Preaching Love For All Living Beings: The Bishnois Of India

A Bishnoi boy petting a calf.

Who Are The Bishnois Of India?

The Bishnoi of India is a religious group that lives in the western region of the Thar Desert in the north of the country. Smaller communities of the Bishnoi can be found in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh. Practitioners of this religion follow the teachings of Guru Jambheshwar, who was born in the 15th century.

The principal message of Guru Jambheshwar was one of ecological awareness. He taught that damaging the environment is equivalent to damaging oneself. Under this message, the Bishnoi have been practicing environmental protection, natural resource management, and holistic health for centuries.

History Of The Bishnois Of India

Guru Jambheshwar, the founder of Bishnoism, is believed to have been born in 1499 AD in the town of Pipasar in the Marwar region of the state of Rajasthan. Local folklore claims that he was attached to nature from a very young age and that once, during a drought, he sought shelter for nearby plants and animals. Other stories suggest that Jambheshwar disagreed with conflict between Muslims and Hindus and that he hoped to find a way to strengthen their relationship. He passed away in 1537 AD in Mukam in the Bikaner district, where he is buried.

Religious Guidelines

During his lifetime, Guru Jambheshwar established a set of 29 guiding morals and principals. In fact, the term Bishnoi comes from this number - bish means 20 and noi means 9. As he shared his beliefs, Jambheshwar gained many followers. Some of his behavioral guidelines prohibited both hunting animals and cutting trees. His followers believed in having compassion for plants, animals, and other humans. They lived a vegetarian lifestyle and promised to practice non-violence, to always tell the truth, and to avoid drugs and alcohol. Additionally, the Bishnoi worshipped the Hindu god Vishnu and practiced Muslim burial customs to avoid killing trees for the traditional Hindu funeral pyre.

A few of the 29 guidelines include: to prepare one’s own food, to practice early morning hygiene, to have patience, to display modesty, to segregate women during menstruation, to forgive everyone, to avoid theft, to criticize no one, and to have pity on and to love all living things.

Martyrdom Of The Bishnois

After the death of Guru Jambheshwar, the Bishnoi followers continued to live according to his 29 guidelines. Temples were built in his honor and the movement grew. These individuals constantly fought to preserve trees and animal lives, sometimes losing their own lives in the process.

One of the first counts of this martyrdom is from 1604, when two women in Rajasthan gave their lives to protect some khejri trees against a logging attempt. These trees are considered sacred in that region, along with the banyan and peepal trees. This was not the last of these sacrifices.

It is believed that the larges Bishnoi sacrifice occurred in 1730 AD, known as the Khejarli Massacre. Abhay Singh of Jodhpur, king at that time, required a significant amount of lumber to complete the construction of his palace. He sent a group of soldiers to cut trees in the Khejarli region. Here, the soldiers were met with resistance by more than 363 Bishnoi people. Their leader was Amrita Devi, who encouraged protesters to hug and surround the trees to prevent removal. The soldiers, in order to carry out the King’s orders, began killing the Bishnoi activists. When the massacre ended, 363 Bishnoi had been killed.

Life In Bishnoi Communities

As previously mentioned, large communities of Bishnoi can be found in the Thar Desert of India. These communities are said to resemble oases in the middle of the desert. Trees surround the towns, which are filled with plants and animals. Antelope is the most common animal in Bishnoi communities presumably because the Bishnoi believe they will be reincarnated as antelope. According to local legend, Guru Jambheshwar claimed that he would come back as a black buck (Antelope Cervicapra) after his death. To this day, the Bishnoi hold black bucks in high regard.

Although the Bishnoi believe in preserving trees, particularly the khejri tree, they do use lumber in their daily lives. Wood is important to these individuals because it provides food for animals, shelter, and building materials. The Bishnoi make sure to use these trees in a sustainable manner so as not to disrupt the surrounding ecology.

Additionally, the Bishnoi help conserve other animals that come to their communities. Some of these creatures include: vultures, chinkaras, peacocks, and Great Indian Bustards (an endangered bird species). Here, the people and animals peacefully coexist. The Bishnoi keep stores of animal feed, allow animals to graze their agricultural land, and supply drinking water outside of their homes.

The Tiger Force

Historically, the Bishnoi have practiced passive conservation. In recent years, however, they have become more actively involved in conservation. The Tiger Force is a group of approximately 1,000 environmental activists made up of Bishnoi followers. Their main objective is to stop animal poachers by capturing them and handing them over to forest authorities. If members of this gorup rescue an injured animal, it is taken to the Jodhpur rescue center. Here, veterinarians treat the animal and if successful, release them into the wild. Over the last 2 decades, at least 14 Bishnoi have died while defending wildlife. Their movement began in the region of Jodhpur and has since spread throughout the state of Rajasthan.

Legacy And Influences Of The Bishnoi

The Bishnoi continue to be recognized as one of the only religions in the world founded on the principle of environmental conservation. Their ancient tree-hugging tactics are believed to have influenced the Chipko Movement of India, an environmental movement aimed at forest conservation that has spread all over the world.

Their treatment of animals has even influenced the behavior of the animals within the Bishnoi villages. Some scientists have observed a change in mating rituals. Within the Bishnoi community, animal mating rituals appear to be simpler and shorter than outside of the compound.

Additionally, the Bishnoi message of plant and animal conservation has spread throughout nearby communities. The Rajputs and the Jats are two cultures that have been significantly influenced by the Bishnoi. Traditionally, members of these two groups have relied on an aggressive attitude toward animals, considering hunting a sort of extreme sport. However, in recent years, these communities have taken a change of heart and begun several nature and wildlife conservation projects.

It is hard to deny the positive impact of this peaceful and environmentally-friendly religion. Unfortunately, the Bishnoi population is relatively small, which hinders the progress of their conservation movement.


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