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Sarmad the Magnificently Naked 17th-Century Jewish Mystic

Jewish engagement with non-Western faiths is much older than any recent ‘JuBu’ fad

Blake Smith
December 16, 2016
Image courtesy The Walters Art Museum
Shah Sarmad and Prince Dara Shikoh depicted in a 17th-century manuscript. Image courtesy The Walters Art Museum
Image courtesy The Walters Art Museum
Shah Sarmad and Prince Dara Shikoh depicted in a 17th-century manuscript. Image courtesy The Walters Art Museum

On Sept. 25, 1989, shortly before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the Dalai Lama held a historic meeting with Jewish religious leaders, marking a new era of dialogue between Judaism and Buddhism. Since that meeting 27 years ago, American Jews’ interest in Buddhism and other Asian spiritual traditions has grown significantly. Alongside millions of “JuBus” (Buddhist Jews) are figures like the Hindu guru Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert) and rabbis who incorporate South Asian chanting practices into their worship. While this Jewish engagement with non-Western faiths is sometimes praised and sometimes criticized as a uniquely modern expression of our globalizing culture, Jews have, in fact, been exploring Asian religions and spreading Jewish spiritual insights in Asia for hundreds of years.

One of the most remarkable of these spiritual seekers was Sarmad Kashani. Born in the last decade of the 16th century to a family of Persian-speaking Jews in Armenia, Sarmad traveled to India, becoming a poet, mystic, and saint. He fused Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu traditions, drawing disciples from many religious backgrounds. These included the presumptive heir to the throne of the Mughal Empire, which ruled most of India. Christian observers and Muslim authorities, however, condemned Sarmad’s syncretic, anarchic spirituality, and he was beheaded in 1661 for religious and political offenses. Refusing either to be placed within or excluded from any religious category such as “Jew,” “Hindu,” or anything else, Sarmad embodies the centuries-old dialogue between Jews and Asian faiths.

There are few details available about Sarmad’s early life. It seems, however, that he not only studied the Torah, but the esoteric mysticism of the Kabbalah. When the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled their country’s Jewish inhabitants in 1492, many fled to the Middle East, taking Kabbalah with them. The city of Safed in modern-day Israel became the new center of esoteric Jewish spirituality, home to such luminaries as Isaac Luria (1534-1572), who taught that the material universe had been created by a condensation of the divine essence. Sarmad would later share this teaching with his followers in India.

Sarmad’s motivation to travel to India was financial rather than spiritual: He left home in his 20s to seek his fortune as a merchant. But his life changed abruptly when he arrived in the port city of Thatta in what is now Pakistan. There, Sarmad fell in love with a young Hindu man named Abhai Chand after hearing him read an impassioned poem, and the two became inseparable, sharing their lives and cultures. Sarmad taught Abhai Chand Hebrew and began composing poems, one of which declares: “A luscious beauty has vanquished me. … An extraordinary robber has stripped me naked.”

This was no metaphor. Sarmad abandoned his life as a merchant and, together with Abhai Chand, dedicated himself to the pursuit of spiritual truth among South Asia’s many religious traditions. One of his first steps was to stop wearing clothes, in imitation of the naga sadhus, or naked saints, of Hinduism. As Sarmad put it: “The costume covers ugliness/The faultless are granted the gift of nakedness.” Yet, although he had renounced clothing, Sarmad was a man of many disguises. Many of his contemporaries reported that he had converted to Islam, and one of his poems suggests he became a Hindu. Yet his writings also mock these faiths: “Darkness prevails in the Ka’aba and the temple/Come into the Happy Valley of Oneness/Where only one color prevails.” All religions seem to have drawn his interest; none seem to have escaped his criticism.

News of a flamboyant, naked foreigner full of exotic teachings traveled fast, and Sarmad gathered many disciples, including Prince Dara Shikoh (1633-1659), the likely heir to the Mughal throne and favorite son of the reigning emperor, Shah Jahan. The ruling dynasty of the Mughal Empire was Muslim, but the majority of its subjects were not: South Asia was a place of great religious diversity, with Hindus, Christians, Zoroastrians, and others all living together. Whether from genuine spiritual interest or political calculation, Dara sponsored interfaith dialogue, cultivating an image of himself as a tolerant leader. As a living symbol of spiritual syncretism, Sarmad was of great interest to Dara, who invited the Jewish-Muslim-Hindu sage to court.

The eclectic spirituality of Sarmad and his disciples was not so attractive to other observers, including European travelers in India. François Bernier, a French physician at the imperial court, commented that he had “long been disgusted” by Sarmad’s nudity. Niccolo Manucci, an Italian diplomat, claimed that Dara and Sarmad were simply atheists trying to manipulate believers. Certainly, in Bernier and Manucci’s home countries, a naked Jewish mystic would not have gotten far out his door before being arrested, if not burned at the stake. The fact that Sarmad was able to spread his teachings for decades testifies to the relative freedom of religion offered in early modern South Asia.

Yet this freedom had limits. By joining Dara’s circle, Sarmad had crossed a dangerous line from religion to politics. Dara was not the only candidate for the throne; his brother Aurangzeb sought to become emperor himself. While Dara built his political network around the idea of tolerance, Aurangzeb appealed to orthodox Muslim clerics and condemned Dara’s flirtations with other faiths. In a brief civil war, Aurangzeb crushed Dara’s forces on the battlefield and executed Dara in 1659. His new administration rounded up Dara’s former supporters, including Sarmad. Stories of his trial and execution differ, but it is clear that he was beheaded in 1661, ostensibly for heresy but perhaps most importantly for his ties to Dara.

Aurangzeb often appears in India’s history as the ultimate figure of Islamic intolerance, responsible not only for the death of Sarmad but for crackdowns on Sikhs and the imposition of the jizya tax on non-Muslims. Yet many Indian Muslims were, and remain, fascinated by Sarmad’s teachings. His tomb, located near one Delhi’s most important mosques, is still a place of pilgrimage. The anniversary of his death, observed this year on Dec. 17, is venerated by local Sufis who practice a mystical strain of Islam and consider Sarmad one of their own.

Sarmad, however, resisted identification with any particular creed. Labeling him a Sufi martyr seems to do an injustice to his cosmopolitan spirit. It also obscures the Jewishness that remained a central part of his spirituality. In recent years scholars have shown that Sarmad remained immersed in the teachings of Lurianic Kabbalah even as he developed his own blend of idiosyncratic mysticism. Evidence for this theory appears in a Persian-language encyclopedia of world religions composed in India during the 1650s, the Dabastan-e Mazaheb. Sarmad and Abhai Chand contributed to the section on Judaism, offering a version of the story of Genesis steeped in Kabbalistic ideas.

Even as Sarmad borrowed elements from Islam and Hinduism, he was also an ambassador of Judaism, teaching Luria’s doctrines where they had never been taught before. He joined a new branch of Jewish spirituality to South Asia’s ancient religious traditions. He was fore-runner of those Jews today who explore Hinduism, Buddhism, and other paths while enriching them with their own spiritual heritage.

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.