The Universal Religion 3

Li-tai’-Pe began by announcing that he was the bearer of a most important message to mankind from the Lord of the Universe. He explained that he, Li-tai-Pe, in his capacity of minister to the Supreme Spirit had at various epochs and in different parts of the globe founded Confucianism, The Cult of the Ancestors, Christianity, Taoism and Buddhism. (In later messages Islam was added to this list.) The estab¬lishment of these religions, the Sage said – each of which took into consideration the customs and psychology of the races for which they were separately designed – took place at a time when the peoples of the world had little contact with each other owing to the deficient means of transport. In these days things were very different. The whole world had been explored and communications had reached a stage when any part of the globe was only a few days removed from any other part. The time had clearly come, through his intervention, to bring about an intelligent reorganisation, a syncretism of all these only superficially diverse creeds in a harmonious and cosmopolitan whole. The divinely inspired amalgam was to be called after the name Cao-Dai, by which the Founder of the Universe had stated that he now wished to be known.
At this early period the objects of the religion, as summarised by Li- tai’-Pe, were ‘to combat heresy, to sow among the peoples the love of good and the practice of virtue, to learn to love justice and resignation, to reveal to men the posthumous consequences of the acts by which they assassinate their souls’. It seems later to have been realised that the combating of heresy was an anomaly in a religion aiming at a fusion of existing doctrines, and it was abandoned.
A calendar of saints, while in the process of formation, is still meagre. It includes Victor Hugo, Allan Kerdec, Joan of Arc, de la Rochefoucauld, St Bernard, St John the Baptist and the Jade Emperor. These frequently communicate by spiritualistic means with the Cao-Daist leaders, giving their rulings on such important matters of ritual as the offering of votive papers on ancestral altars. It would seem that in oriental spiritualism a curious prestige attaches to ‘guides’ of Western origin, paralleled, of course, by the Indian chiefs, the Buddhist monks and the Chinese sages, that play so prominent a part in equivalent practices in Europe.
From the philosophical point of view, Cao-Daism seems to be encountering some difficulty in its efforts to reconcile such contra¬dictory tenets as Original Sin and Redemption with the doctrine of the soul’s evolution through reincarnation. The prescribed rites are strongly oriental in character: regular prostrations before an altar, which must include ritual candlesticks, an incense burner, offerings of fruit and a painting showing an eye (the sign of the Cao-Dai) surrounded by clouds. Occidental converts are excused by the Pope from ritual prostrations, which ‘for the moment may be replaced by profound reverences’.
In Cochin-China it is a respected convention that all organised move¬ments of persons shall start well before dawn. The intelligent intention behind this practice, which has been remarked upon by all travellers in the past, is to permit as much of the journey as possible to be covered in the coolest hours. What happens in practice, at least in these days, is that various members of the party cannot find transport to take them to the agreed place of assembly and have to be fetched; while others are not awakened by the hotel-boy, who may not have understood the arrange-ment, or may, on the other hand, be employing this means of passive resistance towards the hated European. In one way or another, the precious minutes of coolness are frittered away and it is dawn before one finally leaves Saigon. In this case further delays were introduced by the many security measures, the halts at roadblocks, the slow winding of the convoy round obstacles, the waiting for telephoned reports of conditions ahead from major defence-posts on the route. While we dawdled thus the sun bulged over the horizon, silhouetting with exaggerated pictur-esqueness a group of junks moored in some unsuspected canal. For a short time the effect of the heat was directional, as if an electric fire had been switched on in a cool room. But the air soon warmed up and within half an hour one might have been sitting in a London traffic block in a July day heat-wave.
The convoy was made up of about twenty civilian cars and was escorted by three armoured vehicles and several lorries carrying white- turbaned Algerians. The foreign visitors had been carefully separated. I rode in a Citroen and was in the charge of an English-speaking functionary, a Monsieur Beauvais, whose task it was, I gathered, to provide a running commentary of the trip, throwing in, occasionally, in accordance with the official line of the moment, a few words in praise of Cao-Daism. In this he was somewhat frustrated by a colleague sitting in the front seat, who, being unable to speak English and assuming that I did not understand French, contributed an explosion of disgust, salted with such expressions as merde and degolasse, whenever he overheard a mention of the words Cao-Dai. However, even from the French point of view it did not really matter, as the official attitude was just then in the process of switching round once more. Beauvais, too, soon stopped worrying about his official job. What he was really interested in was English literature and in particular English civilisation as presented by John Galsworthy, which contrasted so nostalgically with the barbarous life of a government employee in Cochin-China.

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