Līlā means, among other things, “sport,” “play” and “pastime.” Often translated as “divine play,” līlā signifies a number of theological and metaphysical ideas that pertain to the spontaneous playfulness of the absolute or supreme being.
There are at least two meanings of līlā relevant to the student of Indian traditions and śāstras. These meanings might be described as “dualistic” and “non-dualistic,” indicating how the supreme playfulness that is līlā is to be perceived and understood. In the dualistic schools of Hinduism, līlā denotes those activities that god participates in with his devotees. In the non-dualistic schools, līlā refers to the great dance of life, the exquisite sport of existence. Exploring both of these meanings will lead us into the larger question of ecology that guides this issue of Tarka.
To ‘Play With’ or to ‘Play As’
One of the perennial philosophical questions is “why?” Why this reality? Why does anything exist at all? The concept of līlā answers this question with a simple “because.” Because of the play of relationship and the play of existence. Because the supreme reality wants to ‘play with’ and to ‘play as’ the manifold diversity of life for the sheer enjoyment of it.
We might say that reality ‘plays with’ this diversity in the dualistic traditions, while it ‘plays as’ this diversity in the non-dualistic traditions. That is to say, in its dualistic expression, the supreme being remains independent of the individual souls that it plays with, while in its non-dualistic expression, it is non-different from all forms of individuation.
In the Kṛṣṇa-bhakti tradition, there is no higher realization than to be in perpetual relationship with the divine – hence, we describe this tradition as ‘dualistic’ because “it takes two to tango.” Here, līlā refers to Lord Kṛṣṇa’s divine “pastimes,” especially those he engages in with his devotees.
In the Bhāgavata Purāṇa’s 10th book, the use of līlā suggests that Kṛṣṇa has taken on a body for the sake of līlā, so that his devotees may enjoy lovely, playful exchanges with him. Since god requires nothing and is self-sufficient – so the argument from Vedānta goes – this play is the expression of god’s own abundant, spontaneous, loving, and playful nature. In this expression of līlā, the divine ‘plays with’ their devotees through relationships of lover and beloved, parent and child, or friend and friend.
In the so-called non-dualistic traditions (like Vedānta and the Śaiva-Śakta traditions), by contrast, līlā expresses how each individual being is a form of reality’s play; in other words, we are the divine, and this supreme reality is our true nature. Hence, the divine reality ‘plays as’ individuated beings (and everything else), but there is ultimately no ontological separation between this relative world and the absolute – hence, we describe these traditions as ‘non-dualistic’ because in the end all things are non-separate from each other.
The philosophical justification for līlā from a Vedāntic perspective is simple and elegant. To say that Brahman (absolute reality) has a purpose would be to suggest that it lacks something that is not already intrinsic to its nature. When something has a “purpose,” we understand this to mean that it aims to attain something that is not currently present. Since Brahman is already perfect and complete, this is impossible. Thus, the ephemeral nature of existence is to be understood as the spontaneous play of reality itself.
What’s the Point?
One way of understanding the difference between the dualistic and non-dualistic expressions of līlā is by grasping the implications of their varied responses to the question of teleology. In philosophy, teleology is a tradition of thinking that posits a goal or a purpose as an answer to the question of why we’re all here. The purpose of life, according to a teleological understanding, is explained by its goal, its destination – the end of the road defines the meaning of the road, as it were.
For example, one could argue that the Christian tradition is teleological. The purpose of life on earth is to determine our eligibility for the life to come – namely heaven. Many contemplative traditions are also teleological; they highlight experiences of nirvāṇa or mokṣa, enlightened ‘final destinations’ where one will at last be liberated from the cycles of saṃsāra. Dualistic traditions are therefore largely teleological, since the divine experience stands apart from one’s current position as something to be achieved or attained. The purpose of life – why we’re all here – is to get to that ‘final resting place.’
When we look to the non-dualistic traditions for an answer to why we’re all here, things get slightly more complicated. For from an absolute perspective, this is it. Fundamentally, this cosmic play has no purpose in a teleological sense; it has no goal beyond perpetuating its opportunity to play continuously. It has no meaning beyond the fact of its nature, which is to play at being born into form, persisting for some period of time, and then dissolving back into an oceanic stillness that is equally a mode of its play.
But what does all of this have to do with ecology?
Līlā & Ecology
Both dualistic and non-dualistic contemplative traditions struggle with questions about what to do about human-made environmental degradation, because their philosophies can seem to invite a perspective that, either (1) these circumstances are ultimately to be transcended or (2) that even these human-made circumstances are ultimately another expression of reality’s play.
After all, if the dualistic notion of līlā points to a relationship or position beyond the everyday world, why should I care about the environment when a blissful relationship with god is waiting for me regardless of what happens to the earth? And if the non-dualistic notion of līlā embraces all expressions of life and of nature as the spontaneous, playful expression of the absolute reality, then what could be separate from that? From this perspective, nothing is excluded, not even what we would consider “bad,” “wrong” or “negative” from an ethical perspective (like human-made climate change), so what can then motivate an ethical commitment to counteracting the effects of climate change?
These questions present us with some moral quandaries. For, again, if a forthcoming relationship with god is what legitimizes the activities of my daily life, then what connects me to the ground beneath my feet? And if reality as līlā is equally the good and the bad, then what motivates my commitment to eradicating injustice? Both perspectives, expressed in this way, strike us as equally insufficient in their ability to motivate an ecological ethics.
We seem to be in a position where we must admit that in order to cultivate responses to our ecological crisis, we need a teleological framework (one that remains moored to the earth) to make sense of strategies, formulas and policies that could be employed to do something about the situation we’re in as a species. To simply say “it’s all līlā” in a manner characteristic of some contemporary spiritual perspectives that characterize themselves as ‘non-dual’ is a problematic position when our instincts as embodied beings are telling us that something needs to be done. And if something is to be done, we require visions of a future society in which we’ve responded to this crisis with transformed modes of living that are in greater harmony and balance with our planetary home.
Simultaneously, though, we need an understanding of our essential nature as non-different and non-separate from the earth, and this sort of vision is characteristic of the non-dualistic perspective. If the dark side of the non-dualistic insight is the suggestion we’ve outlined – that, according to a certain reading, there might be no ground on which to base a distinction between “good” and “bad” –, then the bright side is a vision of reality that embraces all expressions of life, all objects, all qualities as manifestations of the same nature; this embrace then can inspire a compassion for all of nature’s expressions and a desire to do right by them through the eradication of unnecessary ecological suffering.
Which side we lean into will partly, but importantly, depend upon the depth of insight born of our contemplative practices. As we’ve suggested, the non-dual insight cannot be spoken about coherently through concepts and categories that are, by their nature, dualistic. The non-dual insight is paradoxical from a dualistic perspective and therefore must be experienced, imbibed, and embodied. In other words, we won’t fully understand the non-dual meaning of līlā if we have not taken up those practices by means of which subtler dimensions of meaning might be cultivated. To attempt an understanding of līlā without the adhikāra that is achieved through contemplative practice, we might discover ourselves stumbling upon ethical quandaries like the ones we’ve outlined above.
The concept of līlā then, fundamentally, invites us into the journey of contemplative practice. The non-dual literature highlights what mystics, sages, and yogis have been experiencing for thousands of years – that reality, at the most fundamental level, is interconnected. If everything is interconnected, non-separate, and non-dual, then everything is in relationship. Each relationship in this great cosmic web becomes an opportunity for play. Inspired by these insights, we can then reimagine dualistic forms of līlā – from rituals and texts with traditional deity forms to those with divine substances that appear as trees, mountains, animals, and other people.
In the end, then, the non-dualistic and dualistic expressions of līlā imply and support each other, and to perceive it as otherwise can lead to different kinds of confusion, division, and dis-integration. This confusion risks perpetuating the forces of ignorance that have led to human-made climate change.
Aspiring toward an experiential understanding of our identity as more than this individuated body-mind, as non-separate from everything else, motivates and inspires us to engage in transformed playful relationships with nature, with the divine, and with each other. It encourages us to reject worldviews that support destructive teleological agendas and supports us in remembering that the earth – indeed, the very universe – is my body, and to neglect, pollute or destroy it is perhaps the highest form of self-destruction there is.