Cao Dai (Cao ?ài) is a relatively new, syncretist, monotheistic religion, officially established in Tây Ninh, southern Vietnam, in 1926.
The term Cao ?ài literally means "high place." Figuratively, it means that highest place where God reigns. It is also the abbreviated name for God, the creator of the universe, whose full title is Cao ?ài Tiên Ông ?a.i Bo^` Tát Ma-ha-tát.
Caodaiists credit God as the religion's founder. They believe the teachings, symbolism and organization were communicated directly from ?u+'c (means Venerable) Cao ?ài. Even the construction of the Tây Ninh Holy See is claimed to have had divine guidance.
Cao ?ài's first disciples Ngô Va and Cao Hoài Sang claimed to have received direct communications from God, who gave them explicit instructions for establishing a new religion that would commence the Third Era of Religious Amnesty.
Adherents engage in ethical practices such as prayer, veneration of ancestors, nonviolence, and vegetarianism with the minimum goal of rejoining God the Father in Heaven and the ultimate goal of freedom from the cycle of birth and death.
Estimates of the number of Cao ?ài adherents in Vietnam vary, but most sources give two to three million. Some estimates are as high as eight million adherents in Vietnam. An additional 30,000 (primarily ethnic Vietnamese) in the United States, Europe, and Australia.
Cao Dai Origin of God and the Universe
Before God existed, there was the Tao -- that nameless, formless, unchanging, eternal source referenced in the Tao Te Ching. At some point, a Big Bang occurred, out of which God was born. The universe could not yet be formed, for God controlled Yang. Therefore, He shed a part of himself and created the Goddess, master of Yin. In the presence of Yin and Yang, the universe materialized. The Goddess is, literally, the mother of the myriad of things in the Universe. Thus, Caodaiists not only worship God, the father, but also the Goddess, literally referred to as the Mother Buddha. Note that the Goddess, or Mother Buddha, is male, as are all Buddhas. The Goddess is master over Yin but is not a part of Yin, which is female.
There are 36 levels of heaven and 72 planets harboring intelligent life, with number one being the closest to heaven and 72 nearest to hell. Earth is number 68. It is said that even the lowest citizen on planet 67 would not trade place with a king on 68 and so forth.
Cao Dai Religious Constitution and Organization
Americans may be surprised to find that they are more familiar with Caodaiism's organizational structure than they realize. Caodaiism's governing body consists of three branches that are functionally equivalent to the U.S.'s legislative, executive and judicial branches.
The head of the Executive Branch is called "Giáo Tông," which means leader or head of a philosophical or religious organization. Similarities between the hierarchy of Caodaiism's dignitaries and those of the Roman Catholic Church have led translators to borrow terminologies such as pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, etc. In practice, Caodaiism has more ranks and titles of which there are no official English translation as of yet. The actual Vietnamese term for Pope, as in the Catholic Pope, is "Giáo Hoàng."
Caodaiism stresses equality among men and women in society. However, within the religion, the fact that ordained women may attain ranks only up to Cardinal, but not Legislative Cardinal nor Pope, may be construed as unfair bias. The reason was explained by God when He established the church's hierarchical order. In the spiritual realm, Yang represents male and Yin corresponds to female. Yin cannot rule over Yang or else chaos would occur.