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

No, Israelis and Palestinians Can’t Simply Sit Down and Solve the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict”

Jan. 17 2019

By “zooming out” from the blinkered perspective with which most Westerners see the affairs of the Jewish state, argues Matti Friedman, one can begin to see things the way Israelis do:

Many [in Israel] believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened . . . in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors . . . into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. . . .

In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea—“like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation—if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.

But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunnis and Shiites; between majority populations and minorities. If [Israel’s] small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East