In the following extract from his book, Destroying the World to Save It, psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton, discusses cult leader Shoko Asahara’s megalomanic tendencies. Readers may find this analysis bears some striking parallels with another character we’ve come to know.
(The Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult was responsible for the murders of an estimated 26 people, including in the Sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway which killed thirteen and injured over 900. The cult began as a meditation group, based on Buddhist principles and led by a blind and ‘gentle’ guru, Shoko Asahara. However, as Asahara’s personality became more extreme, so did his interpretations of ‘karma’, until he took it upon himself and his group to amass military hardware, nuclear and chemical weapons and bring about Armageddon in an attempt to practice ‘altruistic’ killing in order to ‘cleanse’ world karma.
For a glimpse into the megalomanic and controlling mind of a more local guru, check this post, ‘Message from the Masters’ on the Words From The Families of Universal Medicine Students blog.)
His (Asahara’s) megalomanic self enabled him to view any event – in fact, all of history – according to his narrative needs. Thus he could declare in a radio talk three days after the (Sarin) attack that the police were ‘Lucifer’ and that not only the attack but the police raid represented ‘a step in the expansion of the Aum Shinrikyo (Om Supreme Truth) plan of salvation.’
The guru brought to the amassing of ultimate weapons what I have called a functional megalomania. Within megalomanic function, self becomes world. The megalomanic self lacks limits and boundaries; it resists or denies restraints of any sort. Hence the self envelops the world; the world dissolves the self. Or put another way, the totalized self replaces the external world.
Contemporary ultimate weapons can hold a special lure for the megalomanic guru because they enable him to feel that he alone – or perhaps with a few disciples – is capable of destroying the world. He can claim a kind of world-controlling as well as world ending power…(In the case of the local guru, substitute ‘world’ for ‘life’ or even ‘prana’ in its traditional meaning of life energy. In addition, rather than weapons, our guru uses medicine or ‘health’ advice.)
As a clinical phenomenon, megalomania is generally encountered in advanced paranoid schizophrenia. In that condition, the patient usually is alone with his delusions and hallucinations, his totalized self condemning him to radical isolation from the external world it replaces. In contrast, a guru like Asahara had disciples who interacted with his megalomanic self in ways that reinforced it, rendering it functional. The arrangement offered seductive rewards – mutual ecstasy and a shared sense of absolute truth – that could sustain it for long periods of time as disciples became more and more immersed in the guru’s megalomania, both endorsing it and realizing their own megalomanic potential. The extreme cultic process, in other words, became a version of collective megalomania. The arrangement, however, was inherently unstable, subject to the breakout of suppressed antagonisms between guru and disciples and, more dangerously, apt to result in violent attacks on the external world by guru and disciples whenever they felt their bond with one another, or anything else in the arrangement, to be threatened.
(Here I might insert this quote from an email written from a UM student to others about the proceedings at a Sacred Esoteric Healing Workshop: ‘At SEH4, Serge said that the group kurukshetra was 80% and a little later that it was 87% – and that was only day one! Students were speaking revelations right, left and centre and Serge quipped that he was out of a job – just kidding, but it was inspirational to hear so many students claiming that they were also “The One”.’)
Megalomania contributed greatly to Asahara’s attempts to actualize his world-ending visions. The idea of vast destruction in the service of spiritual renewal became something more – and less – than a metaphor or mythic truth. The megalomanic self, in fact, insists upon the breakdown of such distinctions, claiming dominion over myth and metaphor no less than over actual events.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines megalomania as ‘insanity of self exaltation.’ As characterized in the Psychiatric Dictionary, the megalomanic person considers himself ‘possessed of greatness’ and may ‘believe himself to be Christ, God, Napoleon’ or ‘everybody and everything.’ Asahara epitomized this sense of multiform omnipotence in every way. In some of his books, for instance, his biographical description lauded him not only as a guru who had attained final enlightenment and as ‘one of the greatest holy persons presently existing on this earth’ but also as a universal genius: ‘Master Asahara shows his genius not only in the spiritual domain but in various fields such as science, medicine, music, writing, translation, education, etc.’ The ‘etc.’ is the operative word here – his genius is unlimited.
That genius was extended to his physiology with the claim that he possessed nirvana-like brain waves and uniquely distinctive DNA.
The guru’s most insistent megalomanic claim was to deity. In addition to declaring himself an avatar of Shiva, he professed to have achieved ‘the state of a Buddha who has attained mirror-like wisdom’ and to be the ‘divine emperor’ of Japan and of the world; the declared Christ, who will ‘disclose the meaning of Jesus’ gospel’; the ‘last twentieth-century saviour’; the ‘holiest holy man,’ one ‘beyond the Bible’; and the being who will inaugurate the Age of Aquarius and preside over a ‘new era of supreme truth.’ For disciples transfixed by guruism, he could indeed be all these things.
Aum doctrine on past and future lives reflected a similar megalomanic organization. While everything in cult life was ostensibly determined by cause-and-effect karma because ‘Buddhism is mathematics’, the guru controlled the equations. It was he who could threaten the most dreadful realms of rebirth…or promise ‘Brahma heaven,’ with its eight subrealms culminating in nirvana, ‘the state of ultimate extinction’. Much of Aum’s spiritual project dealt with preparing for the next life, the transfer of consciousness to a higher dimension – Asahara’s ‘great poa’. An indication of Asahara’s megalomania was his manipulation of poa (transferring consciousness at death with the aim of achieving an improved rebirth) from a concept of ideal spiritual transformation to a euphemism for murder.
Asahara became the judge and repository – not to mention the traffic director of all the world’s bad karma. This karma control also made (him) the personal storehouse of the world’s salvation, which at every point depended upon his bringing about the ‘dropping of karma’.
Asahara was never more megalomanic than in his recitation of his past lives. (His) most expansive past-life claim concerned the very origins of civilization. Visiting Egypt and observing its oldest pyramid, he was struck by the realization not only that he had seen it before but that ‘I designed it myself a long time ago.’ Thus he was able to ascertain that at the time of the pyramids’ construction he was ‘Prime Minister Imhotep’, the spiritual adviser to the pharaoh. In keeping with these claims, one Aum commentary is entitled ‘Master Asahara Solves the Mysteries of Egypt’ and another ‘Pyramids were Instruments for Poa.’ Asahara thus claims not only authorship of the pyramids, but authorship of Western civilization itself, including its religious practices.
It was essential for Asahara to be distinguished absolutely from all other human beings. He alone was completely free of ‘defilement,’ of any need for further spiritual quest, of desire itself. Since he was, of course, free of none of these, the claims can be understood as compensatory, as an extreme psychological reversal of his actual ‘defilement’ (cruelty and murderousness), his radical spiritual insecurity (inner doubts about his exorbitant claims), and his insistent desires (for power over other human beings, sex, and forbidden food). The megalomanic claim to have no desire meant, in practice, the presence of unlimited self-aggrandizing desire.
Toward the end (terrorist acts and his arrest), as Asahara’s control over his environment faltered, his megalomania ceased to be functional. Threats from the outside (groups contesting Aum’s activities and the developing police investigation of its murders) and from the inside (insufficient numbers of renunciants and strains in guru-disciple relationships) undermined the shared fantasy so necessary to the workings of such megalomania. The guru’s intensified paranoia drove him toward external violence as well as toward various forms of self-destruction. He became more extreme and more fragmented.
Increasingly he threatened his leading disciples with poa should they try to escape. His con-man tendencies became more bizarre: now he simply assumed that stating a lie rendered it true and that anyone doubting any of his words became an enemy of Aum. All this represented psychological decompensation, the breakdown of his megalomanic system.
No matter how cruel or contradictory, the guru’s behaviour could always be interpreted as a mahamudra (spiritual instruction or challenge to test the purity of one’s enlightenment). Or the behaviour could be connected in some manner to another religious tradition. Asahara would begin with something resembling a Buddhist or Hindu principle and either contort it to the point of caricature (in UM, the principles are ‘love’ and ‘truth’) or find a rationale for avoiding or violating it. In an important sense, his displays of power and entitlement, and of transcending all boundaries and violating every taboo, were all efforts to sustain his functional megalomania. What rendered such efforts especially intense and desperate was the need to fend off a growing sense of external threat and internal disintegration. Such compensatory behaviour could include every variety of fraudulence, hypocrisy, and exploitation. For underneath the megalomanic claim to be ‘everybody and everything’ was an overwhelming terror of being nobody and nothing.
Extracted from Lifton, RJ, 2000, Destroying the World To Save It, Owl Books, New York, pp.165-172.