By Suma Varughese
If the universe is a manifestation of the lord’s play, it follows that life is a game. So lighten up and dance your way through the lord’s lila. Swirl and twirl through victories and defeats, joys and sorrows, life and death. All of it is but a game and all that matters is how we play it…
Imagine it, if you can. Absolute non-existence. Save for the One, a compressed dot of unimaginable power and potency. Whole, perfect and complete. Needing nothing, wanting nothing, self-created and self-sustained. Blissful, joyful, endlessly creative. And life happens. Streaming out of the One like cobweb out of a spider, weaving worlds of astounding beauty and complexity, composing galaxies humming to the music of the spheres, manifesting beings of every conceivable shape, size and substance. Creation upon creation. Complexity upon complexity. A universe of unbelievable proportions and intelligence. The One is at joyful play, manifesting Itself in ever-greater abundance and intricacy, experiencing Itself in a trillion reflections across the stratosphere, scripting a game that ripples through the whole of creation and seeds it with underlying order and harmony, with rules and a purpose. A game played by the One as many until the many once again become One.
Let’s zoom in now on two-year-old Ashwin. No need to tell him that life is a game. It is self-evidently one. When Mummy gives him rice and curds to eat, that’s a game to be plunged into with gusto, grabbing fistfuls of the stuff, smearing it all over his mouth, tasting its sweet coolness, feeling its sticky consistency on his skin, crushing some of the rice on the table just to see what it feels like and offering a spoonful to mama too, because he likes to share. Even the piece of cloth that he finds in the bedroom is matter for a splendid game. Tirelessly, he plays with it for hours, twirling it around him, folding it into different sizes and shapes and even spreading it down like a sheet and lying on it. Deeply engrossed in everything he does, Ashwin explores the world through play.
Cut to Ashwin at 30. Life, a game? With a wife, two kids (who see life as a game), a housing and car loan to pay off, and a job that’s in the doldrums, you’ll excuse him if he doesn’t quite see the fun in living. As a matter of fact ask him what life is and he will look back at you, perplexed. He hasn’t the slightest idea. At some points it has seemed the most glorious thing imaginable such as when he first met his wife or witnessed the birth of their children. At other times, it has been a drag, a bore. At still other times it has been living hell – for instance, when his colleague framed him in a theft case or when his younger brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. So life? Well, the jury is still out on that one.
Most of us can identify with the older Ashwin. Life can appear to be such a struggle. Marks to be got, a job to be held, money to be made, duties to be fulfilled, bills to be paid, self-respect to be earned, values to be guarded, children to be married off, old age to be provided for. We are pitted against a world rife with corruption, dirt, chaos, meaninglessness, anger, enmity, accidents, disease and death. Where is the fun in all this? What is the game we are meant to be playing, anyway?
The game is called lila, the sport of the Lord; and to realize it and play it is our life’s purpose.
Writes Martin Boroson, author of Becoming Me, Story of Creation, ‘From within itself, the Source gives birth to an imaginary world, like an enormous film or play. We are characters in this film, unaware of the drama we’re in, unaware of the Source who creates and projects us. God is playing with us, and is playing through us, like a big hand with so many finger puppets. This is done with delight and curiosity, the way a loving parent sees the world afresh through her child’s innocent eyes.’
The concept of the universe arising out of the Lord’s play is an essentially Indian idea, and one with profound implications. In keeping with Vedic philosophy, it illustrates the relative unreality of our worldly existence. Writes spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy in The Cosmic Game, ‘God was One, but He wanted to become many…If we go deep within, we see that we are only taking a conscious part in God’s Cosmic Game.’
Vedanta teacher Swami Brahmavidananda adds, ‘God is complete, full, free of need. Therefore, why should he create? God creates without a reason, like play. This is how the concept of lila came about.’
It also reflects the spirit of the enterprise. A spirit of joy, fun, innocence and creativity. We are the byproducts of this spirit and therefore the inheritors too. In The Sport of the Infinite, an Internet article, Sri Swami Krishnananda rhapsodises, ‘It is Ananda that is manifest everywhere in the world. It is Bliss and not pain that we see in the world. Pain is only a refusal on the part of our consciousness to recognize the bliss of God’s creation.’
God has created us out of His irrepressible creative joy. But creation is not all of the play. Through us, God is playing out a deep, infinitely fascinating and immensely patient game. Through the process of evolution, matter must gradually become spirit. The smallest densest particle of sand must evolve through the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdom. It must work its way from amoeba to the crown of creation, man! That’s you and me. Having reached this far in this mammoth creation odyssey, we have but one step more, and that is to reach Godhead. God became us so that we can become God. A millennia-long circuitous route from consciousness to unconsciousness to consciousness again. Why? Play, just play! Hide and seek, what else?
The Lord’s Play
All of life conspires to achieve this one all-encompassing purpose – to move towards God. Everything that has befallen us in our millions of years of existence has been single-mindedly towards this lofty goal. And despite the slips and setbacks, despite the occasional extinction, plagues, droughts, floods and famines, life has irresistibly surged forward.
It has brought us where we are just now. And it will support us on this last but most perilous step of our ascent. At the same time, the Lord’s game is as challenging as it can possibly be. It calls upon us to exert every ounce of intelligence, determination, courage, endurance, acceptance and every other strength. For we are veiled from the truth by the subtle but powerful veils of maya. Her sorcery binds us to the lures of the sensory world, to our hunger for pleasure, power, money, fame and so on. It predisposes us to the traps of anger, despondency, fear, and other emotions. Like the snake and ladder game our progress can be uncertain, sometimes on the rise, sometimes a precipitous fall. Our humongous task is to break free of every one of these fetters that arise out of embodiment and thereby attain spirithood while still in the body.
Difficult, yes, but not impossible as the example of all the God-realized saints and yogis prove. Moreover, we are supported in this by the whole universe, and by our own natures as well. We have been given the precious gifts of a conscience, imagination, intuition and free will with which to change our nature and to orient it towards perfect liberation. Writes psychiatrist Brian Weiss in his book, Same Soul, Many Bodies, ‘The unconscious has built within it a mechanism that steers it along a positive path of spiritual evolution. In other words, the soul always, at all times, evolves towards heath.’
We enter the game therefore with a good many handicaps but enough advantages to ensure that we have a chance at winning if we screw ourselves to a fever pitch and give it all we have got. You couldn’t ask for a more absorbing game!
God has always been playing this game through us; but the fun begins when we begin to perceive the game. Or to continue with our protagonist, when Ashwin gets a glimmering of the underlying purpose behind the surface chaos of life.
Writes Martin Boroson, ‘The goal of the cosmic game is for you to discover, in a way that satisfies your own particular tests, that you are an aspect of the divine. This is the moment when you discover the God-program buried in your hard-drive. You learn its language and start to surf the web-of-life from its custom browser.’
The moment when we awaken to the game is a sacred one and determined by grace. It could be an experience, a line spoken by someone, or a passage in a book. A friend reported walking into his puja room and having a ray of light passing into him from the Ganesh idol. This is the moment when we discern that under the materialistic surface of life runs another deeper layer.
Ashwin, if he is lucky, will get his chance in this lifetime. If not there are others, for life patiently trawls for all souls – not one is ignored or rejected. All will get their turn in life after life.
Those who do get it find their lives transformed by a compelling new vision. They become charged with an overwhelming desire to understand this game and to experience it fully. There are two processes involved here. The first is the knowledge that life is a game. This changes our perspective, worldview and attitude. The second, which flows from that, is to be able to play the game in the spirit of the Lord. To live jauntily, spiritedly; to be able to smile at defeats and victories; to celebrate life through good times and bad; to milk opportunities out of problems; to be undefeatable; and through it become God.
In the book, God Loves Fun, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says, ‘God is ever youthful, ever young. To me, God is very naughty…and he loves fun. All this is fun, that’s why He created so much fun around Him, including all the worries and the tape that goes with it. That is also fun. Life is fun.’
Learning to Play
The first discovery that life is a game brings is liberation from the concept of death. If life is only a game then this mortal plane is not the ultimate reality. Therefore, death is only a transition into another plane of existence. We are immortal. From this follows the concept of karma and reincarnation. These ideas put life into context and help us discern the purpose of existence. We learn that we come into this world to grow, that earthly life is a school and our purpose is to evolve from life to life. Psychiatrist Brian Weiss discerned these truths when he regressed a patient and was astounded to find her descending into a past life. Since then his books on the experiences of his patients have cast light on how and why we have the lives we do and what happens to us when we die.
He writes in Same Soul, Many Bodies, ‘Before it (the soul) merges with the One, it looks down on the body it has left and conducts what I call a life review, a review of the life just departed…At some level your soul merges with the light, but it still retains its awareness so that it can continue to learn on the other side. It is a simultaneous merging with a greater light, accompanied by feelings of indescribable bliss and joy, and the awareness that it remains individuated and still has lessons to learn, both on Earth and on the other side. Eventually – the time varies – the soul decides to come back in another body, and when it reincarnates, the sense of merging is lost.’The idea that we are here to learn is a central rule of the game. And when we discern it, life ceases to be perplexing, frustrating and meaningless. We may still suffer but our suffering is shot through with meaning.
Says actor Madhoo Shah, the lead player of the film Roja, ‘I really believe that life is like an unfolding play, a game. Detaching myself from the situation and seeing it so, helps me cope with it. Yesterday, I came back home from Singapore and found that both my maids had quit in my absence and there was no one to look after the kids. The first thing I asked myself was, ‘What do I learn out of this?’ I realized that I would be able to spend more time with my children and also that they would learn to be more independent. It was also a reality check – that people come and go. Thank God they were only maids. It’s also made me see that I am good at being a mother. And that I don’t succumb. It has helped me know myself. It’s a situation. I enjoy situations. I have this thing with life. We challenge each other. Sometimes I win, which means I master the situation. Sometimes life does. But all of it is part of the game.’
Behavioural trainer Indu Kohli emanates a joyous disposition that draws people to her. She attributes her temperament to her early childhood experiences. She says, ‘I was five when my mother became completely bedridden with rheumatic arthritis. She was so immobile that even if a fly sat on her, she needed someone to whisk it away.
‘We had to grow up without a mother to take care of us; we learnt instead to take care of her. That was a learning. So was my mother’s lightness of spirit. She would encourage us to call our friends home. And although none of us had any money, one would bring a kilo of rice, another some vegetables and so on. Our house was always full of friends and laughter. She taught me to accept the difficulties of life joyfully.’
Adds Weiss, ‘Students ask me why anyone would choose to come back to live in a rat-infested slum in Bogota or Harlem. The Buddhist monks I’ve met, the entourage of the Dalai Lama, laugh at the question because they see life as a stage performance. The man in the slum is just a role; in the next lifetime, the same actor will appear as a prince.’
‘I believe we choose to come into a rat-infested apartment because we have to understand what it is like to be poor; in other lifetimes we will be rich. We must be rich, poor, male, female, healthy, sickly, big, small, strong and weak.’ Learnings. All learnings.
In this new perspective, death loses its sting. Archana Kulkarni, executive editor of New Woman, says, ‘A few years ago, I lost a cousin in an accident. Soon after that, I lost another cousin and my uncle (his dad) again in an accident. A few years after that, I lost yet another cousin, again in an accident. Four shocking unexpected deaths in a row. All three cousins were barely in their 30s. All three had promising futures. One left behind a widow and a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. The deaths affected me deeply and I grieved for a long time.
‘I finally found consolation in Manaache Shloka by Sant Ramdas, which clearly tells you not to grieve for those who have left because they have just gone ahead and you are to follow, maybe at a later date. That’s when I realized the futility of holding on to my grief. We are all playing our parts in a game. Some get out first, the rest of us have to play on, give our best shot till our time comes too and someone else takes our place in the team. Accepting this completely transformed my way of looking at things.’
This ability to see the game plan behind life’s events can help us put even catastrophes like the Mumbai floods into perspective. It is comforting to reflect that the suffering endured by lakhs of people is not in the ultimate sense real, and that it can be used as an instrument of growth. It is reassuring to know that those who have died will return to the world stage and plunge once more into the game.
Our attitude undergoes a qualitative difference. Knowing that we live in a game scripted by God defines our own responsibility in the matter sharply. We are not running the show. We are only acting a role. We cease to fixate on the outcome. For those in the film industry, this is a double realisation. Says Rahul Bose whose offbeat roles in films such as English August and Everybody Says I am Fine (directed by him too) have won him critical acclaim, ‘As an actor, I realize that if you have to survive in this industry, you do your best and then move on. If you are going to worry about the film’s performance in the box office, it will destroy you. You learn not to take life too seriously. And to do things for the enjoyment of the moment. This attitude has transcended into my playing rugby. It has taught me to be light-hearted about what happens after 90 minutes of play. It frees you. Your only duty is to play the game.
‘When I became an actor, I had no idea where my next role would come from. My only choice was to do the best in the role I had. This was all I could do to spawn new roles, and it also helped me to relax into the role and enjoy playing it. Recently, I felt sad that my film, Mumbai Matinee did not turn out the way it had read on paper. But I felt no sense of despair because I had done my best. I had not let myself down.’
Instead of temporal victories we begin to put a premium on spiritual victories, learning the lessons behind the stuff of life. It is not as important to get to that appointment on time as it is to overcome our impatience at the traffic light. It is not as important to win at an argument as it is not to lose our cool. We actively look for the lesson in every minor detail, the bus that we miss, the noise of exploding crackers, the muck on the road, our colleague’s strong perfume, or spouse’s untidiness. All these are here to teach us, period. We can afford to overlook nothing. Every reaction and resistance is a sign that we must change. Life is simply a vast teacher.
Says astrologer Harsh Khiraiya, ‘I see life as a treasure hunt. And jyotish helps me to stumble upon a few precious secrets. For me, she is a living teacher, nourishing, and if necessary, admonishing. I have noticed that each time I get a little cocky and think that I’m really good, along comes a string of failures to bring me down to size. And when I get disheartened enough to want to quit, she consoles me with lots of good feedback from my clients. She tends to play these tricks to keep me on track.’
Failures and mistakes cease to define us and transform into feedback, just to help us get better next time round. We are a work in progress and always will be, for there is no end to growth. In her book, If Life is a Game, These are the Rules, Cherie Carter-Scott explains, ‘Growth is a process of experimentation, a series of trials, errors and occasional victories. The failed experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiments that work.’
For Mohini attam dancer Mandakini Trivedi, one of the foremost rules of the game is its dynamism, ‘What is true today may not be tomorrow, and what is applicable to one situation may not be so for another. Sometimes it helps to take action. Sometimes it helps not to take action. You have to keep adapting to the moment. You cannot afford to have your attention drift. It’s like a dance really because you are constantly shifting weights.’
She adds, ‘Like dance, the game of life is joyful, but it’s not easy fun because it arises from an undergrid of discipline – the discipline of a mind that is contented, that does not crave, and that accepts the inevitable.’
She illustrates her case with the recent disastrous floods in Mumbai. Her ground-floor house was flooded and her belongings ravaged. ‘My immediate response was that I was alive and so was my son, who walked all the way home from Churchgate station and reached our home at Juhu at 2 a.m. Nothing else really mattered. Even when the flooding was happening, I was calm. It happened so fast – within half-an-hour. I stood in the middle of the water, said an Omkar and sat down on a stool.’
The Spirit of Play
When the lessons slowly take root, we begin to change and to release the forces that stifle our sense of play. What are these? Insecurity, inability to let go, inability to forgive, self-consciousness, anger, self-pity and a host of other emotions. They create heaviness and pain and in wrestling with them, we are oblivious to the Lord’s lila. The lightness of life so evident in all of nature, in the softness of the breeze, the sway of the trees, in bird calls and the radiance of flowers, escapes us, save for a few enchanted moments. As long as we are in the grip of samsara, we will not be able to fully experience our light-hearted playful self. This does not mean that we have to wait till we become enlightened to live life as play, but it does call for a substantial level of evolution.
Swami Brahmavidananda says, ‘When we discover reality, lila flows. No experience can leave a mark on us. You can empathise with the joys and sorrows of human beings without it becoming a part of you. On stage, you will have to feel in order to cry. There is no falseness in the staged tears but there is also liberation because there is the knowledge that the grief is not yours. It belongs to the role you play.’
All of life becomes fun, a joyful enterprise. Archana sees her job as a game. ‘I love my job. I am all the time innovating and adding newness to it. I keep challenging myself. It’s like play. The one question I ask myself when working on the editorial mix is, ‘Is it going to be fun for the readers?’ A sense of play pervades our day. Says Ma Amrit Sadhana, a follower of Osho and editor of Osho Times, ‘When I make a mistake, I can look at it more playfully now. And I can apologize without a problem. It is so liberating.’
When play becomes our dominant state of mind, regardless of the conditions of life, we are not too far from the zone of surrender. Here, all we want to do is play the game that God wants us to play without protest or doubt, for in it lies our highest happiness. We align ourselves completely to His will and rejoice in abiding by it. We receive all problems and difficulties as his gifts and zestfully proceed to make the most out of them; to eke happiness and joy from each.
At this stage the nature of the game shifts from hide and seek to something more akin to playing ball. We catch the throws that life heaves at us with deftness and grace and run with it as fast as ever we can. Whenever possible we try and lob a winning shot. But even if we cannot, the sporting spirit sees us through, for we can accept the downs of life with gratitude and joy. Observes Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, ‘When things go all right, everybody can laugh, but when everything falls apart, if even then you can laugh, there is evolution and growth.’
Madhoo confides, ‘I really practice not blaming others or cribbing. My firm belief is that people give you situations to make you better. Genetically, I am someone who takes life well. I was 13 when my mother passed away, but I never ever felt miserable. Instead I felt so grateful to God for giving me a wonderful father, a great brother and fantastic friends.
‘After I got married I was very anxious to have a baby, but my husband was dead set against it. We used to have tremendous arguments on this front. Matters were at an impasse when I met a meditation teacher from Zurich. At that time my meditation practice consisted of closing my eyes, doing some deep breathing, getting still and asking the universe for what I wanted. He suggested instead that I should simply be as open as I could possibly be with all my creative energy into receiving what the universe gave me.
‘This helped me to surrender my great wish to have a baby and I told my husband that I was willing to let it go. Would you believe that my husband immediately agreed to have a baby and within nine months of the conversation, my baby was born! These experiences have taught me how important it is to accept what the universe offers.’
Ma Amrit Sadhana observes, ‘If you think of life as a play, you develop a sense of humor. Humor can help you distance yourself from the immediate situation and enjoy everything, even humiliation and suffering. In play, there are ups and downs, highs and lows. Going down is part of play. You cannot resist it. When I made a conscious decision to follow Osho, I was surrounded by condemnation and suspicion by my family and friends. They thought I doing something bad. I was lonely, and that loneliness converted into aloneness. Being a woman, I was always concerned about what others would say. Well, they had their say, and I was free! I got a lot of courage out of it.’
There is no higher way to live than as play. Living as play is mastery. We can only live with such lightness and delight when we have freed ourselves of the burden of ego, and can float through life as lightly as a fluff of cotton, allowing the currents of life to freely flow through us. Only the truly evolved are truly playful.
According to Osho, ‘Festivity, fun, playfulness, celebration – these are the qualities of meditation; a really meditative person is playful. Life is fun for him – a lila, a play.’
Says Indu Kohli, ‘I take life in its lightness. I am really a light soul and I am becoming more and more of that as I get in touch with myself. Heaviness happens when you try to cling – to children, money and security. One thing that has helped me shed baggage is to look outside myself and help those who have less than me.’
She adds, ‘I love making a game out of everything; to be in celebration mode. Recently, some professional colleagues came home for a meeting; it was the birthday of one of them. I bought a candle, some balloons, a cake and hosted an instant party. The others were so appreciative. People like to be a part of celebration but often cannot make it happen themselves.
‘I believe in movement, in attuning to the rhythm of life. People use me to move ahead. Recently, the mother of my son’s friend passed away; the young girl was anxious for me to be there because I brought lightness to the atmosphere and helped them to move on. It’s important to move because when you do, you help others to do so too.’
We are gradually returning to two-year-old Ashwin’s state of mind. With lightness comes spontaneity and the freedom to be ourselves. With the innocence of the child, we step out from behind our masks and inhibitions and give free rein to our playful nature. Says Archana Kulkarni, ‘My mental age is about five. If I want to sing on the road I do it. If I want to dance at home, I do that too. Recently, I went on a shoot to Manori and couldn’t resist playing on the seesaw. I loved it!’
We become baby Ashwin once again, but we do it in full consciousness. In just the same way as we embrace Godhead consciously.
When does the game finally get over?
When every last shred of self-identity disappears. When our ego, the hard shell that encases us, wears away and dies. Freely, we will flow into the wide arms of life and become one with it. There is no distinction now between God and us. We are one. Playful joy completely pervades us. All desires are quenched and stanched; all knots unraveled; all thoughts silenced. We reside in bliss, in sat chit ananda. We have won the game and the prize is liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
And yet the play continues with ever increasing skill, grace and poise, for we are masters at it now. More, we can now use our mastery to support all of life in understanding and living the game. For the game will be fully won only when all of life merges with God.
We are now batting for God.
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