In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Līlā

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Background
  • Krishna’s Līlā in the Purāṇas
  • Līlā Outside the Vaishnava Tradition

Hinduism Līlā
Graham M. Schweig
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0180


The Sanskrit term līlā is generally translated as “play” (sometimes “pastime” or “drama”), and is used primarily to describe the “divine acts” of God. The idea arises from the notion that God is absolutely self-content and therefore is not compelled to act out of any worldly need or desire in the way that humans are. Being free of such desire, God is therefore also free of the resultant karma and samsara. However, God does have a form of transcendent desire that expresses itself in the divine acts of pure play, or līlā. These include the desire to establish divine order, or dharma, within the material world, as well as a yearning to enable salvation and liberation from samsara. Additionally, there can also be a didactic purpose of līlā, conveying a teaching for souls who are absorbed in samsara and who therefore are outside of the realm of līlā. The concept is central to Vaishnava theology, which has the most developed concept of līlā within Hinduism, but it is also an important to other traditions within the panoply of Hindu traditions as well. The concept of play has its origins in the Vedānta Sūtra but was more fully developed in the Purāṇas, especially in the narrations and stories about Krishna in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Later theologians and saints from a number of Vaishnava traditions developed the concept, especially through poetry. The līlās focusing on Krishna’s childhood acts in Vrindavan are especially important to Vaishnavas. Among all these līlās, Krishna’s dance with the gopīs, known as rāsa līlā, is seen by Vaishnavas as the greatest of all līlās. In addition to seeing the main events of Krishna’s life as līlā, Vaishnavas also focus on his regular daily schedule, which has been divided into eight distinct periods. The belief is that through contemplation of Krishna’s līlā, a sincere practitioner can enter into that līlā for all eternity in direct relation to Krishna. A number of ways of facilitating that contemplation have become prominent, including congregational singing, worshiping in the temple, visiting the places where Krishna’s līlās are said to have been performed, and attending theatrical performances of Krishna’s līlās. Vaishnavas in the Caitanya lineage also focus on the līlās of Caitanya himself, whom they believe to be a special manifestation and embodiment of the love between Krishna and his beloved Rādhā. Outside of the Vaishnava sects the idea of līlā is also incorporated by a number of Hindu traditions. The most notable of these is the Shaiva tradition, which has developed a similar concept of “play” using the term krīḍā. Like the English term “play,” the term līlā can also refer to theatrical performance, and there are many līlā plays performed throughout India. One of the most prominent of these is the thirty-one-day festival performance of the līlā of Rāma, another divine manifestation of the divinity of Vishnu. Numerous other līlā performances are popular throughout India.

General Overviews

There are a number of helpful articles to introduce students to the concept of līlā. Hein 2005 offers a brief but authoritative introduction to the concept of līlā that is good for a general audience. Schweig 2010 provides an introduction to the concept that includes many citations from the Bhagavad Gītā and Bhāgavata Purāṇa, from which the concept is derived. Dimock 1989 focuses on the way Caitanya Vaishnavas understand līlā, and he explores connections between līlā and quantum mechanics. Hospital 1977 summarizes the concept of līlā and then explores connections between līlā and the Christian theology of play. Sax 1995 is a book-length collection of articles focusing on līlā that developed out of a conference on the topic. The first half of the book explores the ways the term has been used theologically, and the second half is devoted to līlā as drama. Kinsley 1979 is the only full-length study of the concept of līlā in English by one author. Banerjea 1951 is an early introduction to the concept of līlā in the context of an argument for the supremacy of a personal concept of the Absolute. Baumer 1969 is a well-reputed study of the concept of līlā in German.

  • Banerjea, Akshay Kumar. “The Conception of the Sportive Absolute.” Prabuddha Bharata 56 (1951): 170–173, 216–218, 258–261, 290–296.

    Provides an introduction to the philosophical concept of līlā. Argues that the personal conception of the Absolute is supreme. This often-cited article may be difficult to locate. It was published in the official journal of the Ramakrishna Order over the course of a number of issues.

  • Baumer, Bettina. Schopfung als Spiel, Der Begriff Līlā in Hinduismus, seine philosophische und theologische Deutung. Munich: UNI-Druck, 1969.

    An indological study of the concept of līlā in German that explores the philosophical and theological significance of the concept.

  • Dimock, Edward C., Jr. “Līlā.” History of Religions 29.2 (1989): 159–173.

    Explores the concept of līlā for Vaishnavas in general. Explores the way Caitanya Vaishnavas have understood the very life of Caitanya as līlā. Relates the concept of līlā to the theory of quantum mechanics.

  • Hein, Norvin. “Līlā.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. 2d ed. Vol. 8. Edited by Lindsay Jones, 550–554. New York: Macmillan, 2005.

    A strong introduction to the theological idea that God’s actions are līlā, to the way that idea was developed in the mythology of Krishna, to the practice of meditation on Krishna’s līlā, and to the idea that in salvation devotees enter a world of līlā rather than merging with the Absolute. Originally appeared in Sax 1995.

  • Hospital, Clifford G. “Kṛṣṇa and the Theology of Play.” Studies in Religion/Sceinces Religieuses 6.3 (1977): 285–291.

    DOI: 10.1177/000842987600600307

    Provides an overview of the concept of līlā in Vaishnava theology, focusing on the childhood stories of Krishna in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Brings the concept of līlā into conversation with the Christian theology of play by focusing on the work of Norman O. Brown. Argues that Christians should see Krishna’s līlās as complementary to their faith.

  • Kinsley, David R. The Divine Player: A Study of Krishna Līlā. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979.

    Examines the relationship between play and religion in general. Gives an overview of the main līlās of Krishna as well as the way practitioners attempt to enter Krishna’s līlā. Explores the concept of the līlā of saints. This work concentrates on the influence of the Sahajiyā cult in Bengal that incorporates the sanctification of sexuality in their practice—an idea not popular in the orthodox Vaishnava sects.

  • Sax, William S., ed. The Gods at Play: Līlā in South Asia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    The first half of the book explores the scriptural and theological understanding of līlā from a number of traditions, including Vaishnavism, Bengali Shaktism, and Kashmir Śaivism. The second part explores a number of Indian theatrical performances.

  • Schweig, Graham M. “Līlā.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 2, Sacred Texts, Ritual Traditions, Arts, Concepts. Edited by Knut A. Jacobson, 793–798. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.

    A concise but comprehensive introduction to the concept of līlā, with a focus on the passages in primary Vaishnava sources from which the theology of Krishna-līlā is derived.

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