The 2006 return of the body Phạm Công Tắc, one of the founding spirit mediums of Caodaism and its most famous 20th century leader, re-awakened controversies about his life and legacy among Caodaists both in Vietnam and in the diaspora. This paper argues that his most important contribution lay in formulating a utopian project to support the struggle for independence by providing a religiously based repertoire of concepts to imagine national autonomy, and a separate apparatus of power to achieve it. Rather than stressing Tắc’s political actions, which have been well documented in earlier studies (Blagov 2001; Bernard Fall 1955; Werner 1976), I focus instead on a reading of his sermons, his séance transcripts and commentaries, histories published both in Vietnam and in the diaspora, and conversations with Caodaists in several countries when the appropriateness of returning his body was being debated.
Janet Hoskins is a scholar of the Anthropology Department, University of Southern California, Grace Ford Salvatori, Los Angeles, California 90089, U.S.A. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
On November 1, 2006, excited crowds in Tây Ninh gathered in front of the huge central gate to their sacred city, which had not been opened for half a century. The large octagonal tomb on the way to the Great Temple had been built for Phạm Công Tắc, Caodaism’s most famous and controversial 20th century leader, and planned as his final resting place, but it had sat empty for decades. Now, news had come that the gate would be opened on this day to receive a funeral procession coming from Cambodia, bearing his remains in a dragon shaped carriage, where his body would be welcomed, celebrated with a full night of prayers and chanting, and then finally laid to rest.
Since his death, a larger-than-life-size statue had been erected on the balcony of the large saffron colored building that had been his office in the 1940s and 1950s, where he delivered sermons that still define the ideals of worship for Tây Ninh followers. Just below it, a colorful hologram showed an image of Jesus Christ when looked at from the front, an image of Buddha when looked at from his right and an image of Phạm Công Tắc when looked at from his left. This summarized a key doctrine of the Tây Ninh religious hierarchy: Phạm Công Tắc was a spiritual leader on the same order as Buddha and Jesus. It should be noted, however, that Tắc never made this claim himself, and that it might be contested not only by followers of other religions but also by Caodaists affiliated with other denominations.