Violence and New Religious Movements

Violence and New Religious Movements

Violence and New Religious Movements

Violence and New Religious Movements


The relationship between new religious movements (NRMs) and violence has long been a topic of intense public interest--an interest heavily fueled by multiple incidents of mass violence involving certain groups. Some of these incidents have made international headlines. When New Religious Movements make the news, it's usually because of some violent episode. Some of the most famous NRMs are known much more for the violent way they came to an end than for anything else. Violence and New Religious Movements offers a comprehensive examination of violence by-and against-new religious movements. The book begins with theoretical essays on the relationship between violence and NRMs and then moves on to examine particular groups. There are essays on the "Big Five"--the most well-known cases of violent incidents involving NRMs: Jonestown, Waco, Solar Temple, the Aum Shunrikyo subway attack, and the Heaven's Gate suicides. But the book also provides a richer survey by examining a host of lesser-known groups. This volume is the culmination of decades of research by scholars of New Religious Movements.


Those who dwelled on God’s Name, shared their earnings with others,
wielded the sword in battle, distributed food, offered their heads at the
altar of Dharma, were cut up limb by limb, skinned alive, boiled and
sawed in half, but did not utter a sigh nor faltered in their faith, kept the
sanctity of their hair until their last breath and sacrificed their lives for
the sanctity of the Gurdwaras; remember their glorious deeds O Khalsa
and utter Waheguru!

—From the Ardas

During the early to midseventies, I was a member of Yogi Bhajan’s Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization, better known as 3HO (Elsberg 2003; Jakobsh 2008; Laue 2007). In my capacity as a local 3HO leader, I organized a small community of some eighteen people living together in an ashram (as 3HO centers were referred to, at least back in the seventies), plus a larger number of informally affiliated participants in the Tallahassee, Florida, area. I eventually disaffiliated from 3HO after a three-year membership period (a defection I describe in Lewis 2010).

A thumbnail description of 3HO would be that it represents a blend of highly orthodox Sikhism, a diverse set of yogic practices that Bhajan collectively referred to as kundalini yoga, and an eclectic selection of other ideas and practices drawn from the larger spiritual subculture of the 1970s. Because of mainstream Sikhism’s valorization of its history of martyrdom and militant resistance to Mughal oppression, 3HO inherited a martial tradition that, one might reasonably anticipate, would be used to legitimate violent actions. (It should be stressed here that Sikhism’s martial dimension is but one part of a complex, noble religion.) . . .

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