The recent conviction and death sentence meted out to Japanese cult guru, Shoko Asahara, adds yet more proof to the thesis that no religion is immune to violent interpretation, no matter how pacifist its core teachings may be.
Asahara masterminded the deadly 1995 nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway. That attack sent Japan into nationwide panic as sickened, bleeding passengers stumbled from subway stations, shattering the postwar image of a modern and largely crime-free country.
Asahara, who showed little intellectual or mystical promise in his youth, had spent some time in Tibet exploring a variety of religious traditions, which he later developed into the Aum cult — a syncretistic and sometimes confusing blend of elements found chiefly in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, which are among the most pacifist mainstream faiths. At its height, the Aum movement claimed some 10,000 followers in Japan and as many as 30,000 in Russia.
The subway gassing was Aum’s most horrific crime. As a pre-emptive strike against police, who were planning raids on the cult, five Aum members pierced bags of sarin on separate trains, as they converged toward Tokyo’s central government district.
The fact that a cult, which claimed its origins among several of the world’s most respected faiths, turned so violent that its leaders endorsed the senseless killing and injuring of hundreds of innocent people, points to a frightening and increasingly prevalent reality: any religion can be subverted.
Mahatma (also called Mohandas) Gandhi’s passive resistance movement for social justice earned Hinduism global respect as a religion advocating non-violence. But in his book, Roots of Terrorism, Professor Kanti Bajpai of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, points out that despite Gandhi’s influence, India has not escaped religious and political violence in its 50 years as an independent nation.
Not only Mahatma Gandhi, but also prime ministers Indira Gandhi (not related) and her son Rajiv — all Hindus — were assassinated by other Hindus, adding to history’s grim record of factional and sectarian violence by followers of the same predominantly pacifist faith. Similarly, the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 by Hindu fanatics has done nothing for Hinduism’s traditional pacifist reputation toward other faiths.
During inter-religious violence in Gujurat during 2002, an estimated 2,000 Indian Muslims died and according to Indian writer Arundhati Roy, the resulting riots were part of "a deliberate, systematic attempt to destroy the economic base of the Muslim community. The leaders of the mob had computer-generated … lists marking out Muslim homes, shops, businesses and even partnerships. They had mobile phones to coordinate the action. They had trucks loaded with thousands of gas cylinders, hoarded weeks in advance, which they used to blow up Muslim commercial establishments."
So much for a religion that still wants to be known for advancing Ghandian non-violence.
Christianity, which has always taught "love your neighbor," "bless those who curse you," and "turn the other cheek," has also spawned terrible wars and suffering — history will never forget the Crusades and the Inquisition — inflicted in the name of God.
Sikhism likewise originated as a peaceful religion, but when it came into conflict with Mogul and Hindu states, Guru Gobind Singh established the quasi-militaristic Khalsa order, in which every man is considered a warrior for the faith.
Islam and Judaism similarly bear the burden of those who have chosen violent interpretations of their respective holy books, the Qur’an and Torah.
The lesson for all in these troubled times: do not blame a religion, any religion, as the root cause for so much violence in today’s world. Blame instead fanatical politicians, marginal power-seekers, and militant terrorists, who distort and exploit legitimate religious beliefs in order to expedite self-serving secular agendas. It is never the message at fault, but rather, its misappropriation and misuse.