Cao Dai is a 'home-grown' religion based in the South of Vietnam. Its centre of operations is the Cao Dai Holy See, in Tay Ninh, about 100km Ho Chi Minh City. It is a large complex containing a school, an agricultural co-operative, a hospital and other functional buildings, all dominated by a large and highly ornate temple.
The founder of Caodaism
The sect was founded by Ngo Van Chieu, a minor civil servant Phu Quoc Island, who experienced a series of visions revealing the ‘Supreme Being’s’ wishes, the centrepiece of which was the creation of an all-embracing religion incorporating elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam.
The Structure of Cao Dai
The structure was based upon that of the Catholic Church, with Ngo Van Chieu as the first Cao Dai Pope, and the rituals upon those of Buddhism and Taoism.
Cao Dai also has an interesting range of ‘saints’, including Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare, Louis Pasteur, Napoleon Bonaparte, Joan of Arc, Winston Churchill, Lenin, and Chun Yat Sen, the pioneer of the Chinese Revolution, together with several Vietnamese figures such as Tran Hung Dao and Le Loi.
Cao Dai beliefs
The Supreme Being of Cao Dai has made three manifestations in human form. The first was in ancient times when it appeared in the person of various figures the ancient texts of Christianity, Buddhism and Taoism. On the second occasion, it manifested itself as Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Confucius and other divine figures. The most recent manifestation involved communication with Ngo Van Chieu as the divine light, symbolised as the all-seeing eye.
The development of Caodaism
Caodaism grew rapidly, and was officially recognised by the French in 1926. It continued to grow in numbers and influence, and by the fifties, the Holy See had become semi-autonomous, with hundreds of temples throughout the south of Vietnam. Its large paramilitary force and political influence alarmed both the French and the Viet Cong.
Upon gaining power, the President of the Saigon regime, the pro-Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem, moved swiftly to disband the Cao Dai army and exile its leaders. When the communists took over in 1975, they closed the temples, confiscated the land and sent the priests for ‘re-education’.
However, the religion survived and the temples were returned by the government in the late eighties and allowed to re-open. Since then, the numbers of Cao Dai followers have grown, and its temples are functioning more or less freely, but under tight government control.
Cao Dai temples are common all over the south, but particularly in the Mekong Delta. For visitors, the place to visit is the main temple at the Holy See. Its architecture is as motley as its credo and liturgy, a riot of colour and symbols. The all-seeing eye is the centrepiece of each of the stained glass windows, and, behind the altar and mounted on a huge replica of the earth, dominates the interior.
The daily midday ceremony of worship is a combination of Christian and Buddhist ritual, lasting about half an hour. During services, the priests, acolytes and worshippers form up in rows in one of three branches distinguished by the colour of the robes, yellow for Buddhists, blue for Taoists and red for the Confucian branch. Other devotees wear white.
The rites are complex, but very interesting, and the building is an attraction in its own right. However, to avoid falling foul of the authorities Cao Dai followers are not forthcoming about their remarkable faith, and no explanatory material is available.