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.