Visitor:

The Vishnoi philosophy teaches us how to nurture nature and live peacefully with plants and animals, writes UDAY SINGH

Flora 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'.

Peaceful Co-existence

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.

29 Commandments

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.

The 18th 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.

For Vishnois, 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.

The boundless 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.

Fair Use Notice and Disclaimer
Send questions or comments about this web site to Ann Berlin, annxtberlin@gmail.com