On Play

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “Children’s Games”

The vision of the world as an unfolding game is a very alluring idea. Once you start viewing all reality through that lens, it is quite hard to step back into ordinary perception. In Hinduism, the concept of Lila, divine play, is used to describe the creative, joyful and spontaneous activity of Brahman, the supreme existence and the Divine Ground of All. “It is a spirit leaping forward to be pursued and enjoyed and, ultimately, understood,” as it was expressed by an anonymous theosophy master here . From that perspective, the world arose as play and it unfolds as such. At the deepest level, to paraphrase Krishnamurti, the purpose of life is nothing but living itself.

Betty Heimann, a German professor of Sanskrit and a renowned expert on Indian studies, who died in 1961, wrote the following on the relation of the concept of Lila to time:

“As regards the concept of Time, lila represents continuity. It is well worth noting that the Greeks from the time of the pre-Socratics establish the necessity of a ‘kairos,’ of the adequate moment when to start with adequate means to achieve one single purpose and intent. India, on the other hand … never felt the need of the effortful moment and directed purpose for one single end. Instead of limiting herself to a ‘kairos,’ a straight line towards a certain end, she thinks in series of continuing receding preceding waves: polar existence is ever present, simultaneously and successively. Heraclitus, then, the Western thinker who more than all others approaches the Indian world of thought, significantly grasps the concept of the ‘aion,’ the creative continuity of time and life force, under the simile of an ever youthful child at play. In his Fragment 52 he asserts that the ‘aion’ is a child playing with dice. The supreme government of the world lies in the hands of a child.”

From University of Ceylon Review vol. III, No.2,1945,pp 29-34, link http://dlib.pdn.ac.lk/bitstream/123456789/899/1/Betty%20heimann.pdf

Shiva and Parvati at the game of dice

The Puranas (ancient Hindu texts) contain a story of Shiva playing the game of dice with Parvati. This game can be viewed as a metaphor of how the world came into manifestation, a tale of the birth of consciousness, as writes Richard Smoley in The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe. Shiva personifies pure consciousness, the self itself (Purusha) while Parvati stands for the contents of consciousness, i.e. the world or experience (Prakriti). Before the universe is manifested, consciousness and its contents are united in primordial sleep. The dice game introduced to the divine pair by a demon of discord symbolizes “the beginning of manifestation,” as self and the other (Shiva and Parvati) begin to consciously relate. Having been defeated in the game, Shiva, unperturbed, simply retreats to the forest. As Smoley explains, consciousness can detach from experience:

“You are not your thoughts; you are not your feelings; you are not even your actions. This realization in expressed in the myth of the dice game: Shiva, having ‘lost’ all his attributes to Parvati, goes off, unruffled, to the forest to live the life of an ascetic. Purusha has no attributes; they all belong to prakriti; that is why purusha always loses the game. But since these attributes are not part of it to begin with, it loses nothing in actuality.”

The dice itself embraces consciousness and experience in its symbolic construction. A marvellous explanation of the symbolic meaning of the dice can be found on the Theosophy Trust website here . As a cube, the dice symbolizes the earthly manifestation (prakriti). However, it is a well-known fact that the top and bottom faces of the dice always add up to seven, which is a holy number with rich symbolic significance. First of all, it reconciles the square of matter with the heavenly triangle (three being a number symbolically linked with god and goddess). Like the rainbow bridge, the number seven links the unmanifested divine reality with the manifested earthly realm. According to Cirlot, the author of the Dictionary of Symbols, the seventh day of rest after six days of creation corresponds to the centre and the return to the Divine Source. For more on number seven, see here .

Play as an activity, not only the one involving the dice, has a way of transporting the participants from ordinary life to the realm of enchantment. In a classic book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, written in the 1938 by a Dutch scholar J. Hiuzinga, humans are imagined as always engaging in ludere – Latin for to play. Play transcends the immediate needs of life; it denotes “a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own.” Play creates beauty and order that it brings temporarily to the mundane sphere of chaos and confusion. It draws a magic circle around the play activity and, similarly to a ritual, “transports the participants to another world.” Huizinga asserts firmly that all the “great archetypal activities of human society are all permeated with play from the start.” For him, play is older than culture and society. What is more, culture and society arise from play:

“As a rule the play element gradually recedes into the background, being absorbed for the most part in the sacred sphere. The remainder crystallizes as knowledge: folklore, poetry, philosophy, or in the various forms of judicial and social life.”

The crystallized seriousness of our institutions, of all civilization, of all our truths and duties, rests on a magic cloud of enchanted play.

The Theosophy Trust website also contains an entry devoted to symbolism of games (https://www.theosophytrust.org/626-games). Through games, “the potential perfection inherent in the macrocosmic plan may be gradually realized in the microcosmic nature of man.” In games universal truths are embodied, for they offer “means of transcending the ephemeral flux of external appearances.” The ball is seen as an object with magical powers:

“To release these powers has been part of the fascination of the game, and when the powers represent a victory over various obstacles or even darkness itself, the result is truly cathartic for both players and spectators. Pitting oneself against objects, forces, others or even against oneself releases and cleanses the emotions, whilst onlookers purge themselves of anger, malice and frustration.”

But, how to explain the violence, addictions and other distortions that haunt human as the playing animal? From a theosophical perspective, this shows the humankind’s inability to come to terms with the deeper level of the psyche, where the universal game between good and evil is being eternally waged. Gamblers, in turn, are merely revealing their contempt for authority and the restrictions of living in the society:

“They are thereby displaying a perverse unwillingness to accept their own legitimate karma as well as the collective karma in which they find themselves enmeshed.”

Via https://www.theosophytrust.org/702-the-dice

Eric Berne, the Canadian psychiatrist famous for creating the theory of transactional analysis and applying game theory to psychiatry, believed that children are born princes and princesses until their parents turn them into frogs. A healthy ego, according to transactional theory, should be able to switch between the roles of a child, parent or adult according to needs and circumstances. However, I agree with Rilke about one thing: “…we are always closest to the center of our lives at the point where according to our own means we most closely resemble the child!” (found in “Letters on Life”)

Jan Steen, “Card Players Quarrelling”

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16 Responses to On Play

  1. litebeing says:

    Quite Fascinating as always Monika. The art is fabulous and I love the association between the dice and consciousness.

    Blessings with hugs,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Linda. I am fascinated with the dice. It is as old as civilization and such a magical object connected with consciousness and fate. I’m quite into backgammon now and I remember reading an amazing article about a backgammon master called ” The Chaos of the Dice”! Anyway, thanks again for dropping by.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating article, Monica!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Paulus Uleman says:

    May I place this in the context of Leo and the 5th house; finding the child within?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this post and how long been fascinated by the idea of play and interplay, how the creative flow is a continual overlapping, and how the universe is part of that kind of “interplay.” That last quote really resonates.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. inaloveworld says:

    Amazing post! Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: On Play – lampmagician

  7. Laurens says:

    I love your posts, and this one is very nice, but I want to point out that Johan Huizinga died in 1945. His book ‘homo ludens’ was written in 1938.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Much appreciate your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

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