Book: The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact
Author: US Department of the Navy

The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact By US Department of the Navy

Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 175
Publication Date: 1967

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Vietnam has an extrordinary number of different religious influences, including Animism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Christianity and several indigenous belief systems such as Cao Dai. This guidebook, published by the US military, is a reference about this subject, compiled on the cusp of the Vietnam war. It includes quite a bit of cultural and background information about Vietnam, statistics about numbers of adherents, as well as a guide to cultural sensitivity which may still be of use.

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Centuries of animism, ancestor veneration, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, etc., have deeply etched the cultural influences in Vietnam. Each of these religions has affected the Vietnamese culture so that at the present time behavior patterns and customs subtly, or obviously, reflect these concepts. The Vietnamese do not make the distinctions between secular and sacred as clearly or precisely as do most Westerners. Therefore the total life of the Vietnamese peoples is much more affected by religious concepts than seems to be the pattern in America. The primary or basic religion of Vietnam seems to be that of Animism. Animism is the religious faith of nearly all the tribes-people, or as the French called them, Montagnards. Traces of Animism are found also in most of the other major religious faiths in Vietnam today.

Animism, currently called "People's Religion" by some, is a belief "in spirits." These spirits may be those of deceased persons or inanimate objects such as stones, rivers, mountains, trees, etc. The basic core of Animism is the belief that spirits by appeasement can be used to create good, or pleased so that they will not create harm, danger and trouble. Moreover, each person has a spirit without which sickness and death would soon occur. This spirit continues to exist even after death has claimed its possessor. The death of the person creates a demand for the provision of the needs and desires of the on-going spirit. Unattended or dissatisfied spirits may become angry, bitter, or revengeful. They may seek to re-enter the present life which will create havoc and harm in numerous ways.

Because of the spirit's ability to continue an independent existence, it must be cared for properly. As spirits are associated with people, Animists perceive them to be greedy, deceptive, unpredictable, and possessing every trait known to man. Normally, the departed spirits of the good do not create too much concern if the proper rites are performed at the appropriate times, especially those rites which will send them happily on their way to the "spirit world."

However, those people who die violently cause great fear as their spirits may be embittered by such a fate and create havoc to individuals, families or communities. Violent deaths include accidents, war, those killed by tigers, women who die in childbirth or die childless, or those whose bodies are not recovered and properly buried or cremated.

Animists seem more anxious to placate angry or evil spirits who pose constant danger than to seek the favor of the happy or good spirits who may help them. In this sense, fear of the evil wins out over honor toward the good. Because of such concepts, animistic rites become methods which utilize fetishes, blood sacrifices, symbolic designs, magic words, taboos, etc. These are techniques which cause the spirits to do the will of the worshipper.

The animist does not view himself as a helpless or passive victim of the invisible world. He views himself as one who by use of the proper religio-magic formulae may achieve his own goals. The various spirits to be placated are from human, animal and inanimate sources. The animist expends much of his thought, effort, energy, and wealth in religious observances designed to channel the powerful forces to his benefit and in accord with his own desires.

To the animist all existence is one and the same thing, and has no permanent divisions or distinctions of animate and inanimate, human or non-human. Everything past and present is contemporary. This requires that all rituals must follow the prescribed pattern to avoid discomfort to the spirits. Living in fear as he does from birth to death, the animist is almost obsessed with religious observances as he seeks to placate one spirit or the other. He seeks to avoid offending any spirit that may cause trouble.

Animism is basically non-ethical and non-moral. The aim of the animist is not to have his character transformed or changed. It is to create the proper atmosphere so that spirits will comply with the will and wish of the animist. Therefore he does not hesitate to utilize any means which will provide him the protection which he desires, since these are merely means whereby he may relate to his world in a meaningful manner. This is especially true in the more backward areas where Animism is yet untouched by other religious concepts. The animist in his continuous power struggle with the invisible world grapples for the best advantages so that he may avoid that which seems otherwise certain and dreadful. The animist has a pantheon of spirits which range from those in man to those in birds, animals, rocks, trees, streams, etc. He is constantly on the lookout for those who demand immediate attention, and the situations which cannot be ignored with impunity. Because this search is aided by religious "personalities", the sorcerer, magician, or shaman, these persons occupy positions of peculiar importance, power and influence. Since these persons have prestige and special powers in the mind of the animist, special care must be taken by Americans in dealings with them, in discussions about them, or in encouraging courses of action not agreeable to them.

Blood sacrifices, either of fowl or animals, may be used for both fertility and ceremonial rites. They are performed at childbirth, weddings, funerals, etc., and may be offered to either good or evil spirits as the occasion demands. Despite the objections of the French previously, and the Vietnamese currently, some of the animistic tribesmen are believed still to practice the sacrifice of human beings for the puberty rites for young men and also as supreme offerings of appeasement to spirits troubling individuals or communities. The identity of these spirits is determined by the sorcerer through appropriate rites. (These are described in some detail in THE PEOPLE OF THE TRIBES OF SOUTH VIETNAM, a companion study soon to be published.)

Blood sacrifices of various kinds may be offered to the spirits for protection, health and prosperity, events relating to birth, marriage, death, drought, warfare, choosing a new field, building a house, planting a crop, harvesting that which has been grown in the swidden-patches, etc. It is through such sacrificial rites that the Vietnamese animist seems to find order and meaning in his life, and they provide that which is essential to integration and sanity.