Bahai and Cao Dai Religious Sects: Syncretistic Monotheism
November 4, 2012
Recently we visited The Bahai House of Worship (Temple) in Wilmette, Illinois, one of eight serving continental areas. This House of worship’s “ornamental tracery” is a celebration of the light representing the new revelation from the latest messenger of God, Mirza Husayn-Ali. “The temple design transcends any specific culture, forming a unique structure” characteristic of neither East or West. The Bahai faith is ” a religion of unity and the belief that we all belong to one human race, that all religions share a common source and aim.” God’s promise of peace as found in the world’s sacred scriptures is now “within reach”. Bahai belief holds that through progressive revelation God in history reveals Himself to humanity through Divine Messengers. They include others beyond recorded time and others as “Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ, and Muhammad.” The Bahai “Core Principles . . . include: Elimination of all forms of prejudice; Equality between men and women; Harmony of science and religion; World peace upheld by a world government; Spiritual solutions to economic problems; and Universal Education.” (Web sites: WWW.bahaitemple.org; WWW.bahai.us)
Visiting the Bahai House of Worship reminded me regarding the similarities and approaches of the Bahai Faith and that the Cao Dai religion I came to experience when visiting in Vietnam. As a member of an International Educational Exchange Seminar at Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City Universities in January 1992 we visited the Cao Dai Temple in the city of Tay Ninh. Similar to Bahai Cao Dai is syncretistic and monotheistic seeking the common source and aim of religion. Both respect the great prophets who reveal the “word of God” in the major religions. Scriptural writings point to diversity of spiritual paths humanity takes to live the kind of life God wants. Both are ethical systems with ritual observance.
My Vietnam travel account has the following observations regarding the visit. “We finally arrived at the religious center of the Cao Dai sect and cathedral of this sycretistic religion that had its origins in the 1920’s. The cathedral has architectural features reminiscent of European church structure but is ornamentally embellished in florid Asiatic style and feeling. The great religious teachers and important secular leaders are seen as essential contributors to the universal truth of Cao Dai, or ‘The All Seeing Eye’. Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Christianity are all embraced. Held in high esteem are Buddha, Jesus Christ, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Churchill, an others. Liberty, equality, and love as watchwords greet one upon entrance to the cathedral. Having removed our shoes prior ro entrance we were in attendance at noon worship observing from the balcony surrounding the nave. Back of us in the balcony dressed in white gowns and barefoot were young women observing the service. Worship was characterized by mumbling chant which had a melodic and pleasingly hypnotizing effect. This experience is surely one of the highlights of my experience in Vietnam and I vividly recall the entire experience in detail. My lectures make frequent mention of the Cao Dai as they proved to be formidable opponents of the French colonials, and later after the Geneva Convention of 1954 were important opposition to Diem in his attempt to consolidate power in Vietnam in 1955. We did not support his grasp or power until he succeeded in bringing the Cao Dai to heel in 1955 with the aid of ARVN troops.
Vietnam: Insight Guides describes Cao Daism as attempting: “to bring all existing faiths in Vietnam under one supreme creator, or Cao Dai, Creator of the Universe . . . . The sect’s religious practices take the form of prayers four times daily in front of the Altar of the Supreme Being . . . In the temple and oratories the altar consists of a paper globe painted with Cao Dai’s symbol – an eye surrounded by sun rays. Statues of Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tsu, Saints and Genies are placed on the altar around a spherical glass symbolizing the Primordial Principle, which is kept burning day and night. During ceremonies, the members of the religious stand in the center of the Temple. by the color of their robes indicates their ‘branch’ of the religion: yellow for Buddhism; purple for Confucianism; and azure for Taoism. The followers dress in white and offerings consist of flowers, fruit, tea,, alcohol, water and incense ‘ . . . .Its ornate cathedral described as the ‘Disneylike fantasia of the East’, by Graham Greene, was built-in 1927. Its exotic architecture reflects the influences of an assortment of faiths and cultures. Statues of Jesus, Confucius, Buddha, Brahma, Siva and Vishnu dominate the nave of the cathedral, as do symbols of clairvoyance and human fraternity.” (p. 102-3)