The late Sanskrit word lila , as is well known, describes any kind of playing, and may be compared in meaning to Gr. παιδιά. Here we shall be chiefly concerned with the reference of lila to the divine manifestation and activity thought of as a “sport,” “playing,” or “dalliance.”
In such a conception there is nothing strange or uniquely Indian. Meister Eckhart , for example, says: “There has always been this play going on in the Father-nature . . . from the Father’s embrace of his own nature there comes this eternal playing of the Son. This play was played eternally before all creatures... The playing of the twain is the Holy Ghost in whom they both disport themselves and he disports himself in both. Sport and players are the same” (Evans ed., p. 148); Boehme adds “not that this joy first began with the creation, no, for it was from eternity. .. . The creation is the same sport out of himself” (Signatura rerum xvi.2-3).
That Plato thought of the divine activity as a game is shown by his calling us God’s “toys”—“and as regards the best in us, that is what we really are” (article 1872); whence he goes on to say that we ought to dance accordingly, obeying only that one golden cord of the Law by which the puppet is suspended from above (article 1873), and so pass through life not taking human affairs to heart but “playing at the finest games”; not as those playboys play whose lives are devoted to sports, but being “otherwise minded” than those whose acts are motivated by their own interest or pleasure (Laws 644, 803, 804). Plato ’s otherwise-minded “philosopher” who, having made the ascent and seen the light, returns to the Cave to take part in the life of the world (Republic VII) is really an avatar a (“one who has gone down again”), one who could say with Krishna: “There is naught in the Three Worlds I have need to do, nor anything I have not gotten that I might get, yet I participate in action. . . . Just as the ignorant, being attached to actions, act, even so should the Comprehensor, being unattached, also act, with a view to the maintenance of order in the world” (BG III.22-25) (article 1874). It is in the same connection of ideas that the word lila appears for the first time in the Brahma Sutra , II.I.32, 33, na prayoja-natvat, lokavat tu lilakaivalyam, “Brahma ’s creative activity is not under taken by way of any need on his part, but simply by way of sport, in the common sense of the word.” (article 1875)
The emphasis is, we realize, always upon the idea of a “pure” activity that can properly be described as “playful” because the game is played, not as “work” is ordinarily performed, with a view to secure some end essential to the worker’s well-being, but exuberantly; the worker works for what he needs, the player plays because of what he is. The work is laborious, the playing hard; the work exhausting, but the game a recreation. The best and most God-like way of living is to “play the game.” And before we relinquish these general considerations, it should be realized that in traditional societies all those actual games and performances that we now regard as merely secular “sports” and “shows” are, strictly speaking, rites, to be participated in only by initiates; and that under these conditions proficiency (kausalam) is never a merely physical skill, but also a “wisdom” (σοφία, of which the basic sense is precisely “expertise”). And so extremes meet, work becoming play, and play work; to live accordingly is to have seen “action in inaction, and inaction in action” (BG iv.18), to have risen above the battle, and so to remain unaffected by the consequences of action (BU iv.4.23, Isa. Up. 5, BG v.7, etc.), the actions being no longer “mine” but the Lord’s (JUB I.5.2, BG III.15, etc.), to whom they “do not cling” (KU v.II, MU III.2, BG iv.14, etc.).