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LĪLĀ is a Sanskrit noun meaning "sport" or "play." It 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. He acts in a state of rapt absorption comparable to that of an artist possessed by his creative vision or to that of a child caught up in the delight of a game played for its own sake. The latter comparison is the basis for speaking of God's acts as līlā, or sport. Although the translation is the best available, the English word sport is a rough rendering that suggests a frivolity not necessarily implied by the word līlā. In the Hindu thought world in which this term arose, the description of God's acts as sport was intended to negate any notion that they are motivated, like the acts of human beings, by acquisitive desire (kāma ) or are necessitated by the retributive impetus of the actor's previous deeds (karman ) or by the requirements of duty. Because God forever possesses all, he has no wants and no desires. His ever-desireless acts entail no retribution. He is not the instrument of duty but duty's creator. The spontaneity and autonomy of his actions are absolute.

The word līlā, used in this theological sense, began to appear in Hindu religious literature in about the third or fourth century ce. Partial sources of the concept are found in earlier writings that mention, even in the Vedic age, the frolicsome nature of the gods and the ease and freedom of their acts. The attribution of joyous freedom to the one supreme being made its appearance in the Upaniads in reports of experiences of unity with the Divine that were expansive states of blissful release from care. It was not in the monistic systems, however, but in the great Hindu monotheisms that the notion of divine sportiveness became a major concept. Even the worshipers of Śivaa violent and dangerous deity not easily credited with playfulnessexplained the universe as formed in the gyrations of a cosmic dance in which, as Naāraja, or Lord of Dancers, Śiva ecstatically creates and sustains and destroys. The elaboration of the idea of līlā into a studied doctrine has been primarily the work of the Vaiava tradition; in particular, the cult of Ka as Gopāla, the young cowherd, carried the teaching of līlā to its most advanced development. This later Kaism was shaped decisively by the idea of līlā in almost every aspect of its religious systemin its theology, its mythology, its mysticism, and its conception of salvation.

The Theology of LĪlĀ

The first appearance of līlā as a theological term is apparently a use of the word in the Vedānta Sūtra of Bādarāyaa (third century ce?). In 2.1.33 of that work the author defends belief in a personal Creator against an objection that the God of monotheistic belief who is all and has all cannot be credited with creation, because persons create only in order to come into possession of something that they do not already have. The author replies that, even in the ordinary world, some people carry out creative acts not for the satisfaction of any wants, but merely sportively, for the sheer joy of the activity itself. Faith in a personal Creator is thus reasonable and possible.

The theological literature on līlā consists primarily of the commentarial writings on this passage that have been written by the founders and other recognized scholars of the various Vaiava sects. In the twelfth century, for example, Rāmānuja illustrates the meaning of līlā by the example of a great monarch who, though he has no unsatisfied desire, sports enthusiastically on the playing field just for the amusement of the game. The Caitanyaite commentator Baladeva compares the Creator's activity to that of a healthy man just awakened in the morning from deep sleep, who breaks into a dance simply to express his own exuberance.

Because all schools of Vedānta accept the Vedānta Sūtra, in some fashion they must accept also its teaching on divine sportiveness. The adherents of the illusionist school of Advaita Vedānta have been obliged, of course, to understand the sports of God to have only such reality as belongs to the personal God himself. For them, the absolute being is not in truth a person, nor in reality has any world been created, nor have any sports been performed. The teaching of līlā is provisional only, expressing how unenlightened persons must understand the course of the apparent world so long as they remain under the influence of the deluding cosmic ignorance (māyā ) that creates the appearance of a world that is false. Over against this illusionist cosmology those who fully embraced the līlā teaching were able to maintain that the creative process is real and that the creation is not an obscuration but a manifestation of the nature of God. Indeed, some Hindus have been able to use the līlā doctrine to support appreciation of the world in a spirit of religious wonder and to sustain a joy in living. But the general world-weariness of medieval India did not encourage such positive applications. It was more common to use the idea of divine sportiveness to domesticate the tragedies of life by reflecting that wealth and poverty, health and sickness, and even death itself are apportioned to creatures by God in his mysterious play. The reasons for such fateful interventions are beyond human comprehension, but devotees who understand their fortunes to be the sport of God will know that it is not blind fate that controls their lot, and hence they will accept their condition as providential.

Some tension exists between the conception of God's sportiveness and the older picture presented in the Bhagavadgītā (3.2125, 4.514) of God as acting in order to assist devotees, to maintain righteousness, and to preserve the integrity of the world. Thinkers of the school of Caitanya (14861533) have gone so far as to insist 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. In other Vaiava circles it has been more common to see no difference between the two explanations of the divine motivation: God's sportive acts and his supportive acts are one because both are done without calculation of any selfish gain that might be made through them. Both are therefore desireless (nikāma ) in terms of the ethical ideal of the Bhagavadgītā, and between God's līlā and his grace there is no inconsistency.

LĪlĀ Mythology

Although such Vaiava reasonings could reconcile the old and new views of the divine motivation to each other at the level of theological doctrine, a lavish new mythology was arising in the same period that could not be reconciled so easily with the narratives of earlier forms of Ka worship. The theological development of the līlā idea was overshadowed in mass and influence by a profuse literature that expressed the new conception of the deity in myth. A diversion of attention away from the earnest Ka of the Bhagavadgītā is evident in the Harivaśa Purāa, composed about 300 ce. Chapters 47 to 77 of that work relate for the first time a famous set of tales about how Ka as a child disobeyed his parents, played tricks on his elders, spread lighthearted havoc in his cowherd village, disposed of demons with jocular nonchalance, and flirted with the cowherdesses with a daring naughtiness. About a century later these whimsical stories were retold in the fifth book of the Viu Purāa, where Ka's antics are called līlā s and the whole of his earthly career is described as his manuyalīlā, or human sport (5.7.38). About the ninth century ce these pranks were fully elaborated in the tenth book of the Bhāgavata Purāa, a text that remains the foremost scripture of the family of Vaiava sects that worship Ka in the form of Gopāla. The stories contained in the Bhāgavata Purāa have been retold endlessly in dependent literature in the regional languages of India. The major poets of Hindi, of whom Sūrdās was the greatest, have created in the Braj dialect an especially honored literature on the sport of the child Ka. The attractiveness of these myths has made the worship of Gopāla Ka one of the most prominent forms of Hinduism throughout the past thousand years.

In the Gopāla cult's portrayal of Ka's childhood behavior, the flouting of Hindu moral codes was a prominent element already in the Viu Purāa, and the antinomian tendency increased steadily thereafter. The stories of the god's infancy have remained relatively innocent in spirit, but the tales of his childhood and youth soon focused particularly upon his lying, stealing, violation of sexual taboos, and other mischievous tricks. His nocturnal flirtations in the rāsa dance with the gopī s, or cowherdesses, and in particular with a gopī named Rādhā, became more and more explicitly sexual. In recent centuries a major stream of Bengal Vaiavism has insisted that Ka's amours must be construed as adulterous. At the same time the story of Ka's dance with the gopī s has become ever more important, a central and revelatory mystery of the faith. The lesson that Ka worshipers have drawn from this myth has been purely devotional, however: The ideal devotee must surrender the self to God with a passion as total as that of the straying Hindu wife who, love-mad, sacrifices reputation and home and security in her ruinous devotion to a paramour.

LĪlĀ in Meditation

The myths of Ka's līlā s provide the mental material for most of the religious observances of the Gopāla cults. The purpose of their characteristic practices is to preoccupy the consciousness with visionary perception of the līlā s of Ka. Simple conditioning begins with participation in assemblies where the stories are presented in dance, drama, the singing of narrative poetry, or the chanting of sacred texts. Brahman actors called rāsdhārī s enact the sports of Ka in a Hindi drama called the rāsa-līlā. Professional declaimers called kathaka s, purāika s, or kathāvācaka s read out the scriptural tales and explain them publicly. Devotees move toward a more inward absorption in the līlā s by quiet and reflective reading of mythological books. Aspiration to yet deeper Ka consciousness leads some further into elaborate meditational practices analogous to yoga, carried out under the spiritual direction of a sectarian teacher. Because yogic instruction has traditionally been confidential, and particularly because meditation in this tradition focuses upon matter that is shockingly erotic by usual Hindu standards, the pattern of these disciplines has remained secret to an exceptional degree. A little can be learned from manuscript works of early scholastic writers of the Bengal school, however.

One plan of meditation requires the devotee to follow in imagination the erotic interplay between Rādhā and Ka through all the eight periods of the traditional Hindu day, from their arising in the morning to their retiring at night. Another requires long focus of the inner imagination upon one or another mythical meeting of the divine lovers in the bowers, the meditator assuming the role of one of the female attendants (sakhī s) whose names are mentioned in late Vaiava legends. The hope of the meditator is to perceive his chosen līlā no longer merely in his imagination but in its ongoing celestial reality. By meditating on the manifested (prakaa ) līlā s that are known to all because Ka performed them in the light of history when he descended to earth as an avatāra, it is possible to develop a spiritual eye and to attain vision (darśana ) of the same sports as they are being played eternally in Ka's transcendent paradise in unmanifested (aprakaa ) form. It helps one's meditation to take up residence in the holy region of Mathurā because that earthly city stands directly beneath the celestial city of that name where Ka sports unceasingly, and is its shadow and a point of special contact between the two. Such contemplations focus upon divine acts that have the form of human sexual activities, and success in meditation involves the deliberate arousal and sublimation and use of the meditator's own erotic sensibility. However, the divine love sports that meditators sometimes see are not understood to be acts of lust (kāma ), but acts of spiritual love (prīti ). It is believed that they will remain forever invisible to those who cannot rise above longings that are carnal.

The religious experience that is idealized by this tradition is exemplified in Narsī Mehtā, a Ka devotee of sixteenth-century Gujarat. His career as a major poet sprang from a vision in which he found himself in a celestial region at night, an attendant holding a blazing torch in his hand and privileged to see the heavenly sports of Rādhā, Ka, and the gopī s. So fascinated did he become as he witnessed their eternal dance that his torch burned down through his hand, he said, without his having taken any notice. In visions such as this, intense devotion to Ka is produced and devotees receive assurance of divine assistance and of final liberation.

LĪlĀ in Salvation

The idea of Ka's eternal sport dominates the Gopāla worshipers' understanding of the nature of ultimate blessedness also. They do not expect a merging with the deity but participation forevermore in his celestial sports. It is a state of liberation that can be achieved by attaining on earth a state of total mental absorption in the līlā s. The schools of Vallabha and of Caitanya hold that such raptness of attention is not a mere means of liberation but is the state of liberation itself, and say that those who truly attain this ecstatic state do not care whether they shall be taken into transcendency on death or shall be reborn forever into the world. The usual anticipation, however, is mythological in its imagery. According to the Brahmavaivarta Purāa (4.4.78ff.), the sainted visionary will rise not merely to Vaikuha, the paradise of Viu, but to its highest level, Goloka, the paradise of Ka. There the liberated become cowherdesses belonging to the sportive entourage of Ka. As delighted observers and helpers, they attend forever upon the love sports of Rādhā and Ka, expressing through their joyful service their love for Ka as the center of all existence.

Hindu critics of the notion of līlā have felt that it trivializes God's motives and obscures his active benevolence as savior. Rāmānuja avoids the use of the word when not obliged to explain it in his role as a commentator on a sacred text, and never mentions the mythology of the Bhāgavata Purāa, which was already widely known in his day. The Śaiva theologian Umāpati in section 19 of his Śivap Pirakācam declares that all five classes of divine activities recognized in the system of Śaiva Siddhānta must be understood to spring from God's gracious concern for the deliverance of souls, and that it is not permissible to say that Śiva's acts of creation, preservation, destruction, and so forth, are his sports. Nor have the chief spokesmen of modern Hinduism been attracted generally by the conception of līlā or by its myths. Swami Dayananda in his Satyārthaprakāśa denounces the sportive Ka and his supposed acts as immoral human fabrications. Moved by their social and civic concerns and influenced by the ethical stress in Christian theology, most modern Hindu leaders have preferred the morally earnest Ka of the Bhagavadgītā to the pleasure-seeking Gopāla. Yet a few have responded to the world-affirming implications of līlā as a cosmological idea and have used it in interpreting the natural and human realms. In his book The Life Divine, Aurobindo teaches that the Lord as a free artist creates real worlds and real beings, and sports with souls and in souls in order to lead his creatures to ever-higher levels of consciousness. Rabindranath Tagore uses the language of traditional līlā teaching in testifying to his intuitions that a joyful, ever-creative God is continually revealing himself in the play of natural forces and in the interactions of human beings (see his Gitanjali, poems 56, 59, 63, 80, and 95).

Appraisals of the līlā doctrine have usually recognized its contribution to theology in providing a solution to an important question in cosmology and in supporting a positive appreciation of the world and of life. On the other hand, the līlā idea has been condemned widely as a negative development in Hindu ethics. The judgment assumes that thinking about God arises necessarily out of moral concern and must be applied immediately to the governing of the moral life. The līlā literature is entirely separate, however, from the dharma literature that is the repository of moral guidance for Hindus. The worshipers of the young Ka have never understood the sports of the god to be models for their own actions. Indeed, the Bhāgavata Purāa itself in 10.33.32f. admonishes ordinary mortals never to behave as Ka does, not even in their minds. The Ka cults have been orthodox in their submission to the social patterns prescribed in the Dharmaśāstras and the folk codes. Their sportiveness has manifested itself in cultic matters that are marginal to social ethics: in the exuberance of their religious assemblies, in the easy emotionality of their pathway of salvation through devotion, in the madcap behavior that they tolerate in their saints, and in the spirit of abandon that pervades their fairs and pilgrimages and a few saturnalian festivals such as the licentious Holī. The great problem with which this religion deals is not a chaotic world's struggle for order, but the struggle for emotional freedom in a world already firmly and tryingly regulated. There is a clear correlation between the religion of sportiveness and the closed world of caste, as confirmed by the contemporaneity of their historical origins.

Fascination with Ka's līlā s became strong in the fourth century ce, when the writing of mature Dhar-maśāstras had become a full tide and the rules of caste were being systematically enforced for the first time by brahmanical dynasties after centuries of foreign rule. Thereafter Hindus found little meaning in the Bhagavadgītā' s call to save an anarchic world from disintegration; instead, they sought release from bondage, and found it in new tales about Ka as an irresponsible and irrepressible child. Seeking in the supernatural what was most desperately lacking in their lives, what they now cherished most in Ka was the spirit of sport. For many centuries, imaginative participation in the frolics of a boy-god helped them to endure the restrictions of the life of caste.

See Also

Drama, article on Indian Dance and Dance Drama; Ka; Kaism; Rādhā; Vaiavism, article on Bhāgavatas.


Banerjea, Akshay Kumar. "The Philosophy of Divine Leela." Prabuddha Bharata 49 (1944): 275281, 311316.

Banerjea, Akshay Kumar. "The Conception of the Sportive Absolute." Prabuddha Bharata 56 (1951): 170173, 216218, 258261, 290296. Banerjea's articles provide the beginner with a useful philosophical introduction to the concept of līlā.

Bäumer, Bettina. "Schöpfung als Spiel: Der Begriff Līlā im Hinduismus, seine philosophische und theologische Deutung." Ph.D. diss., Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, 1969. This work is the sole monograph on the theological conception of līlā. In her conclusion, the author provides a comparison with Christian cosmogonies.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. "Līlā." Journal of the American Oriental Society 61 (1941): 98101. An inconclusive etymological study of the word līlā and the associated verbal root krī- or krī-, "play."

Kinsley, David R. The Divine Player: A Study of Kalīlā. Delhi, 1979. A loose survey of the concept of līlā and of some of the Hindu narratives in which it finds expression. Includes notes on related extra-Indian materials.

New Sources

The Gods at Play: Lila in South Asia. Edited by Williams S. Sax. New York, 1995.

Norvin Hein (1987)

Revised Bibliography