o Aum Shinri Kyo
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Aum Shinri Kyo [compiled by Grant Balfour]

Aum Shinri Kyo, or "Supreme Truth of Aum (the Hindu sacred syllable)", is an extremist religious sect founded by Shoko Asahara, a bearded, charismatic man who took elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and fundamentalist Christianity and merged them into a kind of End Times yoga regime.

Born partially blind under the name Chizuo Matsumoto, he started his career as an acupuncturist and herbalist, but ran afoul of the government for selling a controversial herbal mixture known as the "Almighty Medicine." Two years later, he and his wife began teaching yoga classes under the title "Aum Association of Mountain Wizards."

Then, Matsumoto traveled to the Himalayas where, he told his pupils, he had become the only Japanese person to have achieved enlightenment. He was able to read minds, heal illness, send his awareness across great distances and telepathically share personal power with his followers. He changed his name to Shoko Asahara, and the group's name to Aum Shinri Kyo. Clad in vibrant pink robes, Asahara began preaching about the coming apocalypse... and how to survive using meditative breathing techniques and personal austerity.

Among the teachings: Shiva, Hindu god of destruction and enlightenment, was gaining ascendancy. Asahara himself was the Second Coming of Christ as written in the Book of Revelation. He had traveled in time to the year 2006 and personally seen the aftermath of World War III. From 1996 to 2000, Japan would be targeted by a set of atomic bombings and natural disasters - as predicted by French seer Nostradamus. Only one in 10 would be left alive. The world was filled with corrupt governments and soulless materialists. These were the enemies of enlightenment - powerful enemies who would destroy the true believers unless the faithful took strong action. The group established factories for stockpiling various chemicals as preparation for the End Times.

Aum Shinri Kyo reached a peak membership of 20,000 worldwide, some of whom are still active on the web. Many were drawn to the group because they hoped they would develop supernatural mental powers; others simply joined to reject the corruption and consumerism of modern Japan.

In 1989, the sect was recognized as an official religion. Followers were strictly organized according to rank and lived under extreme conditions. Many of the arbitrary rules of behavior were explained as being part of an ancient spiritual tradition. Lower ranking members reportedly ate little food and drank only Asahara's bathwater. Vials of the leader's semen were allegedly sold for consumption for $10,000 each.

By November of that year, group members had kidnapped and murdered an anti-cult lawyer, Tsutsumi Sakamoto, along with his wife and baby son. According to a New York Times investigation, the group then attempted biological attacks on nine different installations, including the Legislature, the Imperial Palace, the U.S. base at Yokosuka. Members sprayed potentially lethal microbes from rooftops and convoys of trucks. The attacks resulted in no known deaths, probably because their germ stocks were not as virulent as they believed. In June of 1994, members changed tactics, releasing home-made nerve gas into a crowd. The attack injured 200 and killed seven - a horrible scene by most standards, but hardly the Armageddon counterstrike they were aiming for. By the next spring, sect members refined their technique.

In March, members brought specially sealed bags of sarin onto the Tokyo subway. When the deadly contents were released, 11 died and 5,000 were hospitalized.

In April, the Yokohama commuter railway was gassed, injuring 400.

On July 4, police intercepted a cyanide gas attack they believe could have killed 5,000. The next day, containers of a noxious liquid were found in railway stations near the heart of Tokyo's busiest shopping district. At least three people were overwhelmed by fumes.

The police cracked down on the cult, arresting thousands. Over 100 members still await trial. In 1997, the Japanese government tried to abolish the group altogether, but failed to prove it was still a public threat, numbering only 1,000 to 5,000 members worldwide.

For the murder of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family, founding member Kazuaki Okazaki was sentenced to death. Another member given a life sentence (for cooperating with authorities), and five others were found guilty of conspiracy. Okazaki was also found guilty of killing another cult member.

Shoko Asahara was sentenced to life imprisonment. His third daughter, Rika Matsumoto, considered holy for being born after his Himalayan enlightenment, now runs Aum Shinri Kyo. They currently have 26 facilities in Japan.