The Divine Eye and the Diaspora: Vietnamese Syncretism becomes Transpacific Caodaism
304pp. February 2015
The Divine Eye and the Diaspora: Vietnamese Syncretism Becomes Transpacific Caodaism
Author: Hoskins, Janet Alison;
What is the relationship between syncretism and diaspora? Caodaism is a large but almost unknown new religion that provides answers to this question. Born in Vietnam during the struggles of decolonization, shattered and spatially dispersed by cold war conflicts, it is now reshaping the goals of its four million followers. Colorful and strikingly eclectic, its “outrageous syncretism” incorporates Chinese, Buddhist, and Western religions as well as world figures like Victor Hugo, Jeanne d’Arc, Vladimir Lenin, and (in the USA) Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism.

The book looks at the connections between “the age of revelations” (1925-1934) in French Indochina and the “age of diaspora” (1975-present) when many Caodai leaders and followers went into exile. Structured in paired biographies to trace relations between masters and disciples, now separated by oceans, it focuses on five members of the founding generation and their followers or descendants in California, showing the continuing obligation to honor those who forged the initial vision to “bring the gods of the East and West together.” Diasporic congregations in California have interacted with New Age ideas and stereotypes of a “Walt Disney fantasia of the East,” at the same time that temples in Vietnam have re-opened their doors after decades of severe restrictions.

Caodaism forces us to reconsider how anthropologists study religious mixtures in postcolonial settings. Its dynamics challenge the unconscious Eurocentrism of our notions of how religions are bounded and conceptualized.

8 color and 17 black & white illustrations
"Hoskins demonstrates that what others have observed as an "outrageous" religion was, in fact, a drive that was serving a specific function for its community at every point. In short, the first half of Caodaism’ s history served to liberate a colonized Vietnam and the second half alleviated the tensions of exile and migration. . . . The Divine Eye and the Diaspora is an impressive project, one that demonstrates the importance of long-term ethnographic research and the expertise that can only be obtained from years of participant observation." –Nova Religio, 20:2 (November 2016)

"Centering on the notion of 'Transpacific religion,' Hoskins pairs the biographical profiles of five founding generation adherents with those of their diasporic successors, also depicting the wider contexts of both. In doing so, she skillfully weaves a brilliantly engaging narrative, outlining the complex history and nature of this movement in Vietnam and overseas." —Religious Studies Review, 42:1 (March 2016)

“This examination of the Caodai religious movement is easily the most comprehensive and sympathetic study yet prepared on what is surely the most fascinating yet also the most misunderstood of Vietnam’s ‘new’ (colonial and postcolonial) religions. The work engages critically with existing interpretations of the Caodai faith and ventures a new interpretation of its emergence as a reflexive re-synthesis of Vietnamese religious traditions—a self-defensive re-articulation of identity—in the context of colonial cultural and political domination, frustrated nationalism, diasporic dispersal, and transnational globalism. . . . In the hands of the author, this engaging, complex, and big-hearted Vietnamese religion at last has gained the sensitive and capable treatment it deserves.” —Philip Taylor, The Australian National University

"This exceptionally engaging work traces the historical and contemporary development of the Cao Dai religion from its inception in colonial Vietnam, its movement to the US with the diaspora, and its present-day mode as a full-fledged Transpacific religion. . . . Extremely well written, this work moves seamlessly through time and space. The author interweaves historical accounts with ethnographic observations and interviews in ways that bring the religion to life and enhance the reader’s understanding." —Karen Fjelstad, California State University San Jose

"[T]he rich ethnographic work of the book promises to provide several questions that are ripe for classroom discussion and further analysis. . . . While the book is certainly a contribution for the specific study of the Cao Đài religion and the Vietnamese diaspora, it also provides a good amount of material to discuss with students and fellow researchers in the fields of history, anthropology, religious studies and diaspora studies." —New Mandala, 13 September 2015 Link to full review
Author: Hoskins, Janet Alison;
Janet Alison Hoskins is professor of anthropology and religion at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Her books include The Play of Time: Kodi Perspectives on History, Calendars and Exchange (1996 recipient of the Benda Prize in Southeast Asian Studies) and Biographical Objects: How Things Tell the Stories of People’s Lives (1998). She is the contributing editor of four books: Transpacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field (with Viet Thanh Nguyen, University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014); Headhunting and the Social Imagination in Southeast Asia (1996); A Space Between Oneself and Oneself: Anthropology as a Search for the Subject (1999); and Fragments from Forests and Libraries (2001). She served as president of the Society for the Anthropology of Religion from 2011 to 2013, and has produced three ethnographic documentaries (distributed by, including "The Left Eye of God: Caodaism Travels from Vietnam to California” (2008). She has been a visiting researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles; the Anthropology Department, Oslo, Norway; the Southeast Asian Studies Center, Kyoto, Japan; and the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.