Aum Shinrikyo

Doctrines The doctrines of Aum Shinrikyo shifted considerably during the lifetime of the movement. Initially, the founder Ashara taught an inner-directed form of Indian-style kundalini yoga with the promise of achieving gedatsu or spiritual liberation. In order to encourage followers to devote themselves to recruitment, the movement then developed a theory that the world was in imminent danger if people did not turn to Aum in sufficient numbers to avert disaster. Subsequently, the view developed that a cataclysm was inevitable, and only Aum members would be saved. By this time the group was shunning contacts with the outside world.

History The founder of Aum Shinrikyo, Asahara Shoko became interested in religion in the late 1970's while he was practising as an acupuncturist. He learned fortune-telling and Chinese medicine and joined Agonshu, practising a thousand-day consciousness-changing ritual. He developed a strong interest in Kundalini yoga and psychic powers. Leaving Agonshu in 1984, Asahara opened a Yoga centre in Tokyo which was renamed Aum Shinrikyo two years later. In 1985 began to claim supernatural powers such as levitation and claimed that the god Shiva had appeared to him and appointed him as a divine leader. On a visit to India he met and was apparently encouraged by the Dalai Lama. Subsequently personal initiation by Asahara became an important element in the ascetic quest for inner enlightenment (gedatsu) and social transformation pursued by Aum followers.
Suspicion about the sect's integrity were raised when in November 1989 a lawyer working on a case against Aum disappeared (it later transpired that he had been murdered). In the 1990's the emphasis changed to salvation of others. Twenty five Aum candidates stood unsuccessfully for election to parliament and an apocalyptic vision became dominant. Forced kidnapping of reluctant members began and by 1994 Asahara had acquired near-absolute power as a guru, the sect had virtually severed communication with the outside world and members were preparing for 'Armageddon', stockpiling poisonous chemicals. In March 1995 a poison gas attack on the subway in central Tokyo claimed the lives of 11 people. Asahara and a number of members were arrested and the sect was proscribed.

Symbols Aum Shinrikyo during its formative phase deployed an array of exotic (for Japan) symbolic forms mostly of Indian provenance, designed to emphasise Asahara's guru status. These included elephant-head (Ganesh) masks worn by devotees. Devotees also sometimes wore replicas of the head of Asahara himself. Indian-style clothing, long hair, beards etc. were reminiscent of the garb of Indian renunciants. Some believers wore a ceramic 'purusha box' and technical-looking 'astral teleporter'. On the other hand, catchy musical tunes and choreographed dance steps which owed more to modern cartoon culture than to Indian tradition were used in the group's publicity and recruitment activities.

Adherents Following the disbandment of the group, there are no records of adherents. In 1995 Aum Shinrikyo had claimed about 10,000 followers in Japan, of whom over 1100 were living a world-renouncing communal lifestyle. The sect also claimed a membership of several thousand in Russia, most of these recently recruited. (Source: Shimazono 'In the Wake of Aum' Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 22.3/4 (1995).)

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