25 June 2014
Caodaism in blue, red, yellow, and white
What do Lenin, Victor Hugo (the well-known French writer), Churchill, Joan of Arc, Sun Yat-sen (the Chinese revolutionary leader), Jesus, Louis Pasteur (the French chemist who invented vaccination) and Muhammad (yep, the Muslim prophet) have in common? Haha, tough question, right? Well, they’re all spiritual guides honoured by Caodaism.
I had never heard of Caodaism either, don’t worry. Can you guess what it is? Well, since the suffix is “ism”, you could already tell that it’s some kind of philosophy or doctrine. It’s actually a religion, with a tint of nationalism, born less than a hundred years ago in the farthest reaches of southern Vietnam, a few kilometres from the border with Cambodia. About 5 million worshipers practice that religion today. To put things in context, Judaism and Mormonism have about 13 million members each. 5 million, that’s also just about the same number of Baha’is in the world. The Baha’i faith, born in 19th-century Persia and sometimes considered an apostasy of Islam (with the repressive consequences it implies), has nothing to do with Caodaism except that it’s also a syncretic religion (purists would debate that point though), which means that it tries to blend multiple existing religions together or acknowledges prophets from other mainstream religions – with Caodaism believing in addition that the will of the supreme deity has been corrupted by other religions (which is just about what those other religions say of other previous ones!). It makes me smile to think that, by definition, all but one religion are in the wrong – if not even all of them.
I wouldn’t necessarily have endured three hours of scooter ride in the blazing heat of if the guide books had not mentioned that the Caodaist “great temple” in the town of Tay Ninh was worth visiting. I spent the first hour of that ride learning how to flow in the dense traffic, more intense than in Thailand or Indonesia. And then it was all about bearing the heat; I understood too late why some Vietnamese riders dress with long sleeve shirts on top of their regular clothes, so as to protect their arms from grilling. A couple of days later, I would get rid of any pride I had left: I shamelessly used (worn – I had nothing else available then) boxer shorts and (dirty) T-shirts to cover my forearms and neck. Worst of it all on my journey to the temple, I didn’t even find it on time for the noon mass.
I had wrongly assumed the town would be small (on a map, everything seems easy and small), the cathedral visible from a distance (or be in the centre of the town), or that locals would be helpful. It turns out that the town extended over several kilometres, the cathedral wasn’t particularly big and was mostly hidden from street view, and the locals – just as almost everywhere else in Vietnam – understood no word of English while my Vietnamese was clearly appalling especially with my stress levels mounting as I could see I’d be late and “why are you pointing left and this other guy is indicating the opposite direction and could you stop trying to sell me your fruits I’m just trying to find my way thank you please can you just listen to me I’m trying to show you where I’m trying to go” (as I was drawing a triangular shape in the air when the temple wasn’t triangular at all). Arg.
There’s one thing I’d like to understand though, and maybe you can help me in that quest: can the person who stole all the road signs please stand up? There are no freaking useful road signs in Vietnam! For once that Vietnamese is actually readable for a Westerner (unlike Thai or Chinese) since it’s using the Latin alphabet (thanks to a Frenchman, but that’s another story)... Without Google Maps and the phone’s GPS, I’d probably have ended up in, I don’t know, Jordan… although that’s another country where I vividly remember stopping at an intersection in the middle of a desert road and trying to figure out the correct turn (my ability to read Arabic and the GPS confirmation eventually helped then).
Back to my temple. Mass takes place there every six hours every single day of the year. It had obviously started by the time I found the temple but, in my (relative) misery, mass would last more than twice longer than the expected thirty minutes, enough for me to take many pictures, long after the agency-ferried tourists had gone (so it was after all worth the trouble to get there by my own means so I could enjoy things at my own pace… if I only found those landmarks).
Men were sitting separately from women, the latter not allowed to reach the higher priesthood positions – so much for equality in theory advocated by that religion (faring no better than any other for that matter). Simple worshippers were clad in white, while priests on the other hand were dressed in coloured robes to reflect their spiritual allegiance: blue for Taoism and its quest for plenitude, yellow for Buddhism and its answers to the existence and future of mankind, and red for Confucianism for its ethical precepts – and not red for Catholicism as can be often mistakenly written, although it is true that the temple is reminiscent of the architecture of a Catholic cathedral; the organisational structure with a pope-like head and bishops further increase the resemblance, which is less surprising when one knows that 30% of Vietnamese are Catholics.
Despite Lenin and Sun Yat-sen being in the Caodaist pantheon, the Vietnamese government repressed religions after the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, an unsurprising move for a Communist regime by definition viscerally opposed to religions (hadn’t Karl Marx said “religion is the opium of the people” that would give them false hope and thus maintain inequality?) – before easing up before the turn of the millennium.
On a more humourous note (to me at least), I’ll leave it up to you to consider whether Caodaism, like other religions, is rooted in myth and gullibility: in 1919, the founder received a “communication” from what he said was the supreme deity during a table-turning session… wait, is my table also shaking now?!