(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

On March 20, 1995, members of a Japanese religious cult called Aum Shinrikyo released deadly sarin gas at five Tokyo subway stops. Eleven commuters died in the attack and up to five thousand were injured, some becoming chronically ill. The killers acted at the direction of the cult’s leader and guru, Asahara Shoko, in the belief that they were initiating a chain of events that would lead to “Armageddon,” a final, world-destroying battle, after which Aum Shinrikyo would rule what was left of humanity on a regenerated, purified planet. Weeks later, the cult planted bags of cyanide in a crowded subway station, and only the alert action of attendants averted tens of thousands of deaths. Nor were these the cult’s first murderous assaults.

The world has witnessed the work of insane cults before, and the idea of Apocalypse—a cosmic event in which the Deity strikes down evildoers and raises up the righteous to rule a messianic kingdom—is more than two thousand years old. What makes Aum Shinrikyo unique and worthy of attention is that it combined violent religious fantasies with actual weapons of mass destruction. It crossed the line between paranoid religious fantasy and mass murder when it committed terrorism with these weapons to transform Asahara’s apocalyptic vision into reality. These events alone should cause the world to take notice.

In Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism, Robert Jay Lifton has written a brilliantly informed, urgently compelling, and, ultimately, deeply disturbing work. Based on prodigious learning and in-depth interviews with former cult members as well as conversations with current members, the book attempts to unravel the inner psychology of the cult and its guru, who was on trial for his life as it was written. To make sense of his subject, Lifton calls upon a lifetime of scholarship on psychic manipulation, political extremism, the psychic trauma of nuclear war, postwar Japanese culture, and allied subjects that fills his sixteen previous books. Not incidentally, early Lifton studies included a seminal 1950’s work on Chinese “thought reform” (“brainwashing”) and “the psychology of totalism.”

The story of the cult begins with the background of its creator and leader, born Chizuo Matsumoto, later calling himself Asahara Shoko. Asahara was born almost sightless, and he distinguished himself at a school for the blind by manipulating and bullying his classmates. In his twenties he combined fantasies of power with revolutionary ideology, often with overtones of “healing.” He also found himself in scrapes with the law, which included charges of assault and sale of fraudulent medicines. In his mid-twenties he joined one of Japan’s many “new religions,” where he found a powerful model guru as well as an eclectic agglomeration of philosophic nostrums, borrowings from Buddhism and Hinduism, yoga, and self-purification that—with smatterings of Christianity—he would later weave into a uniquely exhilarating toxicity. Included as well were elements of the American “New Age” movement and a pinch of millenarianism derived from the writings of the sixteenth century prophet Nostradamus.

In 1984, Asahara founded “Aum Shinsen no Kai.” Aum is a Sanskrit word depicting universal primal powers of creation and destruction; the remainder of the phrase, Lifton relates, carries “a strong suggestion of esoteric supernatural power.” In 1987, the year after claiming to have had a “final enlightenment,” Asahara changed the name to Aum Shinrikyo. In its 1995 form, Aum was composed of a strictly hierarchical arrangement consisting of a ruling guru and a descending structure of followers. Of ten thousand Japanese members, fourteen hundred were “renunciants” living as monks, renouncing the world. The authority of the guru over the thought and action of followers, especially renunciants, was absolute. Those attempting to leave the cult were subjected to extreme pressures, and perhaps murdered if believed dangerous to the cult’s interests. Relatives seeking to extract kin from the cult also risked their lives.

The psychic condition of the members was one of total dependence on the guru. All “truth” emanated from him alone. Lifton emphasizes that members were expected to drain their individual personalities and wills to become the guru’s “clones.” The bulk of the membership was kept ignorant of the guru’s intentions, while a trusted inner circle went about setting the stage for carrying out Asahara’s paranoid criminality.

The cult was by no means composed exclusively of the young and barely literate. A number joined in their late thirties and forties, some quite well educated, including chemists, engineers, and a heart surgeon. Many members, however, were youthful dropouts from the ceaseless striving and extreme pressures of Japanese society, now on a quest for spiritual self-realization.

The group dynamic of the cult was such that in time it embarked on a violent course. At the center of Asahara’s doctrines that led to violence was a corrupted idea of the Buddhist doctrine of poa, which, in essence, means “punishment” (here it meant “killing”) as a means of aiding the victim. Asahara claimed that, through killing, victims would be rid of the bad “karma” (negative consequences of...

(The entire section is 2200 words.)