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Religion Library: New Age

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

At the same time that American New Age practices gained wider attention in Japan, Japanese New Age gurus founded their own schools of New Age thought. Though such movements were often small and ephemeral, some of them, such as Shoko Asahara’s infamous Aum Shinrikyo new religion, founded in 1986, made a powerful impact. Asahara incorporated a traditional Japanese spiritual tradition with Hindu yogic practices, Tibetan Buddhism, and American apocalypticism. As sociologist Robert Jay Lifton has demonstrated, the same features that distinguish the New Age broadly, namely transformation and healing, characterized Aum Shinrikyo. Its violent 1995 Tokyo subway gas attacks in fact emerged from the movement’s attempt to “force” the New Age into beginning. Though Aum’s violent end is hardly representative of the Japanese New Age, its combination of Indian and Tibetan religious elements with Japanese Buddhism, alongside the incorporation of American New Age-style spiritual transformation, is representative. It also reveals how the New Age transformed as it spread across the globe.

Africa and South America also served as fertile ground for the New Age. Scholar Rosalind Hackett has noted that Nigeria features a sizable New Age subculture that fuses the occult, metaphysical, and indigenous African traditions. In addition to direct transplants of New Age materials and sects from the West, Nigeria has produced its own crop of New Age alternative healers and visionaries, many of whom combine western occult practices with African spiritualism, alongside a message of prosperity and mind-cure clearly drawn from New Age. Hackett notes that traditional African beliefs in reincarnation and spirits provided fertile ground for such New Age developments. Similarly in South America, the traditional creole religions of Candomblé and Umbanda (the latter rooted in 19th-century Spiritualism) as well as Amerindian religious practices provided a background for the successful arrival of North American-style New Age.

Study Questions:
     1.    How did the New Age movement change as it spread to other continents?
     2.    Why was the New Age movement accepted differently in Asia than Europe?
     3.    Who was Aum Shinrikyo? How did he attempt to spread the New Age movement through violence?
     4.    Why was the New Age movement widely accepted in Nigeria?