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Story - issue #4

Finding God in Nature

Interview by Abhiroop Sen
Photography by Ranjith Puliyath

Rajender Kumar Bishnoi lives in Dubai, a long way from Ladana, the village in Rajasthan where he grew up. But wherever in the world he goes, he takes the spirit of the Bishnoi community, and the teachings of Shree Guru Jambeshwar, with him.

Rajender tending a young khejri tree.

From seeds to saplings to trees, Dubai’s green man has grown vegetables and fruits, and even a few cotton trees in his office pop-up garden. He’s engaged thousands of people with his community workshops and social media posts.

‘‘I have not sacrificed my life to save wildlife and trees, but I support Guru Jambeshwar’s message and am totally committed to it. I am trying to compensate by planting and gifting more and more trees and finding ways to protect the environment as best I can.’’

Abhiroop Sen What does it mean to be a Bishnoi?

Rajender Kumar Bishnoi Bishnoi is a Hindu religious sect that lives by the 29 tenets (bishnoi translates as the number 29 in the local dialect) given to the community by Shree Guru Jambeshwar. The Bishnoi people follow these tenets vigorously, many of which relate to the conservation of nature. The Bishnoi are also followers of the Hindu God Vishnu, one of a holy trinity alongside Bramha, and Shiva. This triumverate complements one another to create, preserve and destroy (to facilitate the recreation of) the world. Rama and Krishna are believed to be reincarnations of Vishnu.


AS Why is the khejri tree so important to the Bishnoi people?

RKB One of Guru Jambeshwar’s tenets advocates: “Always be compassionate towards living beings and don’t kill any. If you see a khejri tree being felled, sacrifice your life to protect it.” In the sandy desert soil of Rajasthan, the home of the Bishnoi people, few plants and trees can survive, but the khejri tree, which can grow without rain, is an exception. The khejri tree gives the people a reason to live: they have been blessed by its shade, its barks heal diseases, gum extracted from the Khejri tree’s trunk eases pain, and its leaves and flowers rejuvenate the mind and body. Its green pods are nutritious and can be dried and preserved as a tasty biscuit-like snack. In a region with limited natural resources, the tree provides essential fodder for farm animals. Khejris don’t disturb the soil, as its roots grow vertically downward. As a result other plants and crops thrive in the shade of khejri trees. The Bishnoi call it kalpataru or the tree of life. And they’ve made protection of trees, especially khejri, their life’s mission, no matter what corner of the world they live in.


AS Can you tell us about the Khejarli massacre?

RKB For the Bishnoi people, it is not uncommon to protect trees at any cost, even with our lives. Guru Jambeshwar gave us a clear direction to protect trees and prevent their felling. Because each tree sustains life both above and under the ground, so it follows, where there are trees,there is life. We are instructed to protect trees and animals with our lives. The Khejarli massacre, which happened in 1730, saw 363 Bishnois lay down their lives to protect khejri trees from loggers, but it is not a lone incident: men and women sacrificed their lives for nature on a number of occasions. I can name two women, Karma and Gora, and two elders, Buchoji Echra and Andoji, who embraced death in order to prevent felling of trees. I have not sacrificed my life to save wildlife and trees, but I support Guru Jambeshwar’s message and am totally committed to it. I am trying to compensate by planting and gifting more and more trees and finding ways to protect the environment as best I can. I feel a strong connection to our past, which inspires me, and has led me to train Dubai residents on the art of growing plants and trees, and composting. Teaching youngsters how to do this is my favorite part of the day. There is an active gardening community here that I have founded: the number of followers increases every time I check. I have started growing trees from seeds and cuttings in waste bottles and discarded cans. This way, thousands of plants have been given life. My free gardening and composting workshops are getting more views online, which gives me hope. I would like to see that caring for plants and trees is a way of life in the United Arab Emirates.


AS How do you see your own personal connection with nature?

RKB I am a farmer’s son. I grew up in Bishnoi Village, and worked long hours on the farm. I used to walk from my home to the farm, eating the fruits of the desert trees, and we used to participate in tree-planting activities at school. My mother told me that she liked to sit under the neem tree that I had planted as a child. I don’t have a memory of that. I do remember being taught the words of Guru Jambeshwar, encouraging us to follow the tenets of Bishnoism: it shaped our thinking growing up. You cannot help but fall for the charms of nature once you read his words. One thing I learned is that there is divinity in greenery, all life derives from it, so we must preserve and protect it. I was always thinking about how I can follow his principles while living in big cities like Delhi or Dubai. And I found a way to do this by growing plants and gifting them. Then I found composting as another way to protect the environment. Through my actions I have carried forward and added to the Bishnoi tradition, connecting the past to the present and the future, a sense of mutualism across time and space.

‘‘I feel a strong connection to our past, which inspires me, and has led me to train Dubai residents on the art of growing plants and trees, and composting. Teaching youngsters how to do thisis my favorite part of the day.’

AS What is your relationship with the natural world?

RKB I treat nature with compassion: I cannot see any living being suffering and would do everything to support life. If there are stray, injured, or sick animals, I am always drawn to them, and try to take care of them. I love to spend time in nature: the first rays of the sun, clouds in the sky, rains, stars in the night sky, the moon, nurturing and planting trees, playing with the soil - there is a deep sense of joy in these interactions. It fills me with happiness to just go out for a morning walk. It is not through words that communication happens with nature, but through the mind and soul, and the exchange is always positive.


AS What is the importance of the natural world in your work in Dubai, and your work elsewhere?

RKB I try to find manifestations of nature wherever I go. So here in Dubai, it is the desert, the beach and the parks. When I am travelling to Europe or to the US, I am always curious about the local plants and flowers and have many questions about how they grow and thrive.


AS What are your thoughts on how to live a life of mutualism?

RKB I think we have a transactional, give and take relationship with nature. We are not able to give back to nature what we take, but we should keep trying. Interdependence is part of nature and we need to understand that and maintain the natural cycle, the ecological balance. There’s a deep sense of fulfilment when we spend time in nature. This joy, happiness, and peace cannot be described in words. It can only be felt. I can say that I have found God in trees: I have found a companion, a friend for life, in trees. My life has meaning and purpose when I spend it among plants and trees

Rajender tasting the delicate fruit of the jaal tree.

In the UAE the kherji tree is known as the ghaf tree - the country’s national tree. It is illegal to cut the tree without permission. Having donated thousands of ghaf trees in the UAE, Rajender is now looking forward to his next green project, which is an organic farm on 20 acres of land he owns in Ganganagar, Rajasthan.

‘‘Happiness and positivity is another great outcome that nature imparts. By spending time in a natural environment, watching a flower bloom, a fruitripen, the sun rise, gardening or composting, we can fill ourlives with purpose and positivity.’’

AS What are the biggest life lessons that you have learned?

RKB I have learned that nature is a great teacher, it can show and tell you about so many things: it can teach you to be humble and passionate. Another lesson I have learned is that there is nothing called waste: waste is a human creation. In nature there is no waste. Everything is recycled in nature. Happiness and positivity is another great outcome that nature imparts. By spending time in a natural environment, watching a flower bloom, a fruit ripen,the sun rise, gardening or composting, we can fill our lives with purpose and positivity. At the community events and tree-planting workshops I host, I see a lot of enthusiastic young people eager to do something with nature. They are engaging with nature with great hope. They want to do a lot of things but don’t know what. Some are just happy to be photographed and mentioned in the media, but others are keen on doing something more.They need guidance. They need a mentor, training and examples. Interestingly, a lot of elderly and retired people are also keen to contribute, often because they did not get a chance to nurture this love of nature before. I am doing whatever I can to inspire the youth. Following Guru Jambeshwar’s teaching: “First do it yourself and then preach to others.” I am active on social media, writing articles, posting photographs, replying to queries and speaking about tree-planting and composting at social and religious gatherings. I also show people how to grow saplings from seeds and cuttings, how to make potting soil and compost from kitchen and garden waste, how to take care ofthe seeds after planting. Where there is a need, I sometimes offer financial help. For example, in Suratgarh, near where I am from, I helped set up a local nursery and covered the cost of the water tanker every month. In my own village of Ladana, I arranged 600 plants to be planted near the cow shed. To our local village preachers, I have offered to bear the cost of all the saplings that can be distributed to disciples at the end of sermons. I call this “the grace of plants”.

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