Daily Archives: 3 May 2005

Evolution of a Fantasy-based Save-the-world Community

Aum is an extreme example of a religious movement that, operating from a position of righteousness, set out on a grand mission that reflected the ambitions and visions of its leader and that was affirmed and strengthened by the beliefs, actions and commitment of its followers. That mission, although it also began with a promise of universal salvation, had an innately polarising dimension in its conceptualisation of a sacred war between good and evil. In its rejection of the external realities and the materialist orientations of the everyday world Aum rapidly set itself apart, creating a spiritual hierarchy that claimed superiority over the world at large. Due to the continuing failures of its mission–or rather, in Aum’s terms, the refusal of the world to listen–its alienation from society increased, and as it did so, it constructed an alternative and self-directed view of morality. Its doctrines developed accordingly, sanctifying acts that were committed in order to protect the position and authority of its leader and to safeguard what it saw as its mission of truth. As it followed this path, Aum lost its grasp of external reality and turned inwards into a self-constructed world in which all who remained outside the movement were unworthy while those inside were transformed into sacred warriors who believed that they could kill with impunity and that in so doing, they could save in the spiritual sense those they killed.

The tragedy of Aum Shinrikyo is not just that its symbolic fight against evil and for world salvation was transformed into a real and brutal fight which resulted in indiscriminate murder, but that in claiming to operate on exalted spiritual ground beyond the boundaries of normal morality, it severed all links with the spiritual status to which it aspired. Asahara started with messages that resonated with the needs of many Japanese people and expressed ideas that have been at the heart of religions through the ages, such as the imbalances and problems of societies based on materialism and concepts of progress that fail to give due consideration to spiritual explanations and needs, and the affirmation of spiritual techniques and practices that can lead to happiness and liberation.

The tragedy and irony, of course, is that, in seeking to implement such messages, Asahara Shoko and his disciples–the buddhas and bodhisattvas with the mission to create a Buddhist new age of Lotus villages and a Shambala kingdom–betrayed every one of their ideals, killing not only those outside the movement who symbolised the corruption against which they fought, but their own devotees. In setting out with a mission to save the world from disaster, Aum ended up by killing the very people, such as Ochi Naoki [who died hanging upside down during religious training and was then incinerated], it needed in order to carry out its mission. The process through which it reached this position was centred around religious themes, doctrines and images, and was linked closely to its self-image as a religious movement with a sacred mission. As such Aum Shinrikyo provides us with a salient example of the violence-producing dimensions of religion and reminds us of how religious movements can, through a confluence of circumstances, engender, legitimate and commit acts of violence in the name of their faith.

SOURCE: Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo, by Ian Reader (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2000), pp. 248-249

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