Sa’id Sarmad is described a Jewish, Sufi, Catholic Priest and Hindu sadhu, beheaded by Aurangzeb and yet honoured a Sufi saint.
So how did this sadhu, “naked, covered with thick crisped hair all over the body and long nails on his fingers” become a Muslim Saint while being accused of drinking wine an a homosexual affair?
Or was his religious identity commandeered ex post facto by the official Islam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, where called shaheed, or martyr, his dargah of blood red tiles , lays beside the Sufi Khwaja Harey Bhareys calm green tomb. Incense and candles burn perpetually, gawalwali singers praise him as pir, prayers are offered, fatwas issued, pilgrimages made, vows fulfilled and mystics venerated.
A festival is held on his death anniversary, the 18th day of Rabi.
In his Rubaiyat, he describes himself “a follower of the Furqan (i.e., a Sufi), a (Catholic) priest, a (Buddhist) monk, a Jewish rabbi, an infidel, and a Muslim:’ His voice seems humourless, critical of religions for the sake of the god they hide.
So what are we to make of this Armenian Jew born in 1590?
Sarma refused to see god in an orthodox way.
“ Survey his 320 quatrains … we discover the following motifs: (1) Four quatrains express disdain for organized religion in general; (2) Eight quatrains convey contempt for Islam in general and even Sufism in particular. Another five praise wine-drinking, which of course is proscribed in Islam but which is a central metaphor for mystical ecstasy in Sufi literature. He also commits two Islamic blasphemies: in three quatrains he proclaims himself an idol-worshipper, and in one equates himself with the Prophet Muhammad; (3) Seven quatrains poke fun at Hinduism, especially the sadhus, al- though in one he proclaims himself a devotee of Rama and Lakshman, and as mentioned, in three he proclaims himself an idolater, which may be an affirmation of a Hindu identity; (4) In one quatrain he expresses disdain for Judaism” observed scholar Nathan Katz (Katz, 154)
Perhaps he reflected a turbulent religious period, or were his contemporaries simply mistaking sufism critique of organised religion for atheism. Was Sa’id Sarmad seeking the essence of divinity behind the mask of religion?
“Widespread religious movements, having… their roots partly in the vivifying contacts of Hinduism with Islam, had produced a religious enthusiasm among the masses that was transforming the older Brahmanical religion.” (Ikram, Muslim Civilization in India, p. 232.). Even before the Mughals Sufism; Ramananda’s (ca. 1400 – ca. 1470) non- caste- devotion to Rama; monotheistic, bhakti Vaisnava movements such as Vallabhacarya’s (1479-?); the Kabir Panth founded by Benarsi poet Kabir (1398? 1440?-1518); and Sikhism by Guru Nanak (1469- 1538). Often caste was blatantly ignored in North India.
Even before the demise of the Delhi Sultanate in the fourteenth cen tury, official policies allowed Hindus self government according to Hindu law, so long as they paid their jizya or non-believer’s tax to Muslim rulers.
The Mughal dynasty was founded by Babur (1483-1530), whose policy was to suppress Hinduism , Sufism and Shi’a Islam, destroying Hindu temples, often constructing a masjid on the site. However, within fifty years, his grandson Akbar (1556-1605) reversed the jizya in 1565, and opened religious diversity and debate between Sunni, Shi’a, Jesuit, Hindu, Zoroastrian, or Jaina sages much as 3rd century BCE Buddhist, Ashoka Maurya. This led to Akbar’s policy of suhl-i-kuhl , respect for all religions, praised by minorities but seen as heretical by some Sunni’s. The policy was to be in force until Aurangzeb seized power and reinstated the hated jizya in 1679. (Under enormous pressure, Aurenzebs successor revoked it).
Sarmads prominence occurred under Prince Dara Shikoh, son of Shah Jahan, who followed Sarmad’s advice to reinstitute a policy of religious debate once held by Jehans grandfather Akhbar.
Akbar’s openness to other religions led to his being claimed to have been a Christian, a Jain, and a Parsee (Zoroastrian), as well as a Sufi. However by others it was “resented as being in substance an attack on the Muhammadan religion,” (Vincent A. Smith, Akbar, the Great Mogul, New Delhi, S. Chand & Co., 1966, p. 132).
Rumours of Sufi’s sanctity and supernatural powers caused Prince Dara Shikoh to bring Sarmad to the attention of his father, Emperor Shah Jehan.
An order to to investigate Sarmad followed.. The Qazi (judge) Inayat Ullah Khan to head an inquiry, but Sarmad was inaccessible to the judge, and accosted the Emperor at court. The Emperor praised Sarmad’s sanctity, but questioned his nakedness.
Sarmad is said to have replied with a quatrain:
“Why do you object to my nudity at the same time as you acknowledge my miracles?
The truth is not what is visible,
but the truth is what is concealed in my heart,
and that is love.”
“With the encouragement of his guru, Dara transformed the Mughal court into an arena for interreligious debate, much as had done his grandfather, Emperor Akbar (1542-1605).The [Urdu] taskara describes the unlikely scene: “There used to be Muslim scholars as well as Hindu yogis present in his [Dara’s] court and he used to rank them all alike. In fact, he adopted religious practices that were a mixture of Muslim and Hindu beliefs… These practices were such that Aurangzeb, a staunch Muslim, hated him. As Aurangzeb was against Dara Shik[oh, automatically Hazrat Sarmad came under suspicion.” Nathan Katz, 28 (9)
As Jehan aged, driftng into insanity say some, his kingdom was divided. Aurangzebs won the internecine battles ending suhl-i-kuhl .
“Aurangzeb reimposed the jizya… and followed a policy of destroying as many Hindu temples as possible… goods belonging to Hindu merchants were subjected to a custom’s duty twice as heavy as that demanded from Muhammadan traders.” (Edwards and Garrett , Mughal Rule in India, Delhi, pp. 153-154.)
Why was Sa’id Sarmad executed?
His nakedness was scandalous, as was his use of bhang (marijuana), outlawed by Aurangzeb and Sarmad’s homosexual (?) affair with Abhai Chand concerned others.
Some Sufis known as Malamatiyas, or the blameworthy, discarded shariah to express their belief that love was the ultimate means of achieving union with God.
Most biographers describe that the love between Sarmad and Abhai Chand was “pure.”
The earliest written account of their relationship is the 1660 work, Mu’bid Shah’s Dabistan:
“When he arrived at the town of Tatta, he fell in love with a Hindu boy, called Abhi Chand, and abandoning all other things, like a Sanyasi , naked as he came from his mother, he sat down before the door of his beloved. The father of the object of his love, after having found by investigation the purity of the attachment manifested for his son, admitted Sarmad into his house, and Abhai Chand became Sarmad’s student, studying Jewish religion and the Hebrew and Persian languages well enough to translate sections of the Hebrew Bible into Persian”.
For unknown reasons, Sarmad later renounced all clothing.
Perhaps, Sarmad’s fearless attitude was too much for Aurangzeb who soon called on his chief Qazi, Mullah Qawi, and plotted to do away with Sarmad. The Urdu taskara, argues that both Aurangzeb and Sarmad were “right,” as expressed in the Preface (pp. 7-8): “Hazrat Sarmad was a victim of injustice, but on the other hand Aurangzeb was not a culprit… Aurangzeb was not an enemy of Hazrat Sarmad, but as Emperor he had a moral obligation to defend the religion, Islam.”
After the assassination of Dara’s and his close associates Sarmad is said to have accused Aurangzeb of injustice, naked in the court and without respect. His support for Dara gives political motive and quatrain 320 expresses faith in Hindu gods which may have alarmed the Emperor.
In another story, Aurangzeb found Sarmad on the roadway between the palace and the Jama Masjid for Friday prayers.
When he rebuked Sarmad for nakedness, the Sufi asked the ruler him to cover him with a blanket. he saw “freshly chopped heads, including the heads of his three innocent nephews and their companions.” Terrified by this vision, Aurangzeb dropped the blanket, and Sarmad asked, ‘”Tell me, shall I hide your crimes or my body?”( Urdu taskara, pp. 39-40.)
Poetically Sarmad wrote:
He who gave thee an earthly throne,
Gave poverty to me;
The costume covers ugliness;
The faultless are granted the gift of nakedness.
(Rubiy’at 105, in Ezekiel, Sarmad (Jewish Saint of India), p. 321).
His ability to command immediate attention and Sarmads support for the murdered Prince Dara worried the emperor concerned of rebellion, or possibly, as Lakhpat Rai suggests, the religious establishment pressured the more conservative Aurengzeb.
Arrested in 1070 A.H. he was first accused of breaking Sharia by his nakedness, and denying that Ahmed (Muhammad) miraj to heaven.
Sarmad had written:
The mullah says that Ahmad went to the heavens;
Sarmad says the heavens were inside Ahmad.
Nakedness did not merit execution and the poem was unclear said Aurangzeb.
He was convicted of blasphemy. Sarmad was asked to recite the kalimah shahada, to accept the oneness of God, or “La Ilaha Illallah, Muhammad-ur Rasul Allah” (there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad SWT is the messenger of Allah). Sarmad recited only “La ilaha” (There is no god) without completing it with “illa’llah” (except God).
Presently I am drowned in negation;
I have not yet attained the station of affirmation.
If I said the whole phrase in this state,
I would be telling a lie.
This reflects the Sufi doctrine of fana and baaqa, the annihilation of the individual and subsistence in the Eternal.
The next day before the executioners sword, near the Jama Masjid, he declared smiling to heaven:
May I be sacrificed for You.
Come, come, for in whatever guise
You come, I recognize You.
There was a commotion
and I opened my eyes
from the dream of non-existence.
I saw that the night
of sedition still remained,
and so I went back to sleep.
Legend then claims his picked up his severed head recited the kalmia several times and mocked the emperor as he approached the Jama Masjid.
A Sufi saint?
Nathan Katz suggests Sarmad’s religious identity may have been commandeered ex post facto by the official Islam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, where he is buried.
This acute observation is made by Nathan Katz which agrees with my observations of Indian psychology living in that wonderful country. Hindus will happily pray at a Sufi saints shrine and assimilate other religions. Sarmad has been claimed by Radha Soami Satsang, to which Sarmad scholar Ezekiel belongs, among others.
As some pass pilgrimage manuals, taskaras or hagiographies, collections of quatrains, they feel a distaste for tourism
His tomb is described this way “Outside: a confusion of shoppers, beggars, biryani stalls and goats. Inside: stillness. Sandwiched between the imposing Jama Masjid and the chaotic Meena Bazaar, the Sufi shrine of Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed in Old Delhi boasts of no dome or marble. The cramped courtyard gets its homely character from a giant neem tree and a Mughal-era well. The dargah is flanked by Imran’s chai (tea) shack, the Sonic CD store, Raza Bookshop, the Qutubkhana Sarmadi stall that sells pamphlets, perfumes and amulets, the one-room office of Al Makkah Tours & Travels, and Rahat Open Surgery, an open-air clinic where a hakeem claims to cure diseases like cancer and diabetes by bloodletting. ”
“A sufi would not walk around naked. Don’t talk lies!” is one. Perhaps we are seeing the past through the eyes of modern, in some cases Fundamentalist Islam. Of course many a New Age Mystic has yet to see India, or if they do they may have not ventured far from a tour.
Or perhaps should we view Sarmad more cynically, like his descendant Pir Syed Mohommad Sarmadi.
“A hugely fat Sufi with a mountainous turban, an Elephantine girth and a great ruff of double chins”listed by historian William Dalrymple to be like those “Sufi” villagers who offer “spiritual surgeries” with little grasp of cures or Sufism. Sitting cross legged below Arabic calligraphy, this modern Sarmadi “will wave his peacock feather fan and blow over the petitioner, recite a bit of Quran, write out a charm or a sacred number, and place it in an amulet.” taking about two minutes and taking two minutes. There is a queue from ten to five PM (City of Djinns-A year in Delhi: p283, 284).
Or is there a deeper message?
To the believer, Sarmad is an example of humbly bowing ones head to his head to both mosque or temple. Of burning with a love of the divine that.
Syeda Hameed in Faith and Tolerance quotes Sarmad:
‘A true lover of God is misled both by religion and lack there of.’
The moth burns itself
it does not choose between burning candles
whether it is in the mosque or the temple.
The idea of true religion means not distinguishing between a mosque or a temple, a church or a gurudwara. If you are a moth, then your end is fanna and if this is the understanding, then Faith and Tolerance just as easily becomes our creed.”
Nathan Katz study attempts to understand the Sufi mentioning mentioning Aldrous Huxley there is one extra-linguistic (“ineffable”) experience metaphysical/experiential essence which is subsequently interpreted according to the doctrines of the world’s various religions. Or as Agehananda Bharati, explained all religions are reducible to a “numerical oneness”, expressed by non-dualist thought of Advaita Hinduism, that is expressed in monotheism such has the Jewish and Islamic creed that God is one.
“And somewhere in the midst of this debate we encounter Sarmad, who wandered from synagogue to masjid to ashram, claimed by each group as one of their own, and claimed by modem followers of certain mystical traditions to have transcended all such categorization. ” (Nathan Katz).
Perhaps Sarmad made love with life. God is the only God, there is no one between you and God. There is no mediator, God is immediately available. Just all that is needed is a little madness and a lot of meditation.
Was his love for Abhay Chand a manifestation of God that is around and through all things? Was he saying God is in us, and in a lover?Kabbalist’s, Christian mystics and Sufis express the love of God, Jesus or Allah as intense passionate love or intoxication. (While this does not mean they all broke traditional morals).
But like a moth to a flame, he seems to have rushed himself to execution.
“Who is the lover, beloved, idol and idol-maker but You?
Who is the beloved of the Kaaba, the temple and the mosque?
Come to the garden and see the unity in the array of colours.
In all of this, who is the lover, the beloved, the flower and the thorn?”
I can here my Christian parents describing him a religious oddball, that’s India for you!
Introduction to Rubaiyat-i-Sarmad, Lahore, Marghoob Agency, 1920, pp. iv-v, quoted by Rai, Sarmad, His Life and Rubais, p. 25
The Identity of a Mystic: The Case of Sa’id Sarmad, a Jewish-Yogi-Sufi Courtier of the Mughals, Nathan Katz, Numen, Vol. 47, Fasc. 2 (2000), pp. 142-160
Agehananda Bharati, The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of ModernMysticism, Santa Barbara, CA, Ross-Erikson, 1972
B.A. Hashimi, “Sarmad, His Life and Quatrains,” Islamic Culture (1933): 663-672, p. 666
David Shea and AnthonyTroyer, The Dabistan or School of Manners, 3 vols., Paris, Oriental Translation Fund,1843
Ezekiel, Isaac, A., Sarmad (Jewish Saint of India), 4th ed. Punjab, India : Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 1988
Vincent A. Smith, 1966, Akbar, the Great Mogul, New Delhi, S. Chand & Co.
Dalrymple,W., 2004, City of Djinns-A year in Delhi, Penguin Books, India (originally 1993, Harper Collins, London).