Caodaism: Global Ambition vs Persecution

Sergei Blagov, Institute of Oriental and African studies, Moscow University
(A paper presented at CESNUR 99 conference, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. Preliminary version.© Sergei Blagov, 1999. Do not reproduce without the consent of the author)

Caodaism has been labeled as a sect, socio-religious or politico-religious group, secret society, occult syncretic religion, syncretist religious movement. Notably the term "sect" seems to be value-laden and heuristically unsatisfactory, as denotes a religious conflict society, emphasizing individual conviction in religion and ethics with high degree of separation from external society - and this is obviously not the case concerning the Cao Dai, emphasizing the system of collective dogma and authority. But while "good for all" definition remains a matter of debate, all the terms mentioned seem failing to reflect a strong globalization nexus of Caodaism, an esoteric religious movement.

Caodaists believe that their doctrine provides - via esoteric path of spiritism - the synthesis of five great teachings of the past: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, cult of ancestors, Western religions. The full name of Cao Dai religion - "The Great Way of the Third Era of Universal Salvation" signifies universalistic and ecumenical essence of the doctrine.

The time of mass adherence was not long in coming for Caodaism, which emerged in 1926 - the movement gained more than 20,000 adepts in less than two months, and 500,000 by 1930. Esoteric practices - "demonstration" seances (sometime mixed up with healing sessions) - seemed to contribute to successful Caodaist prozelytization.

Apart from Three Religions syncretism, many adepts believe that Caodaism includes the esoteric teaching of Non-Exertion and the Religion - popular teaching of prozelitism and salvation. Nonetheless, while die-hard esotericists represent a slim minority within Caodaist movement (few hundred people within the community of some four million), the mainstream salvationist Caodaism is strongly based upon spiritist practices, thus also being largely esoteric.

Spiritism has always been an element of key importance in Caodaism. The institutionalization of spiritism occurs in form of the Heavenly Alliance Palace or College of Mediums, the legislative body which has the duty of communicating with the transcendental world to receive spiritist messages, as well as to uphold the religious laws. By introducing the hierarchy, Caodaism seems to rely on charisma of the office, Amtscharisma. The Caodaists believe that adept's future status in the transcendental world is determined by one's earthly status in the hierarchy.

The importance of Western spiritism for otherwise traditionalist Caodaist doctrine appears to demonstrate that early followers of Caodaism tended to view themselves in global context. For instance, the theosophical concept of perispirit - first developed in India by Sri Ramakrishna and expounded in the West by Annie Besant - constitutes an important element of the Caodaist teaching.

It is understood that Caodaism is fundamentally syncretic, but the syncretists are not usually ecumenical diplomats seeking peace between warring traditions; they are religious persons seeking to respond to new religious tensions and needs. It is not the fact of borrowing, but the selectivity and intention of borrowing that add to our understanding of religious thought. The Caodaist syncretic borrowing - though largely evolving around traditionalist nexus - also appears to reflect global ambitions. Thus Caodaist syncretic and universalistic would-be synthesis may also be viewed in terms of the dialogue between East and West or "planetarization of culture".

The ambition of the Cao Dai to expand globally was institutionalized in form of a Foreign Mission. Caodaist foreign involvement started in neighboring Cambodia just months after the movement had been officially inaugurated. In April 1927 Caodaist leader Pham Cong Tac visited Phnom Penh and he was seen instrumental in setting up Caodaist Foreign mission there. Just in one year Phnom Penh congregation won more than 10,000 adherents. But a royal decree was issued to ban Caodaism in Cambodia. Nonetheless, most of the Caodaists in Cambodia - ethnic Vietnamese subject to the French jurisdiction - were still able to practice and propagate their religion. However, local authorities commenced to persecute Caodaists: the adepts were detained, property seized for on dubious grounds of holding "illegal Caodaist ritual" inside private houses. Putting it in words of a contemporary human rights activist, the Caodaists were brutalized, imprisoned, their pagodas were burned, their statues were destroyed, because the new religion was viewed as a dangerous secret society.

Furthermore, during the colonial period, propagation of Caodaism was allowed only in those areas of Indochina which were under direct French rule, but it was forbidden in protectorates - Tonkin and Annam or in Northern and Central Vietnam. This is why the Foreign Mission was in charge of Caodaist prozelytization in Northern and Central Vietnam, though these efforts were not particularly successful. Caodaist Foreign Mission also tried to establish presence in Southern China in 1937, but this move ended up in failure.

In the meantime, facing colonial action and persecution, the Caodaists were forced to seek international contacts, notably in France. In 1931 Tran Quang Vinh [1897-1975] went to France to attend an international fair in Vincennes - he was also keen to propagate the new religion and to lobby in the French National Assembly in favor of Caodaism. His efforts were supported by former Prime Minister Edouard Daladier, Minister Albert Sarraut, Emile Kahn, head of the Ligue des Droits de l'Homme - they voiced protest against persecution of Caodaists by the colonial authorities. Tran Quang Vinh also converted several Western adepts, including French writer Gabriel Gobron [1895-1941].

Thus since its early years Caodaist movement was keen to get itself global. In December 1931 Caodaist leader Le Van Trung politely informed chiefs of state - as well as press syndication agencies - worldwide that a new faith with a mission to renovate the world had been created. There were moves to attend the international Conferences of World Religions, notably in mid-1930s and till 1950s. Gabriel Gobron, the official representative of the movement in Europe, attended World Spiritualist Congress in Barcelona in 1934 on behalf of the Caodaists. Gobron also attended World Congress of Faiths in London (1936) and in Paris (1939), World Spiritualist Congress in Glasgow in 1939. As three decades of wars ensued in Indochina, the Caodaists were effectively prevented from going ahead with their globalization efforts - apart from occasional episodes like setting up a Caodaist group in Congo in mid-1960s by Tran Quang Vinh.

The Communist take-over in 1975 led to a mass exodus from Southern Vietnam. Not surprisingly, the Caodaists - who used to oppose the Communist guerillas - fled en masse. But now Caodaist religious center in Tay Ninh looks unlikely to become a driving force of the expansion - within or outside the communities of overseas Vietnamese - because of restrictive policies by the government.

Analysts agree that few countries treat their religious congregations as badly as Vietnam. The violations of freedom of religion include the requirement that all religious activity be approved by the state and restrictions on travel by religious leaders and the contents of their sermons and speeches. Since late-1980-s more liberal policy was launched. The earlier repressive phase has been replaced by a more liberal recognition of the fact, that the religions can not be so easily annihilated. But it is too early to depict the changes as an acceptable modus vivendi, which has been arrived at between the Communist Party and the movements. Though the religions are already experiencing something of a revival in recent years as heavy restrictions have been eased, but it will be years before they regain their former vibrancy. Years of suppression are readily apparent, especially in the largely geriatric religious hierarchy.

After 1975 actual abolition of the Caodaist hierarchy was symbolically effected by prohibiting the spiritist seances, thus effectively halting inauguration of the new dignitaries. No big wonder that with the abolition of seances the membership of the Tay Ninh hierarchy declined. The remaining dignitaries - notably those who do not support the efforts by the authorities to control the congregation - find themselves unable to travel overseas to keep in touch with their newly globalized congregation.

With the Vietnamese Diaspora expanding throughout the world, correspondingly Caodaism has also spread, and globalization of the movement actually occurred. However, it remains to be seen whether Caodaism could prove its ability to expand outside the boundaries of the communities of overseas Vietnamese, notably in the US, Canada, Australia.



Sergei Blagov - lecturer (Associate Professor) on religions in Vietnam at the Institute of Oriental and African Studies of the Moscow University. His Ph.D. dissertation - the history of Caodaism - was completed in 1991 at the Institute of Anthropology, Moscow. Sergei Blagov stayed in Vietnam in 1983-1984, 1987-1988, 1991, 1993-1997 as a news reporter, simultaneously doing research on the Cao Dai. Apart from teaching, now Sergei Blagov also continues his journalistic career, writing for Inter Press Service news agency, as well as some other media outlets.

See also on Cao Dai:
Institutionalising Spiritism and The Esoteric: The Case of the Cao Dai, by Chris Hartney

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