Unlike the Abrahamic religions, where God is rigid with many laws and amendments for his devotees, in Hinduism, “God is playful. Like a child building sand castles on the beach, God creates the world and destroys it again. God plays with his (or her) devotees, sometimes like a lover, sometimes like a mother with her children, sometimes like an actor in a play” (Sax: 3). Gods of most religions are characterized by their otherness, spacelessness, timelessness, deathlessness, creativity and power however in Hindu religion Gods are further identified by their playfulness (Kinsley: x). This playfulness of Hindu Gods is called Lila. “Lila is a Sanskrit noun meaning ”sport” or “play” that has been the central term in the Hindu elaboration of the idea that God in his creating and governing of the world is moved not by need or necessity but by a free and joyous creativity that is integral to his own nature” (Sax: 13). About the third century C.E., Lila was first introduced as a theological term in the Vedanta Sutra of Badarayana where the author believes that “God who is all and has all cannot be credited with creation, because persons create only to come into possession of something that they do not already have” (Sax:14). The concept of Lila was primarily explained in the work of Vaisnava tradition especially by devotees of the young, cowherd and mischievous Krsna (Sax: 14). Lila has been used by some Hindus to appreciate the world in a spirit of religious wonder and to sustain joy in living (Sax). Lila or play as a symbol of divine activity and as cultic activity displays that play is a positive activity and demonstrate positive relationship to religion (Kinsley: x). However, other Hindus did not accept the positive application of God’s playfulness, instead they used the idea of Lila to domesticate the tragedies of life (Sax 1995). There are two different understandings of the conception of God’s playfulness and sportiveness. In the Bhagavad Gita, the playfulness of God is described as an action “to assist devotees, to maintain righteousness, and to preserve integrity of the world” (Sax: 15). But in the school of Caitanya, it is insisted that “God acts solely for his own sport and without thought of benefiting his creatures; creatures are in fact benefited by God’s sportive acts, but only because those acts are the pleasure of a supreme being whose nature includes compassion” (Sax: 15). These two explanations of Lila have been no different from each other in other Vaisnava circles because in both explanations, Gods act playful without scheming the selfish gain they might get out of the play (Sax 1995).
Despite these conflicts of the meaning and understanding of Lila, it mainly refers to the positive playful relationship between Brahman and the world. It is written in the Brahma sutra of Badarayana, “creation is not possible for Brahman on account of having a motive, but as in ordinary life, creation is mere sport to Brahman” (Radhakrishnan: 361-362). In the Vaisnava version of creation of the world, creation of the world is viewed as the play of God because the world is created by Brahma who was created in a lotus flower growing from navel of sleeping God, Visnu (Kinsley: 2). It is believed that there are ten different avatars as incarnations of Vishnu who came to correct the balance of good and bad in the world. However, Hindu scriptures expressed these avatars as playful act of Visnu to amuse himself (Kinsley: 4). In the Saivite tradition, creation of the world is also viewed as playful and spontaneous because the world is created by the dancing of Siva who is known to be the king of dancers (Kinsley: 5). Siva created the world by means of dancing hence he destroys the world by his continuous great dance (Kinsley: 6). As creation of the world by Visnu in the Vaisnava version is defined as playfulness of Visnu, Siva creating the world by means of dancing is also taken as playfulness of Siva.
The stories, tales or myths told about Krsna narrate that Krsna is the most playful than other Gods. There are two mainly known myths of Krsna: the young, carefree, playful and cowherd boy of Vrndavana and the counselor, politician and hero of Mahabharata (Kinsley: 57). When discussing the playfulness of Krsna, it is solely associated with the young cowherd Krsna. The story of young Krsna is widely told and narrated to youth of India. Young or child form of Krsna is the most worshipped and loved form of Krsna in India. Child Krsna was playful in his spontaneous play of the divine (Kinsley: 61). As an infant, Krsna played in his mother’s yard and covered himself with dirt; while as a child, he played by repeatedly stealing butter from his mother and other women. As an adolescent, he played with friends, teased girls and imitated animals (Kinsley: 62). Besides his playfulness, there are also stories told that prove Krsna as the divine lover. “This charming, youthful god who entrances all by his beauty is the hero of the love Lila of Vrndavana, the central episode of the Krsna cult” (Kinsley: 78). Even though his beauty alone is not considered as Lila, it plays an important role in Krsna’s playful relationships with gopis (cow herding girls) (Kinsley: 74-77). Krsna is referred as the divine lover as the result of his playful nature of love and lovemaking (Kinsley: 78). Krsna’s devotees should feel like lovers of Krsna by amusing him and be amused by him (Kinsley).
“In Hinduism, the play of gods in its abundance and variety shows the play is an appropriate means of expressing the otherness of the divine sphere” (Kinsley: 122). In South Asia, Lila has different meanings such as play, game, theatre, sport, and creativity. South Asian devotees perceive god as individual with personality and passions (Mason: 52). The playfulness, sportiveness and silliness of god appeal to most devotees. Hindu celebrations of gods such us Holi and Diwali hence are filled with colors, games and fireworks. In conclusion Lila contributes to the understanding of Hindu culture and religion.
REFERENCES AND FURTHUR RECOMMENDED READING
Allen, George, and Unwin (1960) The Brahma Sutra: The Philosophy of Spiritual Life. Translated and edited by S. Radhakrishnan. London.
Kinsley, David R. (1979) The Divine Player: A study of Krishna Lila. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt Ltd.
Mason, David V. (2009) “Krishna, Lila, and Freedom.” Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage 43-56. Accessed February 05, 2017. doi: 10.1007/978-0-230-62158-9_3.
Misra, Ram S. (1998) The Integral Advaitism of Sri Aurobindo. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt Ltd.
Nelson, Lance E. (1998) Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu Indi. New York: State University of New York Press.
Sax, William S. (1995) The Gods at Play: Lila in South Asia. London: Oxford University Press.
Zimmer, Heinrich, and Joseph, Campell. (1969) Philosophies of India. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
School of Caitanya
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Article written by: Blen Chiko (Spring 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.