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A Hindu Sect Devoted to the Environment

October 7, 2010
By Akash Kapur
New York Times

DHUNDLI, India — About three kilometers from this village, across dirt tracks and open scrubland, there is a settlement of seven mud huts bordered by millet and lentil fields. No electricity or telephone poles run to these huts. There’s not a satellite dish to be seen.

In the dry, open land that surrounds the settlement — part of the great Thar Desert that dominates the western part of the state of Rajasthan — black buck deer roam freely, foraging for leaves. They are noticeably bold; they seem unafraid of strangers.

The deer have good cause to feel safe. The settlement — like scores of others that dot this harsh landscape — is populated by members of the Bishnoi, a community that traditionally reveres and protects nature.

Although they are often referred to as a tribe, the Bishnoi are, more properly, a sect within Hinduism. They were founded in the 15th century when a saint laid down 29 precepts for his followers (hence their name: bis means 20 in the local dialect, and noi means nine). Today, there are around 600,000 Bishnoi, spread across northern and central India.

Several Bishnoi precepts are directed at encouraging harmony between man and nature. They include injunctions against eating meat and felling trees, and an exhortation to “be compassionate toward all living beings.”

The Bishnoi are devoted ecologists. Although they are friendly people, full of toothy smiles and warm hospitality, they can also be fierce when defending nature. The Bishnoi of this area have been known to chase down poachers and attack them.

The Bishnois’ ecological ethic represents a remarkable ideology in modern India, where the environment so often seems to take a back seat to the quest for economic growth. Across the country, forests and glaciers are dwindling, air and land are being polluted, and coastlines are disappearing.

A recent World Bank report suggests that environmental sustainability is likely to be “the next greatest challenge” to India’s development in coming years.

I wanted to visit the Bishnoi settlement outside Dhundli because I wondered if their way of life offered a path to sustainability. Historically, India’s environmental consciousness (such as it is, anyway) has often been driven by grass-roots, traditional movements.

Many people attribute the birth of modern Indian environmentalism, for example, to the Chipko movement, a spontaneous protest that erupted in the 1970s when peasants in the Himalayas rose up to stop the destruction of their forests.

More recently, the environmental costs of development have been highlighted by the discontent of tribal populations that have protested large mining and industrial projects in several states.

Could the Bishnoi, in the same way, have something to teach the rest of the country about living in harmony with nature?

I was introduced to the Bishnoi way of life by Sajjan Bishnoi, the 75-year old patriarch of the settlement I visited, and his son, Khiyaram Bishnoi. Sitting under a leafy neem tree, they told me about their community’s efforts to live with nature.

Nobody in their settlement ate meat, they said. Nobody used electricity. They only used motor vehicles when they absolutely had to.

Khiyaram Bishnoi pointed to a thatchlike material on the roofs of their houses. He said they only used plants they knew animals didn’t eat.

He told me, also, that the Bishnoi tried to limit their use of plastic — a choice that was evident in the clean surroundings, noticeably absent of garbage, and in particular of the plastic waste that plagues so many villages and towns in India.

Plastic, he said, was bad for the environment. It lined the bellies of animals, and sometimes choked them.

This evidence of ecological living was impressive. But it was clear, also, that for all their adherence to an ancient way of life, the Bishnoi were struggling against the onslaughts of modernity.

Sajjan Bishnoi talked about another son. He worked in a distant town, as a miner. When asked whether he was aware of what mines did to the environment, how they split open the earth and choked trees with their dust and explosives, he grimaced and said, “It’s necessary for the money.”

He also told a familiar tale of agricultural decline — how yields had gone down, how the water had turned bad. Once, the Bishnoi had been able to live off the land. Now many were forced to move to the cities and take up modern jobs.

The overall impression, sitting in that quiet, bucolic and in many ways quite inspiring settlement, was of an island. I was impressed by the Bishnoi way of life, but I wondered how long they would be able to maintain it. I felt the world was closing in, washing up against the island, eating away at its shoreline.

Father and son both spoke of a new generation that was living in the cities. Sometimes, they conceded, this generation lost themselves. They would drink, maybe even eat meat.

“India is getting more and more developed,” Khiyaram Bishnoi said. “People like us are less educated and have more expenses. Our children will move to cities.” He said he worried that the 29 precepts would decline.

He gave me a tour of the settlement. He showed me the small huts in which they lived, the mud vessels in which they cooked. It all had a simplicity that was almost heartbreaking.

As we walked around, he said that he, too, worked sometimes in the city. It was difficult out there; he hated the filth and the crowds. But he had no choice. He had a family. He had to feed them.

I folded my hands and thanked him for the tour. “Good luck,” I said. “I think you have a hard time ahead of you.”

“Yes, hard time,” he said, and he smiled. “Hard time, but a good life.”

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http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/08/world/asia/08iht-letter.html?_r=2