[Slightly revised version of article forthcoming in Encyclopaedia on Religion and Nature, eds. Bron Taylor et al (London: Continuum, 2003).]The Bishnoi of Rajasthan, India, have lately come to the attention of diverse scholarly and activist communities as an example of an ecologically aware people who for generations have been practicing environmental conservation, holistic science, and what today would be termed wise resource management. The origins of this community, found largely in the region around the city of Jodhpur and neighboring districts of western Rajasthan, go back to the fifteenth century; there are smaller communities of Bishnoi in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Haryana.
The boy who would later be known as Bhagwan Jambeshwar, the presiding deity of the Bishnois, is said to have been born around 1451-1452 CE to a Rajput family in the village of Pipasar in the Mawar area of Rajasthan. According to folklore, local traditions, and vernacular literatures, Jambaji (as he is popularly known) had an uncommon attachment to nature. Some say that he was disenchanted by the struggles over political power between Hindus and Muslims, and sought ways not only to reconcile them but also to put before them an example of a heightened moral sensibility; others say that a long period of drought moved him to seek protection for all animals and plants.
Over time Jambaji articulated 29 principles of morality and conduct, and the sect of Bishnoi [Bish=twenty; no/noi=nine] takes its name from those principles, rather than, as some have erroneously supposed, from attachment to the god Vishnu. Jambaji stipulated that no trees were to be felled, and hunting was forbidden. His followers, some of whom may have thought of Jambaji as an incarnation of Vishnu, were also enjoined to have compassion for all living beings, give up all intoxicants, swear by the tenets of ahimsa (non-violence) and satya (truth), and adhere to a vegetarian diet. Legend has it that flora and fauna flourished wherever Bishnois were to be found, and that even in times of severe hardship and drought, the black buck and the Indian gazelle could count upon food and water. Moreover, the customs of the Bishnoi point to an attempt on the part of Jambaji to forge a more syncretic movement, characteristic of the wave of bhakti (devotion) sweeping India at that time: thus, though the Bishnois worshipped Vishnu, they adopted the Muslim practice of burial of the dead. Jambaji, evidently, could not countenance the idea of felling a tree to obtain wood for the funeral pyre. His near contemporaries in north India would have been Kabir, Tulsidas, and Mirabai, among other famous exponents of bhakti, and one has only to recall Kabir’s disdain for customary practices (such as circumcision among Muslims, and the thread ceremony among savarna Hindus) to realize that Jambaji’s own iconoclasm, whatever its distinct features, was perhaps in some respects part of the wider ethos.
Jambaji passed away in Mukam in Bikaner district, most likely around 1537 AD. His profound humanity, spiritual sincerity, and dedication are believed to have earned him a large following; temples in his honor sprouted over large parts of western Rajasthan. The Bishnois grew in strength, and stories of their relentless, even aggressive, dedication to the preservation of animal and plant tree, even at the cost of their lives, were widely circulated. In 1604 AD, two Bishnoi women from Ramsari village, Karma and Gora, are believed to have sacrificed their lives in an effort to prevent the felling of Khejri (Prosopis cineraria) trees, which in Rajasthan are treated with the reverence that the banyan and peepal (ficus religiosa) command elsewhere in India. In the Bishnois’ embrace of trees can be found the precedence for the famous Chipko movement in contemporary India, where again women hugged the trees to resist the depredations of loggers and contractors.
A number of later episodes in the history of the Bishnois similarly point to their fervent reverence for trees. Around 1643, the Bishnoi Buchoji is thought to have given his life in protest against the felling of trees for the purpose of propitiating the goddess Holi. Most famously, as almost all narratives are agreed, scores of people from the Bishnoi village of Khejreli were killed in 1730 AD as they clung to the trees that were being axed at the orders of Maharaja Abhay Singh of Jodhpur. The ruler was apparently in need of wood for the lime kiln for his new palace; led by the Bishnoi woman Amrita Devi, the villagers attempted to resist by hugging and encircling the trees. But, like soldiers elsewhere, the king’s men were determined to follow orders. Three hundred and sixty-three Bishnois had given up their lives before, drawn by their cries, Abhay Singh came to the scene of the massacre and had it halted.
In the martyrdom of the Bishnois can be read a narrative of resistance to Rajput or upper-caste domination, though the story is far more often adduced as an illustration of the conservational ethic and wisdom of the Bishnois. Bishnoi villages have been described as oases in the desert: trees abound, and deer roam around with abandon. Each village has a stock of millet and water for the use of deer in time of drought. The Bishnoi are said to believe that they will be reincarnated as deer, which may in part explain the sanctity extended to animals; certainly Jambaji, according to folklore, is thought to have instructed his followers that the black buck was to be revered as his manifestation. The Bishnois are known, down to the present day, to mount an aggressive defense of their traditions and their reverence for the black buck, and it is only a few years ago that the Hindi film actor, Salman Khan, earned their wrath when he engaged in a hunting expedition for black buck. (Parenthetically, I might add that Salman Khan’s reckless disdain and murderous appetite extends to much beyond the black buck: he recently ran over half a dozen pavement dwellers in Bombay with his SUV, killing one man in the process, and is widely believed to have bribed one witness to offer testimony to the contradictory. At the time that this article was being written, he had initially been ordered released on a bail of Rs 100 — yes, Rs 100, not Rs 100 million.) But whatever the particular association between nature and divinity in Bishnoi thinking, the pragmatism of the Bishnois must not be overlooked. The much-revered Khejri tree, in particular, plays a crucial role in the desert ecology: it provides food, fodder, and building materials. Thus, in the cosmology of the Bishnois, though trees are viewed as intrinsically venerable, their (what might be termed) reasonable use-value is not overlooked.
It is probable that the worldwide attention lavished upon the Chipko movement has also had the effect of recalling earlier chapters in India’s environmental history. Bishnoi narratives themselves suggest that environmental awareness and activism was first pioneered by women. Though no one is prepared to suggest a continuous and unbroken history from the Bishnois to the Chipko movement, ecofeminists might reasonably argue that in India at least the earth has traditionally been viewed as the receptacle for all living beings, and that an assault upon nature is nothing less than an attack upon the dignity of woman. Wherever women have been custodians of nature, ecofeminists argue, there the principles of fecundity and the sanctity of life have been upheld. Doubtless, the history of the Bishnoi points to other interpretations: thus some might locate the reverence for the forest in India’s traditions of retreat and the valorization of the hermitage as a place for the acquisition of philosophical learning and spiritual insight, while others might see in the story of the Bishnois a morality tale about the ecological knowledge and wisdom of societies which have not been contaminated by the ideologies of growth and profit. Whatever view one might adopt, the Bishnois of India furnish a striking instance of a people whose relationship to nature seems marked by intimations of an admirable and not so easily emulated conviviality.
Further nuanced and sensitive work on the Bishnoi, and an understanding of their lifestyles, may perhaps yield some insights into the forms of ecological awareness that must become part of the currency of modern thinking if we not to bequeath an ecologically devastated world to the future generations. Any interrogation also suggests some other lines of inquiry, for example: can one detect in Bishnoi thinking strands of Jaina philosophy? are some cultures more prone to insist on the reverence for life? how does the reverence for animals differ from the love lavished on pets in modern Western cultures? what is the political economy of spiritual-laden reverence as opposed to the political economy of the culture of pet-keeping in an age of consumption? are the Bishnoi equipped to deal with modern manifestations of ecological degradation, such as the widespread use of polythene bags and styrofoam? what views do they hold on the increasing use of canal irrigation in Rajasthan? do their diets reflect a certain form of ecological awareness?
Fisher, R. J. If Rain Doesn’t Come: An Anthropological Study of Drought and Human Ecology in Western Rajasthan. New Delhi: Manohar, 1997.
Gadgil, Madhav. “The Indian Heritage of a Conservation Ethic”, in Ethical Perspectives on Environmental Issues in India, ed. George A. James. New Delhi: A. P. H. Publishing Corporation, 1999.
Sankhala, K. S. and Peter Jackson. “People, Trees and Antelopes in the Indian Desert”, in Culture and Conservation: The Human Dimension in Environmental Planning, eds. Jeffrey A. McNeely and David Pitt. London: Croom Helm, 1985.