5. History, Sacred Texts, and Overview of Beliefs
Caodaism, also known as Cao Dai, was founded in Vietnam in 1926 as a mixture of several other religions, including Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. This belief system began in 1921 when a man received a vision of the Divine Eye, an important symbol to Caodaists today. Four years later, God showed himself to 3 other people. Believing that God had told them to form a new religion, the 4 original visionaries, 1 government official, and a group of over 200 followers signed a declaration of the foundation of the religion on October 7, 1926. Due to its nationalistic ideologies and the promise that all followers, whether sinful or innocent, would find a home in heaven upon death, Caodaism attracted over half a million followers in its first few years.
Followers of the religion hold several documents as holy. These texts include Prayers of the Heavenly and the Earthly Way, Compilation of Divine Messages, and the Divine Path to Eternal Life. As previously mentioned, Caodaism borrows ideas from several other religions. Believers practice prayer, nonviolence, veneration of ancestors, and vegetarianism in order to break the cycle of reincarnation and reunite with God in heaven. The teachings say that Tao existed before God, that God was created during the Big Bang, and he created yin and yang. The union between yin and yang allowed the universe to form. In this religion, heaven has 36 levels and intelligent life exists on 72 planets. Holy people in the eyes of Caodaists include Muhammad, Jesus, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, Julius Caesar, and Buddha (to name a few).
4. Global Presence and Notable Practitioners
While the majority of followers are in Vietnam where the faith's Holy City of Tay Ninh is located, today Caodaism is practiced around the world. Followers and temples can be found in the United States, Canada, England, Germany, France, Japan, and Australia. Approximately 5 million individuals identify as believers of Caodaism.
Caodaism has had only one Pope since its inception, Pham Cong Tac, and he passed away in 1959. He was one of the original mediators to have received the word of God. Many followers believe that without him, Caodaism cannot truly exist. Sometime between 1955 and 1956, the pope was exiled to Cambodia by Ngo Dinh Diem, former Prime Minister of Vietnam. Diem exiled the religious leader because of his control over the Cao Dai Army which demanded positions within the Diem administration and control over majority Caodaism practicing regions of the country.
3. Development and Spread of the Faith
After such rapid growth in its first 5 years, Caodaism began to change and branch off into varying sects. During World War II, Japan helped the religious group form a military which involved Caodaists in politics. The religion enjoyed relative peace until the arrival of Prime Minister Diem who wanted to spread Catholicism throughout the country and disagreed with Pham Cong Tac and his political requests.
As previously mentioned, Caodaism now exists in several different countries beyond Vietnam. This spread of followers across the globe can be attributed to Communism and the Vietnam War. In 1975, hundreds of thousand of Vietnamese sought refugee status within these countries. They brought with them their families, culture, and religious beliefs.
2. Challenges and Controversies
Perhaps the greatest challenge to Caodaism was the Communist movement during the 1970’s. During this time, the government seized property that belonged to the religious organization and turned temples into warehouses and factories. The Communist government also prohibited seances which Caodaists use to choose new religious officials. Since then, Caodaism has not inducted any new priests for spiritual guidance. When the US government withdrew troops in 1973, Communist forces were able to take over all of Vietnam. Many individuals, including Caodaists, fled the country.
Fleeing as refugees has also presented a challenge in efforts to preserve the religion, given that these individuals often find themselves in new countries that speak different languages and have other majority religions. It is different to pass on and teach the beliefs of this religion to new generations when they do not speak the same language.
1. Future Prospects
Currently, the Caodaism missionary movement is becoming more active on the international stage. Missionaries are also attempting to translate the sacred texts into English so that they may reach a wider audience. As individual practitioners begin to practice new seances (although it is against the religious constitution to do so), it is possible that the religion will break into more sects as people begin to follow their own beliefs and practices. With Caodaist youth growing up in countries outside of Vietnam, it will be difficult for them to continue practicing their religious beliefs within cultures that do not understand them.