Indigenous religion founded in southern Vietnam in 1926. By the 1940s, Cao Dai (formally known as Dai Dao Tam Ky Pho Do, or the Great Religion of the Third Period of Revelation and Salvation) had become a major social and political force in Vietnam, playing a significant role in the conflicts that engulfed the country. The massive Cao Dai Great Temple at Tay Ninh, built between 1933 and 1955, was the spiritual center of the movement and became an enduring symbol of self-identity for many Vietnamese during the wars that plagued them throughout the 20th century.
The Cao Dai religion is based on the beliefs of a French-educated civil servant turned mystic named Ngo Van Chieu, who in 1919 claimed to have communicated with supernatural spirits. The spirits told him to establish a new religion promoting world peace by mixing a belief in the supernatural with other faiths, including Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Islam. The Cao Dai religion was formally launched at Tay Ninh in 1926.
Adherents claimed that through repeated séances with the dead, many led by Chieu himself, understanding and even self-enlightenment could be achieved. The idea quickly developed into a popular religion. The supreme being or God is called Cao Dai, literally the “high palace” or “high tower.” It has no gender or personality and is regarded as the same God recognized by other faiths.
Cao Daism holds that God created all things and instilled in them his spirit. Cao Daists worship God in the form of the Sacred Eye that shines over many saints, immortals, Buddhas, and others. The Sacred Eye is a symbol of universal consciousness, which includes humankind. Cao Daism believes in the existence of a God-endowed eternal spirit that stays with a person beyond earthly death and through subsequent reincarnations, which is in accordance with Karma and Buddhism. Like Buddhism and other religions, Cao Daism teaches its follower to eschew greed, avarice, materialism, earthly desires, and anger. Followers of Cao Dai engage in frequent meditation and self-enlightenment to achieve a higher religious purpose, with the goal of becoming one with their God-endowed spirits and thus attaining Nirvana, or Heaven.
The structure and organization of the faith closely resemble that of the Roman Catholic Church, with a pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests. Cao Dai also developed an eclectic collection of saints, including Jesus Christ, Confucius, Buddha, Muhammad, a 16th-century Vietnamese poet named Nguyen Binh Khiem, the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yixian (Sun Yat-sen), and the 19th-century French writer and humanist Victor Hugo. Prominent historical figures such as Joan of Arc, William Shakespeare, and Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin are also recognized for their teachings. Embracing all world ideas and religions, Cao Dai adherents chose as their symbol the all-seeing eye.
French authorities governing Vietnam at the time viewed the new religion with great suspicion. As an inclusive faith, Cao Dai attracted many Vietnamese, the majority of whom were Mahayana Buddhists, and challenged the powerful Catholic elite who ran the country. Moreover, Cao Dai quickly became a focal point for Vietnamese nationalists who fought against French colonial rule. By the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Cao Dai had more than 300,000 followers, many of whom also served in various revolutionary movements throughout Vietnam. In fact, some Cao Daists fought alongside the Viet Minh, the major nationalist movement led by the Communist Ho Chi Minh, that directly battled the French.
Most Vietnamese initially welcomed the Japanese invasion of Indochina, beginning in September 1940, as liberation from the French. However, Japanese rule quickly turned into a brutal occupation, and many Vietnamese, including some Cao Daists, turned against the Japanese. A Cao Dai army was formed in 1943 and quickly established itself as a fairly effective and even ruthless fighting force.
As World War II came to end in 1945, the Cao Daists clashed with other nationalist groups for control, including the Viet Minh, the Communist La Lutte (“the Conflict”), and the Buddhist reform movement Hoa Hao. Some Cao Dai units even switched sides and supported the French during the Indochina War (1946-1954).
With the French withdrawal and the partition of Vietnam in 1954, the Cao Dai religion soon confronted a new rival in the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, who came to rule the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam). The Diem regime worried that the Cao Dai undermined its authority, especially the 25,000-strong armed faction that supplemented both the French and South Vietnamese armed forces. Between March and May 1955 the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, South Vietnamese Army) battled against the Binh Xuyen, a criminal syndicate approximately 40,000 strong that dominated the drug and prostitution trades in Saigon. In June 1955 Diem turned against the Hoa Hao and began rounding up members of other sectarian groups, including Cao Dai. The Cao Dai army was forcibly disbanded, and some of its leadership went into exile. Several thousand Cao Dai followers fled to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) or joined Communist networks in South Vietnam. Subsequent leaders of South Vietnam also kept the Cao Dai prostrate, although it continued to draw adherents as both a religion and an underground paramilitary organization.
Some Cao Dai followers fought with the Viet Cong (VC) against U.S. forces during the American phase of the Vietnam War (1965-1973). Cao Dai adherents served on the Central Committee of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (National Liberation Front [NLF]) and on the Advisory Council of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam. However, most Cao Dai did not support the Communist VC, the southern guerrillas who initially led the fight. Consequently, when the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN, North Vietnamese Army) eventually overran South Vietnam in 1975, the Cao Dai were persecuted because they were seen as a possible source of opposition. However, Cao Dai continued to attract followers, even expanding overseas with expatriate Vietnamese who fled the Communist takeover.
The Cao Daists continued to fight, however. Cao Dai guerrillas allegedly joined an anti-Communist coalition known as the Phuc Quoc (“National Salvation”) with remnants of the Hoa Hao, elements of the former ARVN, and the Montagnard (Degar) people of the Central Highlands. Cao Dai resistance activity continued into the mid-1980s before it was finally overwhelmed.
After enduring more than 20 years of government suppression, the Cao Dai religion was finally recognized in 1997. Today its followers number approximately 6 million worldwide, half of them in Vietnam, making it the third-largest religion in the country behind Buddhism and Christianity. Cao Dai leaders remain politically active, championing the expansion of religious freedoms in the country.
The Cao Dai Great Temple, still in existence, is located about 60 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The temple gained some international notoriety as a focal point in the best-selling novel The Quiet American by British author Graham Greene, published in 1955 and made into movies in 1958 and 2002. The Cao Dai Great Temple is now one of Vietnam’s most popular tourist attractions.
Buddhism in Vietnam; Catholicism in Vietnam; Confucianism; Ngo Dinh Diem; Pham Cong Tac; Taoism; Viet Cong Infrastructure; Viet Minh
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