Society for the Anthropology of Religion
Oral Presentation Session
Caodaism is a new syncretistic religion born in Vietnam during the independence struggle. Its scriptures, revealed in spiritist seances, blend Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism with elements of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The Vietnamese are identified as the “New Chosen People” who will become the spiritual leaders of the world by showing how all religions can be reconciled harmoniously under the Jade Emperor (who is also Jehovah). Caodaism today is the third largest religion in Vietnam (after Buddhism and Catholicism) and has 4-5 million followers worldwide.
Caodaists are divided between the “exoteric” branch, emphasizing proselytizing, building cathedrals, and fighting for social justice, and the “esoteric” branch, focusing on meditation, self-cultivation and having conversations with divinities. Exoteric Caodaists practice vegetarianism for 6-10 days a month, but Esoteric Caodaists practice a much more demanding regime of bodily purification, avoiding not just meat and animal products but also onion, garlic, caffeine, chilis and even refrigerated water. The relationships between ideas of spiritual purity is examined to ask: How are different eating regimes correlated with different texts revealed in spiritist seances? How is the role of the spirit medium marked by eating prohibitions, with an avoidance of meat seen as evidence of a “spiritual calling”?
Caodaism re-evaluates Buddhist and Taoist dietary practices in the context of aspirations to parity with Western literary and philosophical figures, such as Victor Hugo, Alain Kardec and Jeanne d’Arc. Diasporic Caodaists now “update” earlier restrictions and incorporate current fashions like veganism and the rejection of processed foods.