Books: Road rage in the rush hour of the gods

THE CULT AT THE END OF THE WORLD: The Incredible Story of Aum by David E Kaplan and Andrew Marshall, Hutchinson pounds 16.99

When I die, there will be a man waiting for me in the next world. He will, he told me when we had a brief, acrimonious conversation in this world, be ready to wallop me with a spiritual rolling-pin. A north London cult leader, he had placed a full-page ad in the papers proclaiming himself the next Messiah. My sin lay in asking him if he was sure about being Christ and Mohammed and the Buddha, which seemed rather greedy.

False prophets are two a penny in North London - and two a yen in Japan, which for decades has endured "the rush hour of the gods". The falsest was Shoko Asahara, a cult leader who believed that the path to spiritual salvation lay in pumping poison gas into the Tokyo underground system. The 12 commuters dead and the 5,500 injured might have had their theological doubts.

It is not much consolation, but the atrocities of Asahara's killers could have been very much worse. For a start, the sarin gas they used was only 30 per cent pure. They had also considered hydrogen cyanide, as used in Auschwitz, and went shopping in Zaire for the Ebola virus. They tried to purchase second-hand tanks and MiG fighters. They were also toying with the idea of nuclear devices and satellite launchers. Finally, they were working on death rays. They made David Koresh from Waco look like a moderate. Not bad for a cult that purported to be non-violent.

Yet, as David E Kaplan and Andrew Marshall demonstrate, the subway murders were only one part of a very bizarre history. Shoko Asahara was a drifter, mentally and geographically, and a conman who conned himself, until he founded the Aum (ie "Om", the sacred word denoting three Hindu gods): the Association of Mountain Wizards. The "guru from hell" soon had his deluded disciples drinking tea made from his hair and - an acquired taste - his blood. The poor fools wore on their heads a device which gave tiny electric shocks to synchronize their brainwaves (such as they were) with those of their robed leader. In return, they gave him everything.

His HQ at the foot of Mount Fuji might just as well have had a notice over the entrance proclaiming, "You don't have to be mad to worship here, but it helps". The inmates were part of a multi-million dollar empire of armament factories with offices in six countries. The set-up was like something from an early Avengers script - but even more improbable. It wasn't exactly an underground movement (except for its gas attacks): Aum was quoted on the Japanese Stock Exchange and put up candidates for Parliament. Yet the authorities closed their eyes to its activities.

One of the cult's early murder victims was a lawyer who - quite a clue, this - represented parents trying to extract their children from Aum's clutches. Another clue was an Aum badge dropped at the scene of the crime. It was a year before Honourable Mr Plod turned up at the suspects' premises. During later litigation, cultists tried to kill the judges but poisoned the neighbours instead. Police swooped on a man they accused of accidentally making sarin while mixing a herbicide.

After Aum had been widely fingered for the Tokyo gassing, the police got round to staking out a Rolls Royce believed to belong to Asahara; but when it was driven away with a robed man inside, they lost it. Finally they arrested 100 cultists - for offences such as altering a greenhouse without permission. Their sole demonstration of any powers of detection came when they followed an Aum disciple who was carrying melons, the guru's favourite dessert. Clasping state-of-the art canaries to alert them to the presence of gas, they found a secret room where the mad conman was practising his lotus position.

Despite the appalling subject matter, the authors do not avoid its black humour. Their enthralling book has the odd gap: a rehearsal for the gas attack is mentioned but then forgotten. Occasionally you wonder exactly how accurate their account of a conversation between cultists can be; but even if they had made up half of the book, the contents of the other half would still set your mind reeling like a dose of nerve gas.

The wise, final chapter points out the particular dangers of religious zealots: mad Islamic warriors, Messianic Jews, deranged anti-Semites and crazed Christians. Political terrorists are quite prepared to cause deaths, but on the whole they'd like people to take note - which they can't do if they're dead. Cults like Aum believe the end of the world is coming soon anyway. Why not nudge Doomsday a bit nearer?

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee