Aum Shinrikyo : From Yoga to Weapons of Mass Destruction
“In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is a king” goes a saying. The word ‘blind’ used here might be figurative, indicating the unreasonable nature of the masses led by half-baked individual, installing himself as chosen leader. Shoko Asahara’s rise, atrocities and fall might affirm the metaphorical quote. It could also be taken on a literal level, since Asahara as a weak-sighted kid –then known by birth name ‘Chizuo Matsumoto’ — said to have considered himself a king, when he helped his visually impaired buddies to get to the restaurants from the school campus. It doesn’t mean that Matsumoto was a popular kid. For helping out, the visually impaired kids would pay him in meals and even then there would always be threats.
Chizuo Matsumoto was born to a poor weaver in 1955. When his weak-sight made him a manipulative guru in the school, he aspired to be a leader, starting from elementary, junior high and senior high class. Alas, he was totally rejected. More failures and rejection awaited in his life. His attempt to pass entry level exams for Tokyo University didn’t come to fruition. He got married in 1978 and had a pretty large family – six kids. Matsumoto embarked on a business venture, aiming to provide quick health remedies (acupuncture and massage clinic), like a charlatan. Soon, he was caught by police on a felony case for various fraudulent activities. The news went all over the papers and his business went bust.
Matsumoto, after passing thirty years of age, in 1985, started a yoga class in a single room apartment. By the time, he has changed his name to Shoko Asahara. Subsequently a religious organization called ‘Aum Shinrikyo’ was formed. Ten years later, at the age of 40, Asahara drove on a Rolls-Royce (a decade back he only had a bicycle), owned a multinational cult, tens of millions of dollar Business Empire. Religious sects amassing an immense wealth may seem a very casual thing, in this contemporary society. However, Asahara’sAum Shinrikyo didn’t just want to earn things; it simply wanted to fulfill the guru’s apocalyptic visions. As a result, the sect bought stockpiles of chemical weapons that are enough to wage a World War. When the enlightenment guru’s atrocities came to light by the mid 1990’s, a Japanese newspaper reported that Aum Shinrikyo collected dangerous chemicals to produce never gas that may have killed or injured between 4 and 10 million people (although Asahara has vehemently denied the intention to kill millions of people).
With that long beard, angelic smile and surprising pink robes, Asahara might seem like a misunderstood mad man, who chose to wreak havoc on Japanese society. But, he and his organization are far more complex than the alleged one-dimensional portrait. Asahara attracted intelligent, young university graduates, bureaucrats, scientists and many other prominent members of the establishment to help him in his mission, whether it was spreading his word or synthesizing chemicals to conduct ‘Sarin’ attacks.
Prior to starting his own religion, Asahara was a member of ‘Agonshu’, a new Japanese religion, from which he derived many of the elements and teachings to form Aum Shinrikyo. During 1985, Matsumoto claimed that he achieved ‘total enlightenment’ while meditating in Himalayas (traveled to India and Nepal). The ‘Shoko’ in his new name means ‘bright light’ to indicate the gift of divine enlightenment, offered by Hindu God Siva (hence the usage of Sanskrit word ‘Aum’). Then he is said to have had such series of divine visitations, which asked him to help others attain enlightenment. Nevertheless, Asahara also had a series of apocalyptic visions, which eventually convinced him to lead God’s army against malignant powers (including US).
While recruiting members for his cult, Asahara mostly concentrated on positive aspects (such as enlightenment) that would show them the key to happiness. “Japan might have the political structure of a democratic nation, but at the same time it was a fiercely carnivorous society in which the weak were devoured by the strong, and unless you become one of the elite, there’s no point in living in this country. You’d be just ground to dust” says a character in the novel of (Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) Japan’s visionary writer Haruki Murakami. Such was the nether side of Japanese society, where depression & suicide rate surged along with country’s GDP growth. Many new members who joined ‘Aum’ felt that they could attain answers for their mechanized existence and also were convinced that the answers could only be provided nowhere else.
As Asahara had reached the status of ‘Sonshi’ – highest level of enlightenment – he is whole-heartedly taken as spiritual authority. Cleverly, Asahara and his inner core members of ‘Aum’ divided followers into two categories: true believers and lay members. The lay members were gathered through leaflets, proselytizing in the streets and various other simple means. The initial classes were mostly about yoga, meditation and herbal healing, which easily enamored the new recruits. Psychedelic, mind-altering drugs plus different ways of brainwashing techniques were employed for later stages recruitment, but those weren’t necessary for all lay members. The young and naive composed of the lay members, who felt Asahara’s set of rules for spiritual growth posed no threat to society. There would be slightly interested ones among the groups and some fanatics. The fanatical lay members are then asked to move into the compounds of cult group, after renouncing all ties with the outside world (most importantly, communication with family).
As Aum’s commune became home to 1,200 to 1,400 people by 1989, the organization received its recognition from government as tax-exempt religious body. In the same year, parents of the young members, who decided to stay within Aum’s campus, complained that their sons & daughters are kidnapped, physically and psychologically tortured. It was also the year when lawyer Sakamoto was kidnapped along with his wife and one year old son were kidnapped. Mr. Sakamoto represented Anti-Aum groups and it was immediately alleged that members of Aum committed the act (only after the fateful Tokyo attack in 1995, Sakamoto and his families’ remains were found). Within the ‘Aum’ compounds, the committed lay members, in order to obtain ‘spiritual cleansing’, subjected to various forms of torture and also provided unskilled labor to keep the cult working, with no expense. These members also provided the unquestionable physical labor for production of dangerous chemicals.
The mix with which Asahara compiled doctrines and religious beliefs of Aum Shinrikyo are as complex as the workings of the organization. There are aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, elements of Hindu cosmology, Shinto and also Christian millennialism. His teachings often talked about spiritually desolate, highly materialistic, stress-producing society, which easily got the attention of young upper-middle class people. There’s heavy emphasis on the role of guru and renouncing ways of the world. But, apart from the belief in higher consciousness attainment, ‘Aum’ also included the Christian apocalyptic thinking. The chief of the apocalyptic images that formed Asahara’s destructive ideology was discussion of the apocalypse in the Revelation of St. John. It was basis for Asahara’s proclaim for imminent final war between good and evil powers. Asahara was attracted by science fiction writings, especially that of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The Foundation series tells of a future scientist protagonist’s efforts to save humanity from wars by forming secret elite group to rebuild civilization from the scratch. Part of the sect’s apocalyptic predictions, fantastic notions about Asahara traveling through fourth dimension were directly derived from Asimov’s imagination.
This apocalyptic vision was transformed into panic by ‘Aum’ in 1990. The number of insane predictions increased day by day, and like many of the doomsday predictors of that period, Asahara enunciated the end of the world at the start of 21st century. Gradually, ‘higher consciousness’ was pushed back to promote ‘imminent apocalypse war’ as the chief agenda. It also marked the beginning of the path of violence for ‘Aum’. Asahara became increasingly paranoid at this stage, seeing people and institutions everywhere, trying to derail ‘Aum’. He openly asked his followers to kill people who threatened their movement. Of course, whatever your religion is about, one can’t straightforwardly justify killing. Hence, Asahara preached or included a new directive. He said that those opposing him are of people with excessive bad karma, and killing them would only be an act of love; it is a simple way to transform the miserable life of a non-believer.
Later, a select enforcement unit was formed, known as Asahara’s action squad, which worked full-time to kidnap, torture or mysteriously murder ‘Aum’s’ detractors, whistle-blowers and critics. All these things didn’t come to light until the Tokyo attack in 1995, although there were media reports about the organization’s bizarre behavior. All the violence and teachings about apocalypse culminated on the fateful day of 20th March, 1995. On that day, members of ‘Aum’ carried six packages into Tokyo subway stations and used umbrella tips to puncture the little packages to release deadly Sarin gas, killing 12 people and harming at least 5,500 people. It was a very shocking accident. Not just because it was a one of the biggest terrorist organizations attack, but due to terrorist-cum-religious sects’ capability to mount a chemical attack on a very urban atmosphere. And, more shocking was how the Japanese government and authorities ignored US warnings about ‘Aum’ acquiring large number of chemicals from the nuclear arsenals of crumbled Soviet Russia. Even when the news of release of lethal chemical agents reached the authorities, ‘Aum’ group was not at all suspected.
At the time of Tokyo sub-way attack, the group claimed to have 9,000 members in Japan and 40,000 in other nations including Australia, Russia, Ukraine, Sri Lanka, Germany, Taiwan, and the US. Apart from fraud and extortion, for which the taxes were exempted, Aum had thirteen different businesses and five stores. Their specialty is selling computers. After the attacks, in 1997 the computer sales alone brought the organization 57.5 million dollars. In 1995, the group’s assets were estimated somewhere between 300 million and 1 billion dollars. All these assets played a vital role in recruiting scientists, who were given a chance to accumulate all kinds of biological, chemical weapons, in the name of saving humanity. When the suspicion on ‘Aum’s’ activities increased after Sarin attack in 1995, the organization was eventually raided and what the authorities found there would put big-budget Hollywood action movies to shame. There were state-of-the art lasers, military hardware, weaponry, high-tech laboratory. Evidence of twisted medical experiments was discovered, like that of conducted by Nazi’s in the concentration camps. Further evidence indicated how the members of group traveled to African nations to gather sample of Ebola virus, for using it a biological weapon (Asahara was arrested in 1995, sentenced to death in 2004, and still awaiting execution).
Despite all the evidences, detailed investigations, interview with many former members, and court trials, the one question that haunts Japanese society or all of mankind is: Why was this done? Is it just because of paranoid Asahara’s blind followers, seriously taking up his apocalyptic visions? May be not.As many of ‘Aum’s’ critics point out, Asahara’s apocalyptic teachings were triggered, after his unsuccessful attempt to compete in Japan’s parliamentary elections, in 1990. He spent millions of dollars in the election campaign, only to receive a token number of votes. It was then Asahara ratcheted up his plans to bring real apocalypse on the people. Works of Nikolai Tesla were scrutinized in Serbia, in a desire to develop earthquake generating machine. Great number of plots was brought in Australia to make use of the uranium found there to build nuclear weapons. Science fiction also played an equal role in Aum’s weapons design, as they look to invent a futuristic plasma gun that’s thought to immediately incinerate human body.
‘How was this made possible?’ was a question that provokes troubling thoughts about governments’ behavior towards so-called religious organizations, so as to give tax exemption and deadening the complaints or suspicions. Following the discovery of abominable acts of ‘Aum’, new laws were passed, mainly to increase surveillance on the organizations members. It was popularly referred as ‘Aum Counter-Policy Laws’. However, these laws were considered problematic by many eminent Japanese citizens, since it only concentrates on the violation of freedom by religion rather than finding means or at least the acknowledge the need for social rehabilitation.
“Aum Shinrikyo” could be easily ignored as some strange Japanese phenomenon, with all its stringent work places, absentee fathers, alienated youth, etc. But, it couldn’t be claimed that it is only possible in Japan. Ineffective bureaucrats, ability to gain dangerous chemicals, botching up police authorities, third-rate theologians and blind religious followers aren’t only circumscribed to Japanese land. In fact, the unearthing of ‘Aum’ marked the era of modern terror, where the fanatical independent group had all the power to create deadliest weapons possible.