Austroasiatic indigenous religions

23.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Austroasiatic indigenous religions are discussed in this article. These can be conditionally divided into Vietnamese national religion consisting of several movements and Sarnaism.

Austroasiatic indigenous religions

Vietnamese indigenous religions

These are the ethnic religions of the Vietnamese people and about 45% of the population are adherents.

Vietnamese indigenous religions are a combination of local traditions devoted to worshipping tonu (spirits, gods, generating forces). These gods can be from nature, ethnic spirits or the spirits of ancestors. Vietnamese indigenous religion is sometimes called Confucianism as it honours the values propagated by Confucius.

Vietnamese indigenous religion followers were persecuted from 1945 until the 1980s. From 1975 to 1979 the persecutions increased and temples were destroyed, but in 1985 the government returned to the policy of protection of religious cultures.

Here are descriptions of several movements from Vietnamese indigenous religion.

Cao dai

Cao Dai is a syncretic monotheistic religion that was established in 1926 by Ngo Van Chieu in the town of Tay Ninh in South Vietnam.

The belief system and rituals of this movement have some features in common with Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and the cult of ancestors, as well as Catholicism and revelations obtained during seances. The main task of the soul is to complete rebirths and to unite with the Cao Dai deity. Practices include meditations, communication with spirits and other occult methods. The priests of this sect vow celibacy.

Though Cao Dai adheres to peaceful principles, in the past they had an army that controlled an extensive territory. In the south of Vietnam, Cao Dai played an essential role in solving political issues.

In the second half of the 20th century, the first president of Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, persecuted and repressed Cao Dai adherents in connection with their political views.

At present, Cao Dai exists without any persecution, indeed Cao Dai churches and rituals have become a Vietnamese tourist attraction. The followers of Cao Dai number several million believers.

The doctrine of cao dai origin

According to historical sources, there are three doctrines concerning the origin of this movement:

  1. The Canonical Cao Dai belief, which expounds the appearance of the spirit to the founder and the revelation to him. This happened in 1920 in the French colony of Cochinchina in the south of Vietnam. During a séance, the Cao Dai Supreme Being, having contacted certain followers, provided them with divine knowledge. In 1920, Ngo Van Chieu, a public officer at Fukuoka island, established a spiritual contact with Cao Dai, who appeared to him in the form of a Holy Eye. This shared a new philosophy and rituals with Ngo Van Chieu, and ordered him to establish a new religion.

Later, in 1925, in addition to Ngo Van Chieu, three more officials received contact with the spirit, which became known later as Cao Dai. Former official Le Van Trung began to participate in the séances, where he obtained a blessing for the creation of a new religion from the spirit of a medieval Chinese scientist Li Tai Bo. Le Van Trung decided to devote his life to meditation and observing religious laws, and went to live in the mountains. Soon after he met Ngo Van Chieu and joined a small group of his followers. In 1926, the Cao Dai religion appeared.

  1. The theory of genetic ties connects the historical succession of Cao Dai and the previous tradition of Vietnamese sectarianism (unorthodox Buddhism). This means that Cao Dai is Buddhism that has evolved in a natural way. A western movement resembling the Catholic movement influenced the development of a hierarchy and the creation of a religious structure.
  2. A theory of artificial creation of the religion by the French colonial administration. Catholic missionaries aggressively propagated their views in Indo-China, however, it became clear in the early 20th century that the majority of the population was not going to accept the Catholic faith due to the widespread cult of ancestor-worship that was foreign to Christianity. That is why the colonial project of Cao Dai appeared according to this theory. It included the Catholic minorities, the Hoa Hao sect and the Binh Xuyen criminal community of river pirates which had some political influence. At the criminal trial regarding Cao Dai in 1978, the Governor of Cochinchina Le Fol and intelligence officers Bonne and Latapi were called the religion founders. Other leaders included agents of the French intelligence agency.
Cao dai doctrinal statement

Cao dai doctrinal statement

The main principles of this religion can be stated as follows:

  • Religious syncretism and a tolerant attitude to other religions, as all of them were created by messengers of the one God.
  • Spiritualism – that is the faith that it is possible to communicate with the deceased at séances with the help of mediums.
  • A cult of ancestor-worship.
  • The observance of humanistic and peaceful principles and a wish to stop all wars on earth.
  • The philosophy that all people, independent of sex, race and social status, are equal.
  • The concept of ascetism, that is , который выражается в отказе от половых отношений и брака у духовенства, отказе от употребления мяса и алкоголя;
  • The insistence that clergy and “higher level” believers have to keep to vegetarianism. Laypeople do not have to observe this condition, but it is recommended, especially during the new and full moon phases.
  • Cao Dai’s aspiration is to become first a world religion, and then the only religion in the world.

Đạo mẫu

This is another movement under the umbrella of Vietnamese indigenous religions. It includes worshipping mother goddesses which appeared in Vietnam in the 16th century. The opinion that Dao Mau is associated with the mediumism ritual widely spread in Asia, is a mistake. It is one of the rituals in this religion, but not the main one. The main ritual is the Hầu Bóng ceremony (literally – “serving the holy reflections”). This is where the priests imitate deities in appearance and behaviour.

The Communist Party forbade such rituals considering them superstitions. But, in 1987, the Party became moderate and legitimated the rituals again.

Worshipping mother goddesses is an official acknowledgement of women’s role in society. In December 2016, this ritual was included on a UNESCO list.

The third movement under discussion in the Vietnamese indigenous religions is Hoa Hao.

Hoa hao

This is a reformist movement of Vietnamese Buddhism and the tradition appeared in the French colonies of South Vietnam. It was influence by Confucianism and the cult of ancestor worship.

Some scientists think that Hoa Hao appeared from the non-orthodox Buddhist sects such as Thiên địa hộ and others.

In 1939, Huỳnh Phú Sổ, born in the Hoa Hao village in the south of Vietnam, allegedly received divine afflatus and founded the Hoa Hao school. He became referred to as the “Mad Monk”.

Characteristics of hoa hao teaching

The main principle of the Hoa Hao school is simplicity. It is probably closer in conformity to Buddha Shakyamuni teaching than traditional Buddhism. Ethic norms are explained in such scriptures as Three PrinciplesFive Virtues (Buddha, dharma, and Sangha). The Hoa Hao school honours ancestors, parents, the Motherland and “three treasures” (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha).

The main constraints refer to alcohol consumption, the taking and selling of opium, gambling, crying during funerals and seeking revenge.

Hoa Hao teaches tolerance towards other religions.


This refers to the traditions of the peoples living in the territory of the Chota Nagpur Plateau in the states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Assam and Chhattisgarh including the sacred groves or sarna, a place of the Gram Deoti deity residence. In honour of the deity, people offer sacrifices two times a year. The majority of the adherents are from the Baiga, Ho, Kurukh, Munda and Santal peoples.

Austoasiatic national religions are characterised by similar principles and ideas. Adherents strive to have harmony with themselves, nature, ancestors and the community. They follow pacifistic philosophy but try to revive the national religion in general.