The Original Jewish-Indian Mystic

Dec. 21 2016

Although the interest taken by many Jews in the religions of South Asia has received much attention, less familiar is a four-century-old antecedent by the name of Sarmad Kashani. Blake Smith writes:

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 [at the time]. Christian observers and Muslim authorities, however, condemned Sarmad’s syncretic, anarchic spirituality, and he was beheaded in 1661 for religious and political offenses. . . .

Sarmad’s motivation to travel to India was financial rather than spiritual: He left home in his twenties 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. . . . Sarmad abandoned his life as a merchant and, together with [his lover] 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 naked saints of Hinduism. . . .

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. . . .

Sarmad, however, resisted identification with any particular creed. . . . 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.

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More about: Hinduism, History & Ideas, India, Judaism, Mysticism, Religion

The Struggle for Iraq, and What It Means for Israel

Oct. 17 2018

Almost immediately after the 2003 invasion, Iraq became a battleground between the U.S. and Iran, as the latter sent troops, money, and arms to foment and support an insurgency. The war on Islamic State, along with the Obama administration’s effort to align itself with the Islamic Republic, led to a temporary truce, but also gave Tehran-backed militias a great deal of power. Iran has also established a major conduit of supplies through Iraq to support its efforts in Syria. Meanwhile, it is hard to say if the recent elections have brought a government to Baghdad that will be pro-American or pro-Iranian. Eldad Shavit and Raz Zimmt comment how these developments might affect Israel:

Although statements by the U.S. administration have addressed Iran’s overall activity in the region, they appear to emphasize the potential for confrontation in Iraq. First and foremost, this [emphasis] stems from the U.S. perception of this arena as posing the greatest danger, in light of the extensive presence of U.S. military and civilian personnel operating throughout the country, and in light of past experience, which saw many American soldiers attacked by Shiite militias under Iranian supervision. The American media have reported that U.S. intelligence possesses information indicating that the Shiite militias and other elements under Iranian auspices intend to carry out attacks against American targets and interests. . . .

In light of Iran’s intensifying confrontation with the United States and its mounting economic crisis, Tehran finds it essential to maintain its influence in Iraq, particularly in the event of a future clash with the United States. The Iranian leadership has striven to send a message of deterrence to the United States regarding the implications of a military clash. . . .

A recently published report also indicates that Iran transferred ballistic missiles to the Shiite militias it supports in Iraq. Although Iran has denied this report, it might indeed attempt to transfer advanced military equipment to the Shiite militias in order to improve their capabilities in the event of a military confrontation between Iran and the United States and/or Israel, or a confrontation between [the militias] and the central government in Baghdad.

From Israel’s perspective, after years when the Iraqi arena received little attention from Israeli decision makers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman have mentioned the possibility of Israel’s taking action against Iranian targets in Iraq. In this context, and particularly in light of the possibility that Iraq could become an arena of greater conflict between the United States and Iran, it is critical that there be full coordination between Israel and the United States. This is of particular importance due to [the American estimation of] stability in Iraq as a major element of the the campaign against Islamic State, which, though declared a success, is not yet complete.

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More about: Barack Obama, Iran, Iraq, ISIS, Israel & Zionism, U.S. Foreign policy