Aum Shinrikyo's attack on the Tokyo Subway System was not an isolated event. It was part of a series of violent and otherwise criminal activities by the cult.
The Japanese new religion known as Aum Shinrikyo stands in contrast to Jonestown and the Branch Davidians, because Aum devotees detained, coerced, tortured, and killed people, and pursued the development of weapons of mass destruction in a national context in which the activities of religious organizations were not scrutinized by law enforcement agents. Aum's guru, Shoko Asahara, and his devotees saw themselves as belonging to a persecuted religious organization, but the activities of their cultural opponents were miniscule compared to the violence perpetrated by Aum devotees. Aum leaders were anxious to block investigation of Aum Shinrikyo because of crimes that members had committed before serious cultural opposition had developed. In terms of financial resources and violence against members and outsiders, Aum Shinrikyo makes Jim Jones's Jonestown and David Koresh's Mount Carmel Center appear small-scale.
Aum Shinrikyo leaders and members were preparing to commit revolutionary violence, but the violent acts committed by Aum members were motivated by the fragility of their millennial group. The combination of a lack of monitoring by law enforcement agents, internal weaknesses within Aum, and Aum members' sense of being in conflict with external opponents prompted a group of Aum devotees to coerce and/or murder people to protect their ultimate concern, the creation of the Buddhist millennial kingdom, Shambhala. As at Jonestown, high-level Aum devotees became bonded by their shared participation in rituals of violence, which prepared some of them to commit ever-escalating acts of violence. The dualistic millennial theology taught by Asahara provided a justification for committing murder.
The name of this Japanese new religion includes the Hindu and Buddhist sacred syllable "Om" (pronounced "aum"). Shinrikyo can be translated as "teaching of the supreme truth." Asahara taught that "Aum" in Sanskrit referred to the creation, preservation, and destruction of the universe. Therefore, Aum Shinrikyo was an organization that taught the truth about creation and destruction. 3 This was no ordinary truth; it was the supreme truth for which devotees were asked to kill or die.
On Monday, March 20,1995, at 7:45 A.M., five members of Aum Shinrikyo boarded five subway trains at different stations in Tokyo. Each of the trains was scheduled to converge at 8:15 A.M. at the Kasumigaseki station located near the headquarters of the National Police Agency and other government buildings. At 8:00 A.M., these devotees deposited plastic bags containing sarin 4 on the floor, punctured the bags with sharpened umbrella tips, and immediately disembarked. People began coughing, choking, and vomiting, and those closest to the sarin collapsed. The fumes of the deadly nerve gas injured over 5,000 Tokyo commuters, and twelve people died. 5 The Aum members who released sarin gas on the Tokyo subway were a cardiovascular surgeon, Dr. Ikuo Hayashi (48), a former graduate student in particle physics, Toru Toyoda (27), a specialist in applied physics, Masato Yokoyama (31), another applied physicist, Kenichi Hirose (30), and an electronics engineer, Yasuo Hayashi (37). They were all members of Aum's Science and Technology Ministry. 6
This was not the first instance of murder committed by Aum Shinrikyo members, nor was it the last. The March 20, 1995, gas attack on the Tokyo subway was merely the most dramatic and large-scale act of violence committed by Aum devotees. It had been preceded by an attempt to release botulinus bacteria at Kasumigaseki station five days prior to the sarin gas attack. That effort failed because equipment placed in a briefcase did not work. 7
Subsequently, Aum Shinrikyo devotees confessed to a variety of violent crimes, and evidence of murders was discovered.
No truth was more central to Aum than the principle that world salvation could be achieved only by bringing about the deaths of just about everyone on this earth. Disciples described their embrace of this vision and their understanding of its evolutions from Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian doctrine, but they always assumed that the world-ending violence would be initiated by others, not by the cult itself.
Yet Asahara's idiosyncratic version of these traditions came to focus on the Buddhust concept of poa, which, in his distorted use, meant killing for the sake of your victims: that is, to provide them with a favorable rebirth. One can speak, then, of a weapon-hungry cult with a doctrine of altruistic murder - murder ostensibly intended to enhance a victim's immortality. The doctrine sanctified not only violence against the world at large but the killing of numerous individuals who ran afoul of the guru's aspirations.
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