Aum Shinrikyo was founded on the basis of meditation and spiritual guidance but before long was a group determined to jump-start the apocalypse.
World-changing events and movements can often have unexpected origins. Hitler’s anti-Semitism started after he was rejected from art school. Alexander the Great rose to power thanks to his politically savvy mother who killed his potential rivals when he was a child. And Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday Japanese cult, began as a simple yoga class in 1984.
A mere 11 years after Aum Shinrikyo’s founding, it carried out a devastating sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway.
Aum Shinkrikyo, which means “Supreme Truth,” is the work of one charismatic man named Shoko Asahara, whose birth name is Chizuo Matsumoto. He calls himself The “ultimate savior,” and his philosophies blend Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian teachings with the prophecies of Nostradamus.
What started as a yoga training school turned much more sinister, possibly because of Asahara’s background. He grew up in a poor family of tatami mat makers, and went blind in one eye as an infant. He graduated from a school for the blind in 1977, and turned to selling herbal remedies as a way to make money. In 1981, he was found guilty of practicing pharmacology without a license.
This is where Asahara turned weird.
He combined his love of drugs with that of meditation and ancient religious philosophy. Asahara wrote books, and people read them and became intrigued with this mixed philosophies. In 1987, Asahara founded Aum Shinrikyo, which, in 1989, became a recognized religious organization in Japan.
Among its tenets were that young people should shun parents because parents are part of the present life and not the future. This led to the brainwashing of many followers, including well-educated academics, doctors, PhDs and college students. Followers were taught that parents were evil, and members developed strong bonds with each other by tapping into the anti-parent rhetoric.
By the early 1990s, Aum Shinrikyo had around 10,000 members in Japan and several thousand around the world, including Russia. The group appealed to disenchanted people who needed a place to belong, much like a gang.
Asahara promulgated several philosophies about the apocalypse and how his group could bring it about by any means necessary. Asahara believed that only his group would survive the forthcoming apocalypse. The cult tried to gain a foothold in Japanese politics to try to take over the government, but it failed after several elections.
At this point, Japanese authorities branded Aum Shinrikyo a cult organization. The group amassed weapons from Russia and ran an illegal narcotics trade to earn money beyond its donations from members. Aum Shinrikyo made so much money, it built its own plant. The group said it was a printing plant, but in reality the facility produced the Nazi-era nerve gas known as sarin.
On March 20, 1995, five members of the group boarded a subway train Tokyo. They each carried a vial of deadly sarin gas, a nerve agent that can kill instantly. The cult members punctured each vial with the tips of their umbrellas and walked off the train. Inside the subway, 12 people died and 5,500 were injured. Many of the injured still deal with the after-effects to this day.
On June 27, 1995, more members released sarin gas at the apartment complex where the judge handling the case lived. Eight people died in that attack. During the trial, authorities accused Aum Shinrikyo of masterminding dozens of other murders.
Following the nerve gas attacks, authorities arrested Asahara. A judge handed down a death sentence, but after several appeals and legal maneuvers, Asahara remains alive. He remained confined to a wheelchair and supposedly can only speak in incoherent sentences. In short, Asahara’s going nowhere.
Most of his followers quickly distanced themselves from Aum Shinrikyo following the deadly nerve gas attack. Authorities arrested another 13 members, all of whom had death sentences for their connections to the attack. One member spent 17 years on the run before his capture.
Former members came out and wrote books about life inside the cult. Aum Shinrikyo dealt with disobedience harshly, including torture of victims. The cult also resorted to kidnapping to influence its members. Anyone who tried to leave the group faced torture or death, and the cult disposed of bodies in a way that left no evidence.
Over time, the group’s membership waned after lots of infighting. In 2000, the group renamed itself Aleph. Members of Aleph splintered from that group and formed Hikari no Wa, or “Ring of Light” in 2006 because they felt Aleph didn’t distance itself enough from Asahara’s ways.
Somehow, Aleph and Hikari no Wa still have members today. Most of them are in eastern Europe and Russia, where Aum Shinrikyo’s former followers joined the new groups.