Skip to main content

Comparatively studying the Hindu theologies of lila and the Christian theologies of play can provide a common ground for interreligious dialogue on divine delight, divine presence, and human flourishing. In doing so, Christians can aim to build a robust and embodied theology of play that affirms similarities and identifies differences with other faith traditions while reinforcing convictions. Using a Trinitarian-pneumatological framework, I invite Christians to create spaces of interreligious hospitality or “playgrounds” for playful expressions such as festivals, liturgical movement in worship, and Sabbath play rhythms that can ultimately contribute to overall human flourishing and encounters with God for all people. Advait Praturi is a content development consultant and trainer working with leaders, communities, and entrepreneurs across Asia.

If this be Thy wish and if this be Thy play,
Lord, then take this fleeting emptiness of mine.
Paint it with colors,gild it with gold,
float it on the wanton wind
and spread it in varied wonders.—Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali, Poem 63


The idea of ‘play’ or lila as a theological and aesthetic concept “first appeared in Hindu literature around the third century.”1 Like many Hindu concepts and ideas, a precise definition of the word is hard to pin down. On the one hand, for instance, lila, in Hindu literature, could refer to god’s own “divine activity as sport and game.”2 On the other hand, lila also refers to human, performative re-enactments of ancient stories through dances and dramas that are acted out in Hindu festivals even to this day.3 While there remains much debate about the idea of lila as a metaphysical category, the notion of play, game, and performance that theologies of lila encapsulate provides at least one starting point for robust interreligious dialogue between Christians and Hindus.

If, as Jesuit priest and scholar of Hinduism, Francis Clooney, suggests, holistic theology in a religiously pluralistic context must necessarily be “interreligious, comparative, dialogical and confessional,” Christian theology has much to gain from a comparative dialogue with Hindu notions of Lila.’4 Indeed, Clooney argues that theology ultimately occurs when a believer of any particular tradition “attempts to think, probe and explain what they believe” about God and God’s relation to the world.5 Theological investigation and discourse is “fundamentally human” and crosses religious boundaries.6 Moreover, through the activity of interreligious dialogue, one’s theologizing work further receives the benefit of deep critical reflection “as similarities and differences are revealed,” as confessional distinctives are either reinforced or challenged, and as theologians are held accountable to articulating the “accuracy and theological relevance” of their viewpoint.7 Given my own social location as an Indian-American Christian helping to develop and train leaders in an urban Indian context, this is of particular importance to my own ministry. While I myself come from a non-denominational, charismatic-leaning background, many of those I work with come from significantly different denominational environments. We unanimously agree that helping the next generation of leaders converse effectively and with humility across religious lines is paramount to the flourishing of the gospel in India and elsewhere. Here, interreligious dialogue offers an opportunity for theologians and practitioners alike to further critically understand their own views, defend them effectively, or perhaps make them even more robust and full-bodied as they are informed by the inputs and insights of others. The latter is the primary goal of this essay.

Hindu understandings of lila might help Christians develop a more robust theology of play that informs Christian worship and praxis—an embodied set of practices that one might apply in their own lives. To answer this question, I will 1) discuss the advantages of adopting a Trinitarian-pneumatological framework for interreligious dialogue, 2) explore concepts of lila and play in both Hindu and Christian theologies, 3) place these observations in comparative interreligious dialogue, and 4) propose several ministry expressions for Christian practitioners (especially in pluralistic, interreligious contexts). Ultimately, interreligious dialogue regarding aspects of divine delight, divine presence, and human flourishing in Hindu and Christian theologies of play can provide a common ground where similarities are affirmed, differences are identified, and convictions are reinforced. Moreover, by incorporating celebration through festivals, liturgical movement in worship, and rhythms of Sabbath play in their ministries, churches can create spaces of experientially-oriented interreligious dialogue that ultimately allow all participants to encounter God through times of play.

A Brief Note on Methodology: Adopting a Trinitarian-Pneumatological Approach for Interreligious Dialogue

The foundation of a Trinitarian-pneumatological framework is the idea that “the same Holy Spirit who applies redemption to us, and gives us spiritual gifts, is also working in the lives of people of other loyalties.”8 In other words, the question, as Finnish theologian and Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Seminary, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, argues, is not whether the Spirit is at work in other religions, faiths, communities, ideologies, and so on, but how the Spirit is at work.9 With regard to the current discussion, one fundamental assumption is the understanding that the Holy Spirit is at work in specific ways amongst Hindus. Adopting a Trinitarian approach in the discussion of lila will, therefore, require Christians to discern the Spirit’s presence as we “oscillate between the two starting points” of the Spirit’s work in the world and one’s particular, “christologically-oriented” convictions.10

First, as Kärkkäinen argues, “the Spirit of hospitality requires that the Christian be open to criteria drawn from the tradition of the Other.”11 While there is no doubt that “theology still has far to go in fully developing its pneumatological convictions,” allowing oneself to discern the Spirit’s presence in a theological engagement with Hindu conceptions of lila might allow scholars and practitioners to be hospitable and “relationally engaged.”12 Of course, as Clooney notes, interreligious dialogue does not require “only agreement across religious boundaries.”13 Disagreements, too, are healthy, and for robust, interreligious dialogue to occur, “differences must be highlighted, accentuated and debated.”14 Indeed, while this paper is not an apologetic, it reflects the Christian convictions of its author—namely my own belief in Christ as the source of ultimate hope, redemption, and human flourishing for all humans everywhere.

In light of this, perhaps Christian scholars and practitioners might remember that “discernment of the Spirit happens in an integral Christological environment.”15 As the British missiologist Lesslie Newbigin once wrote, “The Holy Spirit does not lead past, or beyond, or away from Jesus.”16 Here, an acknowledgement of the “Spirit’s universal presence found in all cultures and religions” does not at all “minimize the necessity of God’s full self-revelation in Christ” and the necessity of gospel proclamation.17 Rather, adopting a posture of learning will allow Christians to demonstrate the gospel both in word and in deed more effectively in interreligious contexts. Moreover, it may perhaps help Christians appreciate the deep intuitions of their own faith.

Second, one will do well to remember that interreligious dialogue cannot be restricted to intellectual discourse. There is an observational dimension here. Even a cursory understanding of the theological concept of lila reveals that it must also be observed in performative terms. Specifically, Hindus celebrate significant religious festivals through play—embodying celebration and contemplation of the divine in both performative pujas and rituals as well as spontaneous play. Of course, this is not to suggest that proponents of one faith should uncritically participate in the religious festivals of other faiths. Rather, this is an invitation to notice, to observe, to ask questions, and simply to seek to understand the experience of the other in their lila by being willing, wherever appropriate, to enter into the space of the other.

Of course, this methodological approach is perhaps not immune to challenge or criticism. On the one hand, some would argue that this Trinitarian-pneumatological approach could inevitably colonize and “christianize the other insofar as we find the Spirit to be present or demonize the other insofar as we find the Spirit absent.”18 Others might perhaps argue that given the Christian’s distinctive Christo-centric worldview, interreligious dialogue opens the church’s ministry expression to far too much compromise. These are valid concerns, but this is why interreligious dialogue requires a critical, thoughtful, and humble disposition. The object of interreligious dialogue is not to offer “glib, unqualified” answers but rather to adopt a posture of learning.19 Through interreligious dialogue, one might affirm and critique different theological positions while discerning the presence of the Spirit in that position. In discernment, therefore, the Christian must “take into account the normativity of Christ as a crucial yardstick.”20 Indeed, as the Indian pastor Ivan Satyavrata argues, a balanced approach will affirm “the distinctive activity of Christ’s presence in the community of faith” and will at the same time help us “discern the Spirit’s work in the world in the midst of people of other faiths and [perhaps even] no faith.”21

An Exploration of Hindu Definitions and Expressions of Play

Even within Hinduism, definitions of lila or ‘play’ are far from monolithic. In the earliest Hindu ritual texts, the Vedas, the term lila is used rather loosely to describe the “frolicsome nature of the gods.”22 Much later, in the “great Hindu monotheisms” of South Indian Vaishnavism, Kashmiri Shaivisim and Bengali Shaktism, we begin to see lila develop as a much more formal concept.23 Especially in Vaishnava thought, with its emphasis on the “cult of the [playful] Krishna,” Lila appears as a much more systematic and “studied doctrine” that informs the core of Vaishnava “theology, mythology, mysticism” and soteriology.24 In this section, we will explore 1) the role of divine delight in play with regard to the three Hindu monotheisms mentioned above, 2) the role of divine presence in lila, and finally 3) the role of human performance and its implications for one’s relationship with the gods and with other humans. The goal here is to set the stage for interreligious dialogue with Christian theologies of play, namely with regard to aspects of divine delight, divine presence, and human flourishing.

As reflected in Hindu monotheisms, lila can first be described incosmological terms with reference to divine activity and delight. Properly understood, god does not create the world out of “acquisitive desire” but rather in a spirit of “freedom, spontaneity and playfulness”; as twelfth-century philosopher Ramanuja argues, “the great monarch, who has no unsatisfied desire, sports enthusiastically for his own amusement.”25 Indeed, playfulness is viewed as a critical attribute of the creator god. In early Vaishnavite thought, for instance, the Bhagavata Purana suggests that the “central focus of god’s activity [in creation] is in Krishna’s … Lila.26 In Kashmiri Shaivism, the idea of play is constructed around the self-manifesting and self-concealing activities of the Hindu god, Shiva. Lila is here “operative at three levels: cosmological, aesthetic and mystical.”27 Shiva’s playful, spontaneous freedom is integral to the creation and destruction of the cosmos, even as the faithful worshipper, through their own worshipful play, “becomes an active participant in Shiva’s delight” and a recipient of Shiva’s “liberating grace.”28 Another example emerges in the Bengali Shakti tradition. Nineteenth-century Bengali poet Ramprasad’s articulation of the goddess Shakti’s lila stresses this idea:

“All this [creation] is the mad Mother’s play,
The Three worlds are deluded by her maya [illusion].”29

In Ramprasad’s poetry, the goddess Shakti is paradoxically presented both as a kind, benevolent goddess and as an uncontrollable, chaotic force. The worshipper should not expect to control Shakti’s lila; for Ramprasad, “life itself is a participation in the goddess’s Lila.”30 In these various Hindu traditions, the creation, preservation and destruction of the world are presented as the “spontaneous, free and playful” lila of the gods; worshippers are freely invited to receive, respond to, and participate in this lila, and in doing so, experience freedom from spiritual bondage.31 In short, the lila of the gods can be understood in terms of delight and creativity and as a source of salvation.

This emancipatory understanding of lila is significant and offers an invitation to reflect on the role of divine presence in lila, especially with regard to salvation. If one’s ultimate problem was spiritual bondage, a robust theology of lila in a Hindu context perhaps serves as a “philosophical and religious alternative to renunciation.”32 For those such as Adi Sankara, an influential Indian philosopher and theologian who was a proponent of the Advaita Vedanta tradition, renunciation from worldly and material desire was the ultimate means by which one could gain “transcendence of consciousness.”33 To suggest that god is “present” in play would constitute, for Sankara, a problem that threatens to confuse the relationship between god and humans. For Sankara, one is to leave behind this world of illusion through a practice of renunciation and realize their oneness (non-duality) with the divine. Robert Goodwin, a scholar of Sanskrit literature, notes that this “genteel ascetism” of Sankara made it “prominent” amongst the elite—namely, “educated Brahmins.”34

Ramanuja, however, countered this ascetic tendency and the rejection of materialism in Sankara’s teachings. Through lila, Ramanuja believed, the “liberated soul” could encounter god’s divine presence in the maya world (illusory world) as if it were a “playground,” in which the liberated soul would be free to “create worlds out of its own power and imagination.”35 For Ramanuja, passages like those found in the Chandogya Upanishad regarding delightful sensuality undermined Sankara’s non-sensory immateriality:

In the same way, the joyful-self arises from the body and, attaining the light of the Cosmic Self, appears in his own form. This is the Paramātman, the Cosmic Self. He then freely moves about eating, playing, or enjoying himself with women, carriages, or relatives, not remembering at all the body in which he was born…36

What is notable in this passage and in Ramanuja’s lila philosophy is a “reluctance to turn one’s back completely on the world of experience.”37 For Sankara, lila largely served “not as a metaphysical category but a metaphor” to defend the “freedom of a dispassionate Absolute from any motive of action.”38 But for Ramanuja (and other Hindu schools of thought like Kashmiri Shaivism), one’s lila—delightful, playful and spontaneous worship of deity—could ultimately serve as devotion to god. In challenging the high-caste tendency to overemphasize renunciation, philosophers such as Ramanuja offered a “qualified non-dualism” in which an individual could encounter the divine in a state of worshipful playfulness within the physical world.39 Ultimately, Ramanuja’s philosophies would provide the foundations for the “bhakti [devotion] tradition in India.”40 Indeed, the Indian Christian theologian A. J. Appasammy would be so moved by “the intense longing for communion with a personal God expressed in bhakti devotional poetry,” he would base his own Christo-centric bhakti theology on the “theological framework of Ramanuja.”41

Moreover, in Hinduism, god’s divine presence in play must also be explored with respect to Hindu theatrical performances (lilas). The performance lila is perhaps most famously exemplified in the ras lilas inherent to the Vaishnavite tradition. As theatrical, systematically choreographed dance performances, ras lilas across India celebrate the sacred dance of Krishna, the divine creator, and Radha, his partner and love interest, who serves as a manifestation of the cosmos.42 Participants, usually children, operate within an “elaborate structure” with fixed actors and actions. And yet within this structure, the performance is “pregnant with innumerable opportunities for improvisation, spontaneity and freedom.”43 Most importantly, the theatrical play-world of the ras lila is distinguished from the world outside of it; that which is in the play-world is what is understood to be truly “real,” and that which is outside the play-world is “not really real at all.”44 Participants and spectators believe that Krishna, Radha,and the supporting gopis (shepherdesses) actually possess the actors of the ras Lila.45 By participating in the dance themselves, spectators believe they might transcend the maya of their daily lives and interact with Krishna’s real, divine presence in the play-world.46 It is as if Krishna himself plays amongst them.

Finally, with regard to the aspect of human flourishing in theologies of lila, some have suggested the lila performances have implicitly provided “desired relief from social bondage.”47 This has been a rather controversial idea. Indeed, some scholars suggest that dramatized lilas have helped in breaking caste boundaries; the scholar of Hinduism Donna Wulff, for instance, argues, in her study of dramas in Bengali society, that the ras lila contributed to the “democratizing process in Bengali society between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries.”48 On the other hand, many have argued that lila performances have accentuated problematic social structures. Indeed, some have widely condemned the concept of lila as a negative theological development in Hindu ethics. Some Hindu leaders, “influenced by the ethical stress of Christian theology,” have tended to play down Krishna’s playful adventures with Radha and the gopi hand-maidens.49 Notably, the “worshippers of the young Krishna have never understood the sports of the god to be the model for their own actions.”50 Furthermore, the activist Nitu Kumar implicitly contends that the system of lila can be shaped by participants in such a way that it might also dissuade equality and freedom. The performance of the Ramlila in Banares, she contends, has essentially served to “exclude women in both performance and everyday existence.”51 She argues that while the Banares Ram-lila is “distinctly lower-class, it is male dominated.”52 Kumar’s analysis articulates an important caution against any glorified notion of lila as that which implicitly and necessarily resists oppressive structures.53 Furthermore, other scholars have noted that attempting to read into a theology of lila a concern for the marginalized and the vulnerable, as ideal as it may seem, might be exaggerated. In short, while Lila could lead to emancipation from spiritual bondage, it is not so clear that it leads to liberation from social bondage. Nevertheless, the debate is useful for interreligious dialogue with Christian theology, which perhaps suggests a more direct link between play and human flourishing. One might wonder how a Christian understanding of play as essential to human flourishing might influence a Hindu self-understanding of lila.

In sum, we might conclude with a few observations from this brief exploration of Hindu lila. First, divine lila, as expressed in the Hindu monotheisms, reveals the gods’ creative energy and playful delight, in which worshippers are invited to participate. Second, lila offers an alternative to the traditional pathway of renunciation that outright rejects materiality; rather, worshipful play becomes a means by which to enjoy God’s divine presence. Third, in many Hindu schools of thought, the play-world is ultimately seen as that which is real and the outside world as that which is maya (illusion). Fourth, while Hindu practices of play do, at times, invite participants to transcend structures of social bondage, theologies of lila largely focus on liberation from spiritual bondage and do not seem to concern themselves with emancipation from social bondage as an ultimate aim. One can now perhaps place these aspects of delight, divine presence, and human relationships in lila thought into a meaningful, interreligious dialogue with Christian theologies of play.

Christian Definitions and Expressions of Play

Much like Hindu theologies of lila, Christian theologies of play are similarly difficult to pin down. Theologians, ministers, and practitioners have held significantly diverse views with regard to the role of ‘play’ in the life of the disciple. For a significant part of church history, perhaps “from the time of Augustine down to the present era,” one might have found a suspicion of and, at times, discrimination against the (physical) body—and subsequently play. For instance, the pastor and scholar of Christianity and fitness Erik Dailey notes: “What was catalyzed [especially during Calvin’s time in Geneva] amongst elite church leaders was a view of the physical body as a place for sin.”54 Indeed, some Christians saw practices of sensual delight (such as dancing) as “an incitement to lewdness” and “excessive embodiment [as ultimately] for the low-class and uneducated.”55 At the same time, however, there has also been much positive reflection on the role of “delight” and “play” in Christian theology. Indeed, Thomas Aquinas noted that the “pleasure derived from playful actions” which are “done in moderation” can be “directed to the recreation and rest of the soul.”56 In this section, therefore, we will explore 1) aspects of divine delight, 2) aspects of divine presence in the moment of play, and 3) aspects of human flourishing in Christian theologies of play. Once more, the goal of this reflection is to prepare us for interreligious dialogue as we consider these aspects in conversation with Hindu theologies of lila.

First, with regard to aspect of delight, one might here consider the nature of God’s play—that is, the question of how God plays. Job 40:20 and Psalm 104:26 express God’s ability to make beasts play, suggesting that ‘play’ indeed is a part of creation. Indeed, Brian Edgar, who extensively studies a theology of play in The God Who Plays, notes that “creation is born in playfulness and has its purpose in delight and appreciation.”57 For Edgar, Proverbs 8:22-31 elegantly reveals the delight of God in creation.58 Consider the words of Wisdom in these verses:

23 Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth
….and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race (Prov. 8:23-24, 30-31 NRSV).

Moreover, this image of God’s delight manifests in descriptions of the eschatological kingdom. The promise of “children playing” in Jeremiah 30:20 suggests that ‘play’ and ‘delight’are very much included in God’s redemptive design. Again, Edgar argues as much when he points out that imagery of the “future Kingdom of God [employs] imagery of song and dance, play, laughter, joy and feasting.”59 Of course, neither God’s role in play nor his delight are to be confused with superficial happiness. In reflecting on the ‘Crucifixion as Play,’ Edgar finds that play is often reduced to only “pleasure and fun” and instead identifies an “agonistic element to the spiritual life that involves very serious play.”60 In other words, he contends, there are “serious games,” and to think of Christ competing for the hearts of humans with the powers and principalities of darkness is neither “frivolous nor inappropriate.”61 And yet, the purpose of even as serious a game as competing for the hearts and minds of broken humans is ultimately delight. In the words of Isaiah, “After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied” (Is. 53:11). In short, divine delight (and specifically, God’s delight for humans) is central to a Christian theology of play.

Second, consider the aspect of divine presence in Christian theologies of play. For the most part, the Spirit is necessarily present in one’s “playing, praying, worshipping, ministry and service.”62 As Edgar succinctly argues, “in Christian play,” (that is, play intentionally oriented to the glory and presence of God), “the believers have a definite faith that [their] make-believe is actually making real the kingdom of God in the present.”63 Guardini echoes this understanding in his own reflections on the “playfulness” of the liturgy. “That which formerly existed in the world of unreality only,” Guardini writes, “has here become reality.”64 In other words, in the “wasteful” moment of God-oriented worshipful play, humans are utterly transformed, as they “reconcile the contradiction between that which they wish to be and that which they are.”65 Of course, this view that God is intimately present and involved in the play-world is not without its critics. Some such as Lincoln Harvey would perhaps argue that in play, “God establishes a difference” between God’s own presence and humanity. In other words, God steps back from involvement in the play-world and “play” is understood solely as an end in itself. 66 In Harvey’s understanding, there seems to be no relation between God and human, at least in the moment of play—God steps back from the play-world and in doing so, allows humans to be more fully themselves—apart from divine presence. Such a view is not without its critics who follow thinkers like Edgar and Guardini to maintain that, in the moment of God-oriented play, humans submit themselves to the process of sanctification, transformation, and renewal. Moreover, Christian expressionsof play allow participants to both enjoy the play itself, and as Jeremy Treat argues, to “foreshadow the kingdom” and participate with God in the work of ongoing renewal and restoration.67

Finally, with regards to aspect of Christian play and its role in human flourishing, Robert K. Johnston offers several examples including Sabbath rest, festivals, and dancing.68 Through these expressions of play, Johnston argues one is “renewed in playtime and re-enters life with a new spirit of thanksgiving and celebration.”69 In defining the Sabbath as “play,” for instance, Johnston writes, “one’s six days of work are transformed and put into perspective by the Sabbath experience.”70 In Sabbath, both the “freeman and slave experience a social time of liberation.”71 With regards to festivals, Johnston highlights the importance in Hebrew tradition of having “parentheses in life, consecrated to the Lord in joy.”72 Here, his reading of Nehemiah shows how even festivals challenge oppressive structures, pointing out how, in Nehemiah’s celebrations, “food and drink [were] sent to those who would otherwise be left out.”73 Thirdly, Johnston also argues that in dance, the Israelites were oriented to Yahweh and were brought together across class lines. David, in enjoying God’s presence and breaking down class structures by dancing with “servant girls,” best exemplifies this.74

Of course, some might be rightly concerned that overstating the role of play in human flourishing might reduce play to a solely instrumentalist view (play is only good if it is “useful”). In his exploration of play, Jurgen Moltmann offered the dual diagnosis that “it seems wrong to play or dance while others are suffering” and that “play has too often become the servant of the oppressor.”75 For Moltmann, play has (or at least, ought to have) a specific purpose. For it to reach its full potential, play must ultimately be a liberating act and cannot afford to have a “nonpolitical character or an apolitical tendency.”76 In short, Moltmann argues, play needs to be made more “precise and more clearly aimed at a specific goal.”77 Given that play reveals the eschatological purpose of a just and joyful God, play must have a liberating purpose, “by which the powerless shake off their yoke.”78As Johnston notes, while there is no doubt that for Moltmann, “play is a form of mission,” play is unfortunately, “reduced to a means of liberation.”79 This further risks reducing play to a primarily instrumental view. Dailey, perhaps, offers a more robust view. In sport and physical fitness, one can enjoy God even as one contributes to overall human flourishing.80 Citing sociologist Christian Smith, Dailey offers six human goods that flow from wholesome sport: bodily survival, knowledge of reality, identity coherence and awareness, exercising purposive agency, moral affirmation and social belonging and love.81 Similarly, while play itself is not ultimately aimed at a solely liberative purpose, it can and does contribute to human flourishing. Moreover, when one is rooted in Christ and his redemptive purpose, they become agents of renewal in the world, naturally bringing about human flourishing through their spontaneous acts of play.

In sum, we might perhaps conclude with a few observations from this brief exploration of Christian play. First, play is ultimately redemptive—existing both to be enjoyed for its own sake even as it contributes to overall human flourishing. Second, God reveals his delight both in creation and in the playful joy of the coming, eschatological Kingdom. Here ‘delight’ cannot be reduced to superficial happiness; Christ ultimately participates in a painful, agonistic game on the cross so that by his victory, he might ‘delight’ in the salvation he offers his people. Third, God is present in the play-world, transforming human beings as they participate in every form of God-oriented play. Finally, while play cannot ultimately be reduced down to only a means of liberation, in Christ, play can and does deeply contribute to human flourishing. Perhaps these observations can help the Christian enter into a robust interreligious dialogue with Hindu understandings of Lila.

A Brief Comparison of Hindu and Christian Ideas of Play

One prominent twentieth-century Indian Christian, Sadhu Sundar Singh, whose own theology was shaped in large part by elements of the bhakti tradition discussed previously had this to say:

Non-Christian thinkers also have received light from the Sun of righteousness. The Hindus have received of the Holy Spirit. There are many beautiful things in Hinduism, but the fullest light is Christ. Everyone is breathing air. So everyone, Christian as well as non-Christian, is breathing the Holy Spirit, though they do not call it by that name. The Holy Spirit is not the private property of some people.82

The Christian has much to gain from a spirit of hospitality for their own self-understanding. As Amos Yong writes, “Any pneumatological or trinitarian… theology of hospitality…[involves] bearing witness from out of Christian commitment even as it discerningly welcomes the gifts of others as potentially enriching and even transforming [for] Christian self-understanding.”83 In engaging with the Hindu theology of lila, at least five questions emerge for the Christian theologian. These questions address the nature of God’s creative activity, the nature of God’s divine embodiment in play, the nature of the play-world, the role of materiality in worship and the interrelationship of play and human flourishing.

The first question deals with the nature of God’s creative activity: how or with what disposition did God create the world? On a cosmological level, a Hindu theology of lila is readily comfortable in referring to creation as “divine sportiveness.” While such an idea is not entirely alien to Christian understanding, one question posed for the Christian theologian is does God create playfully? Perhaps G. K. Chesterton comes closest to answering this question in comparing God to a playful child who does not grow bored with monotony: “it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.”84 The implication for Christian thought is a robust theology of delight.85 Just as the follower who “delights in the delight of Shiva…shares in the joy of play even in the midst of suffering,” perhaps those who follow Christ would “delight in the delights” of Christ.86 As we have already seen, this understanding is already intuitive to the Christian tradition, and through interreligious dialogue, the Christian’s conviction of the God who delights is further reinforced. Just as the worshippers of Shiva, Devi, or Krishna are invited to participate in worshipful play, followers of Jesus are invited and encouraged to emulate God’s delight for creation through their play. As Dominican friar Isaac Morales suggests, “the more we delight in creation, the more like God we become.”87 Moreover, humans emulate the delighting God by participating in the work of “creating” themselves; through their art, their sport, their play, their work, humans “create” spaces and products that serve as a sign to see back to the God who delights in humans.

A second question arises around the role of incarnation and divine presence in performative lilas and Christian play. What role does God play when we play? How is God present in our playfulness? Here, William Sax writes, “The one important difference [between the two systems] is the idea that in most or all Indian traditions, there is a tendency to assert that performers … in some profound sense embody the characters they represent.88 In other words, players do not merely ‘symbolize’ characters but rather, become the characters, as they are “auspiciously possessed” by the gods.89 While both Hindus and Christians might perhaps agree with the idea that the incarnated presence of God can be felt in play, Hindu understanding of “possession” stands in stark contrast to Christian theology, which posits “a sharp ontological rift between humans and God.”90 How then does God interact with humans in play? Here, a robust theology of the incarnation is helpful to both Hindu and Christian traditions. Christians can argue confidently that union with and rootedness (or participation) in Christ in play is held in tension with their own distinction with the person of Christ. Union with Christ in play does not mean “possession,” though Christ can act in-and-through the player redemptively. Indeed, the question invites Christian theologians to offer a more robust description of the incarnation and the role of Christ’s presence in the moment of play.

While continuing to reflect on divine presence, a third question might perhaps read as follows: what is the nature of the space or the play-world in which play occurs? What are the boundaries of play? Is the world of play “boundless” or is that world self-contained? There are some close similarities between the definitions of playfulness, freedom, and spontaneity inherent in both lila and redemptive theologies of play. Elements of both traditions might perhaps agree that play is largely a self-contained event with its own rules and designs. While the Christian might justifiably disagree with their Hindu counterpart as to the “illusive” nature of the world, both can agree that in play, one encounters a sacred space. Within this self-contained sacred space, scholars of lila might agree with Johnston’s assertion that play is a space in which “God can and often does encounter people.”91 Furthermore, while both the Christian and the Hindu might perhaps agree to the necessity of freedom and spontaneity in play, both traditions wrestle with the ten sion between “good order” in worship (1 Cor. 14:33) and spontaneous participation within that liturgy (1 Cor. 14:26). While the question of how much spontaneity is too much spontaneity is perhaps largely contextual, both might agree that in God’s worship, order and spontaneity are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Guardini, for examples, finds in the liturgy a “thousand strict and careful directions on the quality of language, gestures, colors, and so on,” that ultimately allows one to “become like little children …in spiritual youth and spontaneity.”92

A fourth question with which the Christian theologian might engage relates to the role of materiality in worship. What is the role of physical activity and more specifically the body in the worship of God? Here, neither Christianity nor Hinduism offers a monolithic response. Some scholars in both religions might see the physical body as a locus of illusion (at least in the case of Hinduism) or of sinful sensuality (in the case of Christianity). Nevertheless, a robust biblical theology of play would find more sympathy with Ramanuja’s idea of lila in that “repudiating the world entirely is to deprive the notion of bliss of any experiential ground.”93 There can be much good in the experience of play, and as Goodwin notes, behind this “apotheosis of the leisure-class play ethos” might perhaps lie even a transcendental experience of God.94 At the very least, the Christian theologian might affirm the inherent goodness of the body. Ultimately, for the Christian, being “human and created by God means being embodied—living in a body, dealing with a body, forming, appreciating, and even refining the body.”95 In short, through play and through physical activity and through the conscious enjoyment of God’s good material creation, experienced through the physical body, the Christian might experience and express delight in God.

Finally, with regard to the aspect of human flourishing, a fifth and final question emerges with regard to the Hindu and Christian views on play. Due to the broadly central Hindu emphasis of the physical world as illusion, a Hindu theology of lila would likely not go so far as a Christian theology does in suggesting that play is “an excellent means for human flourishing.”96 While Hindu performative lilas might (and often do) have significant social impact and benefit, the primary purpose of participating in lila—at least for those such as Ramanuja—is ultimately freedom from spiritual bondage. A holistic Christian theology might hold both “freedom” from spiritual bondage and from oppressive social structures in tension, without overemphasizing one over the other. Ultimately, a robust Christian theology of play in an Indian Hindu context would encourage the creation of spaces for spontaneity, freedom, and playfulness that prepare people for divine encounter while also contributing to human flourishing.

After reflecting on these five questions, perhaps theologians, practitioners, and scholars might wonder why an “interreligious dialogue” is necessary. Could not an astute theologian or practitioner reach these conclusions without interreligious dialogue? To a certain extent, yes. But a methodology for interreligious dialogue proves an effective tool in the toolbox as one attempts to reach across religious boundaries. Through the exercise of interreligious dialogue, Christians and Hindus can effectively “make sense of similarities and differences,” refine their own ideas, and most significantly, learn from the other even as they “render those ideas at least partially intelligible to the other.”97 Through this study of “play” in both Hindu and Christian cultures, we have identified a new common ground from which one might begin to engage in deeper interfaith dialogue, recognized differences at fundamental level and rediscovered/refined the intuitions of our own respective faiths and convictions. Perhaps, most significantly, Edgar suggests that doing the work of theology itself is play.98 In other words, we are invited to envision the space of interreligious dialogue as a place of playful hospitality, in which we invite the other to mutually enjoy the sacred “game” of theology—a place of mutual delight.

Experiments in a Church Context: Creating Space for Interreligious Hospitality

Ultimately, a Trinitarian-pneumatological approach requires one to act out and express their theology in a spirit of invitation and inclusive hospitality. As mentioned before, interreligious dialogue also requires an “experiential” element in which we create spaces where we can invite others to observe, notice, ask questions, and perhaps even play themselves. Three expressions of Christian play that can be readily introduced in Hindu-Christian interreligious dialogue are: 1) celebration through festivals and feasts, 2) liturgical dance and movement in worship, and 3) Sabbath play.

First, Christians might approach the celebration of festivals and feasts in two ways, through storytelling and the creation of what Johnston calls “playgrounds.”99 Johnston’s description of the Feast of Booths might present a useful template for designing a contextualized festival experience. During the feast, people willingly lived in structures “made of branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm and leafy trees.” This was an emblematic and symbolic act that “drew man’s interests away from gloating over his accomplishments…back to rejoicing in God’s love.”100 In other words, the Festival of Booths had a particular symbolic orientation situating the hearts of the participants towards God’s love and a “playground” in which that happened, as people participated in a liturgical re-enactment of living in a constructed, temporary shelter.101 In the festival of Diwali, Hindus participate in a similar process. In celebrating the ultimate victory of light over darkness, Hindus are primarily oriented towards the gods and their community through times of ritual worship, storytelling, feasting, and gift-giving throughout the day. At night, a “playground” is formed, as the “diyas (candles) are placed around the house.”102 People dance, feast and play with sparklers and fireworks into the night, signifying the triumph of light in the darkness.103 Through the work of orienting one’s mind towards divine encounter (storytelling) and through the creation of physical spaces for free and spontaneous play (playgrounds), churches, such as those in an Indian context, can experiment in creating similar festival spaces around key holidays and sacred days that embody delight, hospitality, spontaneity, freedom, playfulness, and love.

Second, Christians can incorporate experiences of liturgical dance into times of worship. Carman, in his analysis of lila, suggests that dance most holistically captures both the sportive and dramatic elements of play.104 Furthermore, Carman argues that “sacred dance” holds significance for worshippers of most Hindu schools and suggests the “intermediate meaning of dance may help us to understand the link Hindus see between divine play and human play.”105 Indeed, Emily Pardue found that through a “ten-week, multi-dimensional program that included liturgical dance as a spiritual formation exercise,” participants experienced “emotional, physical and spiritual healing, a more positive and disciplined spiritual outlook, a healthier self-image, increased communication with others and a deeper sense of love for God through worship with their whole body.”106 In short, liturgical dance is redemptive, “enjoyed for its own sake,” yet with a purpose beyond itself. Even for victims of trauma and abuse of all faith and non-faith backgrounds, liturgical dance might provide a form of “embodiment work” that brings healing to psychological wounds “etched into the human body.”107 Churches can begin introducing meaningful liturgical movements during particular songs in their worship services in addition to hosting liturgical dance workshops and dance therapy sessions during the week.108

Third, Christians can incorporate play by practicing rhythms of Sabbath. No doubt for some, an understanding of play as ultimately “useless” runs counter to the idea that the church is on “mission” to restore “good order” in the world. (Where does one find time to “play” when the world is in need of saving?!) A Hindu understanding of lila might challenge this thinking. A critical understanding of lila can serve as an antidote to rigid totalitarianism—an “imaginative release from restrictive order”—and as a reprieve from what Clifford Hospital calls “a combination of puritanism and heroic (?) drivenness” inherent to our understanding of Christian mission.109 One finds, especially in Johnston’s treatment of Sabbath, this resistance against totalitarian order. Johnston notes: “The Sabbath is meant as a time of rest from the world—a period of non-work and delight in which one’s “useless” activity both fosters a recognition of the divine and sanctifies and refreshes ongoing life.”110

Paradoxically, the “useless” activity of the Sabbath protects and preserves the “good order” of God. Christians are invited to enjoy the spontaneity and freedom of the game, from a cricket match with friends to a game night with family, because it is precisely in their enjoyment that their “laughter,” as author Terry Lindvall notes, “percolates as thanksgiving and praise. [Their] enjoyment bubbles up and overflows with gratitude. [Their] rejoicing becomes robust, virile, and spontaneous.”111 Hindus can be invited to enter into the play-world of the Sabbath. Sabbath not only serves as a witness to those of other faiths, it becomes a means in which they too can experience rest, delight, and God’s hospitality. As the Law once envisioned, even the stranger and the foreigner enjoyed the benefit of Sabbath (Deut. 5:14) and rejuvenate and “refresh themselves” (Ex. 23:12). In short, all are invited to play straight into the hands of God.


Through a comparative study between the Hindu theologies of lila and the Christian theologies of play, Christians can aim to build a robust and embodied theology of play that includes and evokes elements of delight, spontaneity, freedom, divine embodiment, and playfulness. Here, a Trinitarian-pneumatological framework for interreligious dialogue not only helps Christians sincerely, critically, and respectfully cross religious boundaries, it also identifies similarities, exposes differences and reinforces convictions. Moreover, Christians are invited to create spaces of interreligious hospitality or “playgrounds” for playful expressions such as festivals and liturgical dance that can ultimately contribute to overall human flourishing for all people. In doing so, Christians are invited to envision playfulness as a part of their ongoing discipleship—and as they do, they are further equipped to create spaces of interreligious hospitality in which those of other faiths may experience the delight of God. Finally, comparative study with the theologies of ‘play’ amongst other religions in South Asia, including Buddhism, Jainism, and Islam, can only help build an even more full-bodied Christian theology of play. Ultimately, believers today may learn much from other faith traditions and have faith that God is at work in other cultures, preparing hearts and minds to receive Christ’s grace and love. Perhaps here, the Christian might join with the celebrated Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore, in his striking declaration: “In my heart is the endless lila of Thy delight. In my life, Thy will is ever taking shape.”112

Cite this article
Advait Praturi, “Playing Straight into God’s Hands: A Comparative Study of the Hindu and Christian Understandings of Play”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 50:4 , 403-421


  1. Norman, Hein, “Lila,” In The Gods at Play: Lila in South Asia, ed. William S. Sax (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 13.
  2. William S. Sax, ed., The Gods at Play: Lila in South Asia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 3.
  3. Hein, “Lila,” 19.
  4. Francis X. Clooney, Hindu God, Christian God:How Reason Helps Break Down the Boundaries between Religions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), vii.
  5. Ibid., 8.
  6. Ibid., 8.
  7. Ibid., 10.
  8. Scott W. Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Pub. Group, 2013), 260.
  9. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Spirit and Salvation: A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World, Volume 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016), 173.
  10. Kutter Callaway and Dean Batali, Watching TV Religiously: Television and Theology in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 194.
  11. Kärkkäinen, Spirit and Salvation, 173.
  12. Ibid., 177.
  13. Clooney, Hindu God, Christian God, 10.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Kärkkäinen, Spirit and Salvation, 172.
  16. Ibid. See also Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 216-217.
  17. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “Dialogue, Witness, and Tolerance: The Many Dimensions of Interfaith Encounters,” Fuller Studio,

  18. Kärkkäinen, Spirit and Salvation, 173.
  19. Ivan Satyavrata, “The Spirit Blows Where It Wills: The Holy Spirit’s Personhood in Indian Christian Thought,” in The Spirit over the Earth: Pneumatology in the Majority World, eds. Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue, & K. K. Yeo (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016), 35.
  20. Ibid., 36.
  21. Ibid., 37.
  22. Hein, “Lila,” 13.
  23. Ibid., 14.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Hein, “Lila,” 14.
  26. Clifford Hospital, “Lila in Early Vaisnava Thought,” in The Gods at Play, 30.
  27. Bettina Baumer, “The Play of the Three Worlds: The Trika Concept of Lila,” in The Gods at Play, 37.
  28. Ibid., 47.
  29. Malcolm Mclean, “At the Whim of the Goddess: The Lila of the Goddess in Bengal Saktism,” in The Gods at Play, 88.
  30. Ibid., 89.
  31. Hein, “Lila,” 19. Spiritual bondage is understood here as suffering as samsara.

  32. William S. Sax, ed., The Gods at Play, 7.

  33. Robert E. Goodwin, “The Play World of Sanskrit Poetry,” in The Gods at Play, 51.
  34. Ibid., 52.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Chandogya Upanishad, 8.12.3. Emphasis added.
  37. Goodwin, “The Play World of Sanskrit Poetry,” 54.
  38. Baumer, “The Play of the Three Worlds,” 37.
  39. Robert E. Goodwin, “The Play World of Sanskrit Poetry,” in The Gods at Play, 52.
  40. In short, the bhakti tradition is a movement and school of thought that emphasizes devotion and worship of God. According to Satyavrata, “The essential core of bhakti includes the idea of a personal God who can be loved and worshiped. Moreover, the personal God remains distinct from the bhakta (devotee). The goal for the bhakta is to find ultimately realization in union with God through single-minded devotion” (see Ivan Satyavrata, “The Spirit Blows Where It Wills,” 54).
  41. William A Dyrness, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Juan Francisco Martínez and Simon Chan, “Indian Theology,” in Global Dictionary of Theology: A Resource for the Worldwide Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 422.
  42. John Stratton Hawley, “Every Play a Play Within a Play,” in The Gods at Play, 120.
  43. Donna Wulff, “The Play of Emotion,” in The Gods at Play, 107. Also see Hawley, “Every Play a Play Within a Play,” 128.
  44. Hawley, “Every Play a Play Within a Play,” 121.
  45. Ibid., 116-117.
  46. Ibid.
  47. William S. Sax, ed., The Gods at Play, 7.
  48. Wulff, “The Play of Emotion,” 111.
  49. Hein, 18.
  50. Ibid.

  51. Sax, ed., The Gods at Play: Lila in South Asia, 7.
  52. Nitu Kumar, “Class and Gender Politics in Ramlila,” in The Gods at Play, 174.
  53. Nevertheless, as Hein argues, Hindu religion, lilas and caste structures are “clearly correlated” (Hein, 19). See Kumar, “Class and Gender Politics in Ramlila,” 171-174.
  54. Erik W. Dailey, The Fit Shall Inherit the Earth: A Theology of Sport and Fitness (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2018), 39-41.
  55. Ibid. See also J. G. Davies, Liturgical Dance: An Historical, Theological, and Practical Handbook(London: SCM Press, 1984), 29.
  56. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2nd, rev. ed., trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1920; New Advent, 2017): II, Q.168, Art. 2, Reply to Objection 3.

  57. Brian Edgar, The God Who Plays: A Playful Approach to Theology and Spirituality (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2017), 51.
  58. Ibid.
  59. Ibid., 66.
  60. Ibid., 64.
  61. Ibid.

  62. Ibid., 19.
  63. Ibid.
  64. Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Milestones in Catholic Theology (New York: Crossroad Pub, 1998), 70.
  65. Ibid., 68, 72.
  66. Harvey, A Brief Theology of Sport, 95.
  67. 7Jeremy R. Treat, “More than a Game: A Theology of Sport,” Themelios 40.3 (December 2015): 392-403,
  68. Johnston, The Christian at Play (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), 88.

  69. Ibid., 34.
  70. Ibid., 93.
  71. Ibid., 90.
  72. Ibid., 110.
  73. Ibid., 111.

  74. Ibid., 114.
  75. Johnston, The Christian at Play, 65.
  76. Ibid., 68.
  77. Ibid. See also Moltmann, “How Can I Play?,” 14,16; cf. Moltmann, “The First Liberated Men,” 13, 17.
  78. Johnston, The Christian at Play, 68. See also Moltmann, “The First Liberated Men,” 13

  79. Johnston, The Christian at Play, 68.
  80. Dailey, The Fit Shall Inherit the Earth, 89.
  81. Ibid., 91-92.
  82. Quoted in Ivan Satyavrata, “The Spirit Blows Where It Wills,” 55. Also see B. H. Streeter and A. J. Appasamy, The Sadhu: A Study in Mysticism and Practical Religion (Delhi: Mittal, 1982), 232.
  83. Amos Yong, “I Believe in the Holy Spirit,” in The Spirit over the Earth: Pneumatology in the Majority World, eds. Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue, & K. K. Yeo (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016), 29.
  84. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Waiheke Island: Floating Press, 2001), 89. See also the notion of theologia ludens reflected by Dante according to Giuseppe Mazzotta, as discussed by Curtis Gruenler in this issue.
  85. It is significant to note the Hebrew word rendered for play in Psalm 104:26 and Job 30:20 is closely related to the word translated as laughter.
  86. Baumer, “The Play of the Three Worlds: The Trika Concept of Lila,” 41.
  87. Isaac Augustine Morales, “The Playfulness of God,” Dominicana Journal, July 20, 2015,

  88. Sax, ed., The Gods at Play: Lila in South Asia, 8. Emphasis added.
  89. Ibid.
  90. Ibid.

  91. Johnston, The Christian at Play, 80.

  92. Guardini, 70-71.
  93. Goodwin, “The Play World of Sanskrit Poetry,” 54.
  94. Ibid. Specifically, Goodwin suggests that the end-goal of lila, at least in the sense of Kash-miri Shaivism, is union with Siva. “We must remember,” he writes, “that the end result of Saiva monism, for all its relish of the sensuous manifold, is a transcendental solipsism.”
  95. Dailey, The Fit Shall Inherit the Earth, 45.
  96. Ibid., 90.
  97. Clooney, Hindu God, Christian God, 167, 168.
  98. Edgar, The God Who Plays, 43.
  99. Johnston, The Christian at Play, 111.
  100. Ibid.
  101. Ibid.
  102. Om Lata Bahadur, “Divali: Festival of Lights,” in The Life of Hinduism(The Life of Religion), eds. John Stratton Hawley and Vasudha Narayanan (Berkley: University of California Press, 2006), 97.
  103. Ibid.

  104. Carman, “Some Concluding Remarks,” 225.

  105. Ibid.,” 228. Geradus Van der Leuw, in Sacred and Profane Beauty, defines dance as “lived meaning in which body and spirit commune with one another through the rhythmic mimesis, representational of a theological reminiscence that God is love.”

  106. Emily Annette Pardue and Theological Research Exchange Network, “The Healing of Dance” (Ashland Theological Seminary, 2005), 11.
  107. Letty J. Mills and Judith C Daniluk, “Her Body Speaks: The Experience of Dance Therapy for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse,” Journal of Counseling & Development 80.1 (2002): 84.

  108. Perhaps the best way for Indian churches to do this is through external partnerships with established liturgical dance ministries. Organizations like Movement in Worship based in Brighton, UK aim to bring awareness to the role of creativity, and specifically movement and dance, in worship. Their mission statement is as follows: “We are an international network of passionate, dynamic and creative worshippers. We seek to raise the profile of creativity in worship and mission by modeling and inspiring others in movement and dance.” See:
  109. Hospital, 31.
  110. Johnston, The Christian at Play, 91.
  111. Terry Lindvall, “The Role of Laughter in the Christian Life,” Knowing and Doing (Spring 2015),
  112. Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali, Poem 56.

Advait Praturi

Advait Praturi is a content development consultant and trainer working with leaders, communities, and entrepreneurs across Asia.