The definition of lila is “sport” or “play” in Sanskrit. It represents the idea of joyous and unnecessary creativity (Sax 13). The first appearance as a theological term was in the Vedanta Sutra in approximately the third century C.E. (Sax 14). Theological terms arose before mythology was written to explain it, in such texts as the Bhagavad Gita and the Harivamsa Purana composed 300 C.E. (Sax 15). The Vaisnava tradition, particularly the Krsna cult, was the leader in elaborating on lila and its doctrine (Sax 14).
In Hinduism, the gods embody the principles that teach its followers about enlightenment. These gods are believed to be complete, with no needs or desires. To resemble the gods, one must stop acting from necessity and act outside of cause and effect (Kinsley xi). They act outside of maya, or illusion and cosmic ignorance, as maya is the collection of illusive ideas which create a world that is false. The creative process and action of lila is real, and the creation is a manifestation of the true nature of God (Sax 15). Lila is associated with ananda (bliss) in freedom and spontaneity (Olson 165). For the self, this could represent support and appreciation of joy in living, or can be used as the idea to experience tragedies as part of the play of the gods (Sax 15). Maya-lila is the concept that creation is continuous, ceaseless cycles of creation and destruction. There are multiple realities, they are transformable, with blurred definitions between divine play and non-play. It permeates art and religion for the privileged upper classes who intertwine the serious, real aspects of life with creativity, such as switching male and female gender roles (Schechner 35). This cycle is permanent as the maya illusion of necessary work consistently interacts with the lila sport of divine play (Kinsley xii).
All Vedanta schools accept the Vedanta Sutra with different perspectives; by doing so, they also accept the teaching of divine sportiveness in different ways. In the Advaita Vedanta illusionist school, lila is provisional as reality does not exist, and the unenlightened must understand maya to find enlightenment. They would cease any form of creativity and commit themselves to the practice of maya. The followers against this illusionist cosmology would accept and maintain their creative skill. In the Bhagavad Gita, God acts to assist and preserve the world in a righteous way. Thinkers of the Caitanya school disagree, and believe that God acts in sport without thinking of benefiting his creation; therefore the feeling of pleasure is an effect of God’s nature. In other Vaisnava circles, sportive and supportive acts have the same motivation because they are both acts of lila not tied to any form of desire (Sax 15). Brahman must not have had a motive for creating the universe if it is all- sufficient, and since its personal desires are fulfilled, it created the universe from sport (Kinsley 2). In the bhakti cult, the saints and devotees are revered for their “uselessness” in society, acting unproductively and disorderly without the capacity to look after themselves (Kinsley xii). The devotees are not bound by social conventions and follow inclinations that are sometimes disrespectful (Olson 173). “To be an intimate associate of God able to play with him by participating in his lila is the highest possible perfection of human existence” (Bryant 115). The sakta (root sakti, divine feminine power) devotee believes the world in its confusion and fluctuations is the sport of the gods, and ascetics refuse to take part in the cosmic dance (Kinsley 18).
Dualistic schools of Sankhya or Vaisnavism often sees pleasure in worldly life as not divine (Morey 73). Sri Aurobindo Ghose, in his study of the non-dualistic Integral advaita tradition, shows his understanding of lila as the way in which Brahman creates itself in pleasure to see its followers share in the manifestations of the world (Morey 75). In a nondualist perspective of lila, nothing exists outside of the creative energies of Brahman, though many manifestation cycles of creation and destruction happen independently within Brahman (Morey 76). Sri Aurobindo does not believe Atman (the self) is Brahman (the Absolute) with only a few select humans who can glimpse the divine, but a blissful ananda Brahman would allow self-knowledge to bring people closer to the truth, a higher existence of lila. Brahman does not keep humans forcefully in a state of illusion for their lifetimes, however it gives people the ability to choose the qualities which they will further manifest in themselves (Morey 75). To Sri Aurobindo, lila is superior to maya, in this case maya is the “consciousness of Brahman,” and lila “involves the transformation of maya toward the realization of its true nature,” to liberation or moksa (Morey 77). The Being-Conciousness-Bliss, Sachchidananda, evolves through lila at every level of the divine play, the goal of realization never absent, brings humanity closer to Sachchidananda (Morey 80). In this Integral Yoga perspective, this advaita (non-dualism) has three states of being in the individual, universal and transcendental realms (Morey 75).
Multiple epics work to teach these concepts to followers using different manifestations. There is the the story of Visnu creating the world while dreaming asleep on the cosmic serpent Ananta. This dream where the lotus that grows from the navel of Visnu creates Brahma, then Brahma in turn creates the world illustrates lila. In this way, creation is a purposeless, effortless reflex in the mind that happens in the play of the Lord of the Universe with matter; Visnu with Prakrti (Kinsley 3). Lila is used as a metaphor for the appearance of Brahman, the one reality, as prakrti (matter) in the world (Butler 3). In the Mahabharata, Siva treats the universe as his marble ball, or malleable plaything. The dancing god creates the world, and then through his dancing, destroys it (Kinsley 6). Worshippers see Siva, also called Nataraja the Lord of Dancers, as a violent and dangerous deity who dances to create, sustain, and destroy the world (Sax 14). Rudra, the howler who is an avatara (incarnation) of Siva is an untamed free spirit, not bound by rules, with his madness characterized as irresponsible yet playful (Kinsley 28). This is related to his interactions with Kali. She is portrayed as a wild woman who saves severed heads for her own pleasure: a destroyer who maintains cosmic balance (Kinsley 19).
Through cosmic creation and popular devotion, the epic of Krsna combines these senses of lila into one form (Butler 6). Devotion to divine play is one method that leads to salvation (Sax 19). Krsna plays pranks by disobeying his family and stealing butter (Kinsley 64). His playful battles are imaginative when he runs sportively through the forests of Vrndavana recklessly killing demons in front of his friends. Krsna possesses beauty, relating to play as an end in itself, ornamental and existing without purpose (Kinsley 74). The beauty assists his sportive nature in myths dedicated to him seducing women, yet is not an instrumental necessity because of his playful character. It is also related to kama (desire) in its sexual overtones (Butler 6). Krsna steals the clothes of the gopis (cowherd girls) who are bathing in the river, and when they come to him naked wanting their clothes returned, he sings, plays his flute, and dances the rasa-lila (circle dance) to try and seduce them with the illusion maya of pleasure, (Olson 167).
Krsna’s incarnation has two main motives in the text, the Bhagavad Gita: the “official” motive of protecting the righteous by removing demonic military power and saving the earth. The “unofficial” motive is to attract souls lost in samsara (rebirth) to remove attachment to indulgences and the cycle of karma (actions good or bad), then search for the beauty of lila in God (Bryant 116). Bhakti-yoga involves immersing the senses and thoughts with objects connected with Krsna’s lila, as outlined by Patanjali (Bryant 117). Krsna’s avataras themselves demonstrate the playful nature of the gods in their appearances on earth (Kinsley 17). His lila–avataras (pastime –avataras, forms taken from sport) come in numerous incarnations (Knapp 504). He came in the form of Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise), Lord Varaha, and Lord Rama, etc. to play in an earthly form (Knapp 508).
There is also play in drama and aesthetics. There is the creative, original-maker type of lila that create new forms of art beyond the works of previous artists, and there are interpreters who are intermediaries that communicate its meaning to the audience (Butler 9). Performances in Vrndavana are a type of less regulated play; with creative characters telling stories simultaneously interpreted by professional declaimers in a way that engages the audience (Sax 17). The rasa-lila is the tradition of aesthetic religious theatre for bhakti (religious devotion) purposes (Thielemann 8). Lila as a genre of drama is a popular cultural event for celebrating Krsna, such as the performance of the ram-lila (Hawley 57).
The concept of lila, divine play, reiterates key elements in understanding the nature of the gods in Hinduism, as well as provides a place for the process of creativity in religious thought. Different schools of religion and philosophers debate the topic of lila, manifesting a modern interpretation. The epics portray the deities to be part of the teachings of lila, as passed down for many generations. Lila is practiced in performance arts to bring additional meaning to the principle of play; widely accessible with the playful integration of different concepts. The ideas and stories surrounding lila impact the beliefs and practices of Hindus and their worldview of existence.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Bryant, Edwin F. (2007) Krishna: A Sourcebook. New York: Oxford University Press.
Butler, John F. (1960) “Creation, Art and Lila.” Philosophy East and West 10#1 (April): 3-12
Hawley, John S. and Vasudha Narayanan (2006) The Life of Hinduism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kinsley, David R. (1979) The Divine Player: A Study of Krsna Lila. Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Knapp, Steven (2005) The Heart of Hinduism: The Eastern Path to Freedom, Empowerment and Illumination. Lincoln: iUniverse Inc.
Morey, Matthew W. (2012) “Sri Aurobindo’s Lila: the Nature of Divine Play According to Integral Advaita.” Integral Review, Vol. 8, No. 1 (July): 68-84.
Olson, Carl (2007) The Many Colors of Hinduism: A Thematic-historical Introduction. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Sax, William S. (1995) The Gods at Play: Lila in South Asia. New York: Oxford University Press.
Schechner, Richard (2003) The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance. New York: Routledge.
Thielemann, Selina (2000) Singing the Praises Divine: Music in the Hindu Tradition. New Delhi: APH Publishing.
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This article was written by: Sharra Fullersmith (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.