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Legitimation and Patronage of the Bishnoi Movement in Medieval Rajasthan

Prof. Nandini Sinha Kapoor*

We continue with the series on the historic roots of Bishnoi movement. If agriculture was essential to sustain and sedentarize a desert society and to meet the increasing revenue demands of the Rathaur states of Jodhpur and Bikaner, then pastoral activities was the lifeline of the desert economy. The Bishnois not only uphold preservation of cattle wealth but also relate cattle and dairy farming to the worship of their chief deity Vishnu. Vilhoji instructs his disciples to strain the water before they drink to save micro-organisms. He condemns those who eat meat instead of good food (meaning vegetarian food) in the same context. For the same reasons, Vilhoji warned against lighting fire without regard to micro-organisms; if a fire burns organisms, then it becomes inauspicious. He also encouraged people to walk less to minimize the killing of small organisms. In Kathâ Avatârpat (the story of Jambhoji birth), the predominance of pastoral wealth over agricultural activities is clearly evident. Jambhoji father, ParamarLohat, who cultivated his field and irrigated it with water drawn from a well, had plenty of cows and goats. His agro-pastoral activities are vividly described by Vilhoji Lohat grazed his cattle and spent money on his animals while procuring grains during the monsoon.” It is when he had gone to the forests to graze his cows that the divine Vishnu appeared before him and foretold the birth of avatar Devji (Jambhoji). Jambhoji drew from the Puranic tradition performance of havan by pouring ghee into the fire; fasting on Amavasya, controlling kam, and krodh (desires and anger), giving up theft and ill speaking. He believed in incarnation of God but decried idolatry. He respected the Vedas and drew a lot of his philosophy from Bhagavad Gita. In propagating SagunMukh-Nirgun Bhakti. To quotes very briefly from one of his famous shabad: A mere vision of Gorakh does not make one siddh. Only purity of heart and deeds bring salvation. Kaliyug is on. Beware, all those awakened in soul. The Satguru has shown you the path of righteousness and acquainted you with the substance of the Vedas Liberation from the cycle of material and physical attractions is central to Bishnoi philosophy. Soul and its lord reside in the body of a human being and not outside in pilgrimage. Brahmagyân and importance. Of the ‘guru’ (preceptor) find echoes in the teachings of every prominent Bishnoi saint. Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Bishnoi philosophy and religion is the deification of Jambhoji. Comparisons of Jambhoji with the gunas (qualities) of Vishnu, prasasti (eulogies) of Vishnu/Krishna-like Jambhoji abound in the writings of Vilhoji, Surjan Das Ji, Alam Ji and Parmanand Ji, etc.

It is significant that disciples as early as Raidas (born in Olvi village, Jodhpur, in 1473), Surjanji and his disciple Alamji began the process of deification through the concept of Krishna avatar (incarnation of Vishnu). Vilhoji is his composition, Katha Dharabandh Channajugi identifies Jambhoji as the avatär of adi Vishnu. Surjani series Machcha, Kachcha, Varah, Narsingh, Vâman, Paraœrâm and Buddha avatârs of Vishnu.” He connects Krishna with Jambhoji by claiming that what Krishna could not accomplish Jambhoji did-though the showing of ‘heaven’ to his disciples. And Jambhoji disciples came from Hindu and Muslim communities. Alamji sings in praise of Vishnu and Krishna and connects SatguruJambhojidarshan (vision) with that of Krishna. He claims that Jambhoji was born as Krishna in Dvâpara Yuga. Mathura-Dwarka is the same as Jambhoji seat. Sambharathal. Gokul’s gvâla (cowherd) and Vrindavan king are omnipresent in earth, air, water and sky. Alamji also draws a parallel between Jambhoji and the kind-hearted Buddha.

KesojiGodara too equates Jambhoji with Vishnu and Krishna SurjanjiPuniya focuses on the importance of Vishnu.” Remembering Vishnu is the highest form of ‘rest’. One must remember the Almighty for He listens to the prayers of the poor devotees. He liberated Dhruva, Prahlad, Harishchandra, and Yudhishthira and inspired kings to give up the material world for moksha. Vilhoji, one of the early and prominent saints of the Bishnois encouraged the spread and popularity of Vishnu and identified Jambhoji as the tenth avatar of Vishnu. He appealed to the devotees of Bishnois to remember Vishnu, Jambhoji along with Vishnu’s disciple Prahlad liberated five crore human beings. Vishnu, who liberated seven crore humans in Tretâ Yuga and nine crore in Dvâpara Yuga, appeared as Jambhoji, the tenth avatar of Vishnu in Kali Yuga. Now Jambhoji would liberate 12 crore devotees.

Deification and identification with Vishnu helped the saints in popularizing the founder, Guru Jambhoji. Vilhoji opines that due to the good deeds of the rural folk of the desert, Vishnu was born as Jambhoji in Bagardesha (Thar Desert in western Rajasthan).” The God of Gods Vishnu became established in Sambharthal. A large number of Vilhojichhandas and sakhis compare Jambhoji with Vishnu. By calling Jambhoji an avatar of Vishnu, Vilhoji not only sanctified Jambhoji and his legends but simultaneously insured popular acceptance of Jambhoji It seems that the popularity and hegemony of the Nath-panthi had discarded the element of bhakti and the cult of Vishnu in western Rajasthan in this period. The early Bishnoi saints not only restored the element of bhakti and the cult of Vishnu in popular religion, but utilized this strategy to establish Jambhoji, his teachings and Bishnoi philosophy in the domain of popular religion.

Vilhoji composed ManjhaAshraDuaAvatârkâ and KathûAvatârpât to sing the praise of Jambhoji and to legitimize his legend. ManjhaAshrâDuhâ narrates Jambhoji simplicity, accessibility and popularity and yet his knowledge’. Vilhoji popularized the concept of avatâr for Jambhoji in ManjhaAshraDuhâAvatârkâ before he narrates the story of the avatâr’s (Jambhoji’s) birth in his next composition, KathâAvatârpât. Jambhoji is the foundation of soul and hence, he is the creator (interesting comparison with Brahma, the creator). He is omni present on this earth and he is ‘Parabrahma’. He is immortal and nurtures every being. He is kind and generous. He liberates his devotees and settles them in heaven.6 Jambhoji’s name washes away sins and he sustains the worldly order.” Jambhoji willingly appeared as an avatâr in this desert to remove sorrow and poverty. He dislikes ignorant people who do not recognize the right preceptor.” He does not help the proud priest who criticizes the knowledgeable .

Having introduced Jambhoji as an avatâr and knowledgeable ‘satguru’, Vilhoji narrates the story of the birth of avatärJambhoji in his next composition, KathâAvatârpät. Vilhoji initiates this story by introducing the qualities of the ten avatärs of Vishnu with special reference to Vasudeva Krishna. Avatârs slayed asuras (demons) with swords. Vasudeva killed and won battles against demons. he reincarnated in many forms and lived on this earth to conquer lust, anger, and ego with his knowledge. Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita teaches us follow the precepts of satgurus and the truth, which only can bring salvation.” Guru Jambhoji examined the truth in Gorakhnath’s yoga. Dattatreya’ssanyas, and non-violence in Jainism and Islam before he arrived at the right knowledge and substance. Jambhoji precepts soon get enmeshed with Krishna’s know ledge as Vilhoji links the Satguru’svani with Krishna’s sayings Jambhoji was born to a Parmar Rajput named Lohat and his Bhati Rajput wife Hansa. An agro-pastoralist, Lohat received divine message (akashvani) that a Krishna-like avatär would be born to him to liberate 12 crore human beings. It was forecast that this son would be a yogi (sage). Hansa gave birth to Krishna like Jambhoji.” In fact, Jambhoji, like infant Krishna, performed miracles and surprised visitors to his home.” He like Krishna was born with an aura. Like Vishnu, he Jambhoji) lit lamps with water and not oil. Hence, Vilhoji adapted Krishna’s childhood deeds to a significant extent to highlight the avatar status of Jambhoji. Vilhoji repeats that Jambhoji is the Vishnu reincarnate in Kali Yuga.” All the Vishnoi saints, including Alamji, legitimized Jambhojiavatâr and divine status through appropriation of Vishnu’s and Krishna’s characteristics. Vilhoji makes another interesting identification of Jambhoji, with Lakshmana of Râmâyana who killed Ravana and rescued Sita from Lanka.” But Bishnois also adopted motifs of sin merit and dâna (gift) from Brahmanical religion. If we have noted the concepts of ‘sin’ and ‘merit’ as functional to the spread and legitimation of the Bishnoi philosophy, the fact that Jambhoji donated cows to those Pandits he defeated indicates Bishnoi preference for adaptation of respectable’ Brahmanical practices for legitimation and patronage. In Katha Pulhajiki, the Bishnoi convert Pulhaji gives gifts of cows, money, clothes, ghee and animals to Jambhoji.” It is also interesting to note that in spite of Bishnoi rejection of religious conformity and Brahmanical standards, Vilhoji respects Vedas and Purâòas to legitimize Krishna’s might. He quotes Vedas and Purâòas to claim sahastra (thousands) forms (bodies) of Krishna.” To enlarge popular patronage, Vilhoji opines that an ideal village is one where the name of Vishnu is chanted.” Everybody should abandon that village where Vishnu is not remembered. While Katha Dunapurki narrates the story of conversion of BidaJodhavatRathaur, thakur of Dunapura, into Bishnoi, Kathâ Jaisalmer ki refers to the royal patronage of Jambhoji by the Bhati Rajput court of Jaisalmer (Vilhoji refers to them as Yadus: Bhatis claim origin from the Yadavas). Jambhoji performs a series of miracles to teach lessons to Bida, rebukes him and finally, wins over RathaurBida. Vilhoji in Kathâ Jaisalmer ki eulogizes RâvalJaitsi, the ruler of Jaisalmer, as a kind, patient, knowledgeable person who is also a generous donor.” Jaitsi invites Jambhoji to grace the yajña organized at the inauguration of the newly constructed Jaisamand Lake.” Jambhoji receives a royal welcome and patronage at Jaitsi’s court and successfully convert Jitsi into a Bishnoi. Jambhoji presence at RâvalJaitsi’syajña is compared with Krishna’s auspicious presence at the famous yajña organized by the Pandavas at Hastinapur.  Significant comparison is made between Krishna’s attitude towards Yudhishthira in Dvâpara Yuga and Jambhoji attitude rewards RävalJaitsi in Kali Yuga.

Author is a Ph D Programme Coordinator, SOITS, Indira Gandhi National Open University, Delhi

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