RELIGION & CULTURE
The Cao Dai faith is an amalgam of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism and Confucianism. The Cao Dai Temple was finished in 1955 when the Cao Dai Army was formed following the Japanese occupation of Indochina. The Lord Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad and Confucius, in addition to Joan of Arc and Julius Cesar are all honored at the temple we will be visiting. For seven decades, this beautiful, dragon-adorned temple outside the small city of Tay Ninh, about 60 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) near the Cambodian border, has been the center of Cao Dai, which has five million followers. While it is not the country’s main religion, its significance draws from the fact that it originated here and was not imported from any other region or country. Kit Gillet, writing in The New York Times, reflects amusingly that "The protagonist of Graham Greene’s Quiet American (1955) described the temple like this: 'Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of a cathedral on a Walt Disney Fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor.'”
Intriguingly, a list of Cao Dai (pronounced gao-DIE) saints include Joan of Arc, Thomas Jefferson, Sun Yat-sen (the revolutionary father of Chinese republicanism) and Victor Hugo. This odd congregation was allegedly drawn from those spirits who reached out to Cao Dai priests during séances to impart wisdom and guidance. Some, like Victor Hugo, were said to have regularly communicated with the Cao Dai from beyond the grave (Gillet).
We will investigate the significance of religion in a socialist republic, where the current Prime Minister is the head of government in a one-party system led by the Communist Party of Vietnam.
We will also visit the UNESCO heritage sites of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and the temples at Bayon, Pre Rup (926AD) and Ta Prohm in Cambodia.
The “neak” are the dragons of Khmer. The word comes from the Indian “naga,” which also means dragon. The depictions of the “Shesh naga” or the giant serpent on which the Hindu God Lord Vishnu rests, is depicted as floating in the ocean of the changing world. Nagas are prominently displayed in the Hindu-inspired temples we visit. Neak is also the term used in Cambodia to describe a man who wants to be ordained as a monk. Khmer people believe that to be a monk is one of the most prestigious things a man can do with his life. The word itself denotes goodness. The term “Bombous Neak” means ordained dragon and describes a fully actualized monk.
The Phaya nāga, are mythical serpent-like creatures, believed by locals to live in the Mekong river or estuaries. Common explanations of their sightings have been attributed to oarfish, elongated fish with red crests. Lao mythology maintains that the Naga are the protectors of Vientiane, and by extension, the Lao state.
Luang Prabang, in northern Laos, lies in a valley at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Inhabited for thousands of years, it was the royal capital of the country until 1975. It’s known for its many Buddhist temples, dating to the 16th century, and Wat Mai, once the residence of the head of Laotian Buddhism.
We will visit Buddhist temples in this region and discuss how Buddhism and environmentalism converge in addressing water issues in this region (especially in protesting the damming of the Mekong).
We will study the history of Hindu invasions from India, along the waterway connecting the subcontinent to South-east Asia, and the cultural legacy of these invasions on the Khmer civilization. We will also learn about the centrality of water in the Hindu religion.
Against this backdrop, we look at how India and Japan are building a giant corridor to increase connectivity options for ASEAN countries, especially Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. This is to counter China’s lead in proposing new industrial and transport corridors passing through ASEAN countries that converge in the Chinese mainland, under its “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). The gateway to the Indo-Japanese project is the trilateral highway that starts from the border town of Moreh in Manipur to Mandalay (Myanmar) on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River, and then onwards to Mae Sot inside the Thai border, with Myawaddy being the last destination on the Myanmar side. This has great potential as Myawaddy connects easily with the Yangon deep water port, as well as the Andaman Sea, and from there, via the waterways to Danang (Vietnam).
Snake God in Hindu worship