Lila (Sanskrit: लीला, IAST līlā) or Leela, like many Sanskrit words, cannot be precisely translated into English, but can be loosely translated as the noun “play”. The concept of Lila is common to both non-dualist and dualist philosophical schools, but has a markedly different significance in each. Within non-dualism, Lila is a way of describing all reality, including the cosmos, as the outcome of creative play by the divine absolute (Brahman). In the dualistic schools of Vaishnavism, Lila refers to the activities of God and his devotee, as well as the macrocosmic actions of the manifest universe, as seen in the Vaishnava scripture Srimad Bhagavatam, verse 3.26.4:
sa eṣa prakṛtiḿ sūkṣmāḿ
daivīḿ guṇamayīḿ vibhuḥ
“As His pastimes, that Supreme Personality of Godhead, the greatest of the great, accepted the subtle material energy, which is invested with three material modes of nature.”
Brahman is full of all perfections. And to say that Brahman has some purpose in creating the world will mean that it wants to attain through the process of creation something which it has not. And that is impossible. Hence, there can be no purpose of Brahman in creating the world. The world is a mere spontaneous creation of Brahman. It is a Lila, or sport, of Brahman. It is created out of Bliss, by Bliss and for Bliss. Lila indicates a spontaneous sportive activity of Brahman as distinguished from a self-conscious volitional effort. The concept of Lila signifies freedom as distinguished from necessity.
The relation of Purusa to Prakrti—the unfolding force of nature—becomes here a relation of male to female. This is expressed in the Siva temple in the core image of the sivalinga, an expression of male (linga) and female (yoni) union. The basic cosmogonic motif of an unfolding or flowering cosmos is expressed here specifically in the relation of male to female, as well as in terms of consciousness and intentionality (in the concept of lila as the divine play of male and female). As such, the core saivite image of cosmogony as the flowering of consciousness and sexual union rather than the sacrificial act. This theme resonates with other Hindu doctrines, such as Tantra and Sakta.
The Vendantic yogi never tires of stating that kaivalya, “isolation-integration”, can be attained only by turning away from the distracting allure of the world and worshiping with single-pointed attention the formless Brahman-Atman; to the Tantric, however—as to the normal child of the world—this notion seems pathological, the wrong-headed effect of a certain malady of intellect. (…) “I like eating sugar,” as Ramprasad said, “but I have no desire to become sugar.” Let those who suffer from the toils of samsara seek release: the perfect devotee does not suffer; for he can both visualize and experience life and the universe as the revelation of that Supreme Divine Force (shakti) with which he is in love, the all-comprehensive Divine Being in its cosmic aspect of playful, aimless display (lila)—which precipitates pain as well as joy, but in its bliss transcends them both.
The basic recurring theme in Hindu mythology is the creation of the world by the self-sacrifice of God—”sacrifice” in the original sense of “making sacred”—whereby God becomes the world which, in the end, becomes again God. This creative activity of the Divine is called lila, the play of God, and the world is seen as the stage of the divine play. Like most of Hindu mythology, the myth of lila has a strong magical flavour. Brahman is the great magician who transforms himself into the world and then performs this feat with his “magic creative power”, which is the original meaning of maya in the Rig Veda. The word maya—one of the most important terms in Indian philosophy—has changed its meaning over the centuries. From the might, or power, of the divine actor and magician, it came to signify the psychological state of anybody under the spell of the magic play. As long as we confuse the myriad forms of the divine lila with reality, without perceiving the unity of Brahman underlying all these forms, we are under the spell of maya. (…) In the Hindu view of nature, then, all forms are relative, fluid and ever-changing maya, conjured up by the great magician of the divine play. The world of maya changes continuously, because the divine lila is a rhythmic, dynamic play. The dynamic force of the play is karma, an important concept of Indian thought. Karma means “action”. It is the active principle of the play, the total universe in action, where everything is dynamically connected with everything else. In the words of the Gita Karma is the force of creation, wherefrom all things have their life.
Hindu denominations differ on how a human should react to awareness of Lila. Karma Yoga allows a joyful embrace of all aspects of life (“intentional acceptance”) while maintaining distinction from the Supreme, while Bhakti and Jnana Yoga advocate striving for oneness with the Supreme. Lila is an important idea in the traditional worship of Krishna (as prankster) and Shiva (as dancer), and has been used by modern writers like Stephen Nachmanovitch, Fritjof Capra, Alan Watts and Robert M. Pirsig.
Lila is comparable to the Western theological position of Pandeism, which describes the Universe as God taking a physical form in order to experience the interplay between the elements of the Universe.