifice their lives -- to
protect the environment. In 1604 CE, two Vishnoi women, Gora and Karma from
Ramasari village in Jodhpur sacrificed their lives to protect the khejri
tree. History books record this as the first instance of sacrifice to save
trees from being hacked. In another instance, in the year 1730, Amrita Devi
Vishnoi, her three daughters, and 363 men and women from the sect gave their
lives at Khejdali village in Jodhpur while protecting khejri trees from
being decimated. Each year, the community holds the world's only 'Tree Fair'
at Khejdali to commemorate the green martyrs. In fact, the government has
instituted the Amrita Devi Vishnoi Environment Award to honour
environmentalists who do pioneering work in the field.
love and compassion of Vishnois for the environment and for human life has
no parallel in the world. How is it possible for a community to create and
sustain an island of green and peace while living in an extremely hostile
environment? The world has lots of lessons to learn from the Vishnois.