Meditation and Reflection on the divine play

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Lila Chintana and Lila Dhyana By Swami Atmajanananda:

To refect on the divine play of God and to let that refection deepen into meditation is one of the greatest opportunities and blessings in the life of a devotee. It is a practice that not only brings immense joy, but also helps deepen one’s spiritual life and transform one’s nature. And it is a practice that requires no great learning, study of the scriptures, or powers of mental control. But once we get a taste for this practice, we find that it grows more and more intense, and we discover that a whole new dimension has been added to our spiritual lives and practice.

In order to fully appreciate this practice’s wonderful power of attraction and equally wonderful power of purifcation of the mind and heart, it will be helpful to examine the three basic components of lila chintana and lila dhyana. As with all aspects of spiritual life, many of the concepts and ideas are deceptively simple. And while we are all familiar with the ideas of refection, meditation, and lila, we find that the type of meditation and reflection we engage in in this particular practice is very much coloured by the concept of lila, and thus will be quite diferent from the types of meditation and reflection we practise when following the paths of yoga and knowledge.


The term lila has three basic meanings, each distinct in some sense, yet closely related. It may refer to (i) a play or sport or pastime, a diversion or amusement. It also conveys the meaning of (ii) ease or facility, something that is ‘mere child’s play’. And finally, it gives the sense that (iii) something is not entirely real: it may be a mere appearance, a semblance, pretence, disguise, or sham, and may even convey the meaning of a kind of joke (one not always funny to those not in the know). The term lila may be used in various contexts and with different layers of meaning, but in each and every case it refers to a kind of manifestation (real or otherwise, depending on the context). It is an idea based on the belief that God, or Brahman, is not merely a transcendent, unmanifest reality, but is also immanent, and manifests in a variety of diferent ways.

Sri Ramakrishna was very fond of this idea of lila as the manifestation of the divine in the relative world, and he ofen juxtaposed it with the idea of nitya, the eternal, unmanifest, absolute aspect of God. While he recognized that God manifests in numberless ways, for him the highest and greatest manifestation of God was in the human form. We read in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, 24 February, 1884 :

Since my arm was injured, a deep change has come over me. I now delight only in the Naralīlā, the human manifestation of God. Nitya and Līlā. The Nitya is the Indivisible Satchidānanda, and the Līlā, or Sport, takes various forms, such as the Līlā as God, the Līlā as the deities, the Līlā as man, and the Līlā as the universe. Vaisnavcharan used to say that one has attained Perfect Knowledge if one believes in God sporting as man. I wouldn’t admit it then. But now I realize that he was right (392).

So we see that, from this point of view, Brahman’s manifestation as the diferent deities, as the visible universe, as all living beings, even as the Personal God, is all a kind of play, not real in any absolute sense and not explainable in any rational way. It is said to be all just for fun, since Brahman cannot feel any need to manifest or any lack if there is no so-called creation. If Brahman is to be considered perfect, there can be no room for any desire, and so we end up with the concept of lila.

Two Aspects of Nara-lila

But even from the point of view of nara-lila, God manifest in human form, we fnd two distinct ideas. From a philosophical and non-dualistic point of view, it is Brahman alone which manifests in the form of all human beings. Due to the force of maya, Brahman has forgotten its true nature, as it were, caught up in the drama of life. That is why even quarrels between one person and another, battles between one nation and another, have the quality of play to the God-realized soul. For it is God himself who is the actor, playing each and every role, in this divine and seemingly mad play of life. We find Sri Ramakrishna ofen in this mood, especially toward the end of his life, looking upon the body as a mere pillow case and seeing only God within, playing the role of all beings.

But there is a second sense of nara-lila, which is more consistent with a devotional attitude and with dualistic spiritual practices (though it may also, as Sri Ramakrishna says, lead to the knowledge of Brahman). This second sense revolves around the concept of the avatara, or divine incarnation. It is typically this idea that we refer to when we speak of meditation and refection on the human lila of God.

We have just seen that one aspect of God’s sport as man is that He manifests as all living beings, or at the very least, dwells within the hearts of all living beings as the higher Self. But the devotional schools maintain that in addition to this, there is a special kind of manifestation that takes place from time to time, perhaps necessitated by some extraor-dinary historical or social conditions. At such times an eternally perfect soul, which is somehow one with the Personal God, descends to earth and assumes a human body. And that soul does not simply come alone, but brings along its own shakti, in the form of a consort, and also a handful of divine companions. This is a belief typically associated with the worshippers of Krishna, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Rama, but is also quite similar to the attitude many Christians have with regard to Christ.

There is a belief among certain Vaishnavas that the divine sport between Krishna and the gopis takes place eternally in an eternal Vrindavan, a divine sphere not of this world. But they also believe that that play takes place on earth in every cycle. Here the idea of lila is especially pronounced, for Krishna is himself quite a practical prankster and fond of play and sport. And we find that each stage of Krishna’s life is considered another opportunity to contemplate his divine nature and divine play: as a small baby, as a young boy frolicking with the cow-herd boys and milkmaid girls, and even as the young prince of Mathura and charioteer of Arjuna.

We find all of the same elements of lila in the life of Sri Ramakrishna as well. When we examine all of the incidents of his life, we see that everything seems staged and divinely directed. All the characters are in place and assuming their proper roles: his divine consort, Sri Sarada Devi, ever-perfect souls such as Narendra and Rakhal, even M, the modern-day Vyasa, ready to take down his every word. And we can practise the same type of contemplation and meditation on Sri Ramakrishna’s divine play that the Vaishnavas do with regard to Sri Krishna.


Let us now turn to the practice of meditation and see how it applies to this idea of lila. The main elements of meditation as taught in the yoga tradition are well known to most of us. We try to withdraw the mind from contact with external objects by closing of the senses. Then we attempt to focus the mind on a single point or object of meditation and try to keep the mind centred on that one point. When the mind begins to stray from that object, as it naturally does, we try to bring it back through the process of abhyasa yoga, repeated practice, until it becomes trained to remained fixed on the Chosen Ideal, the object of meditation.

As an example of this one-pointedness (ekagrata), Sri Ramakrishna mentions Arjuna and his practice of archery. At the time of aiming at a bird, Drona asks Arjuna, ‘What do you see? Do you see these kings?’ ‘No, sir.’ ‘Do you see me?’ ‘No.’ ‘The trees?’ ‘No.’ ‘The bird on the tree?’ ‘No.’ ‘What then do you see?’ ‘Only the eye of the bird.’

Child Ramakrishna.jpg

But attaining this same kind of one-pointedness in meditation is far more difcult, especially in the beginning. The same Arjuna who was so adept at blocking out everything else and focusing wholly on his object when it came to archery, found the control of the mind to be as difcult as trying to control the wind—‘tasyāham nigraham manye vayor-iva suduskaram’ (Gita, 6.3 ). And in this regard, most of us are in the same boat. The mind rebels, doesn’t like to remain quiet, likes to run around. And when it loses contact with its object, it may end up anywhere. So if our concentration is only on the ‘eye of the bird’, there is every possibility that when the mind strays, it will lose not only the eye but the bird as well. And then our whole meditation is spoiled until we once more regain our focus.

This is precisely why meditation on the divine play of an incarnation of God or a great saint can be of such benefit to us. It allows us to keep our focus on a single point just as in the yogic type of meditation, but that single point has many facets to it, like a gem. And when the mind wanders away from one facet, rather than getting lost altogether, it can simply rest on another one of the infinite divine facets. So the tendency of the mind to wander no longer represents a liability for us, but becomes rather a positive aid in this kind of meditation. We allow one divine association to lead us to another, so that we remain within the circle of the divine presence, just as the tether of a cow allows it to graze within a certain area defned by the length of the rope.

Suppose, for example, we want to meditate on the image of Sri Ramakrishna. As we enter into the chamber of the heart we find ourselves standing in Sri Ramakrishna’s room in Dakshineswar. We picture him seated on the small cot next to the larger Rakhal, Latu, Baburam, M, and the others seated before him on the foor. We let our eyes wander across the room and see the holy pictures on the wall. And the image of Sri Ramakrishna awaking in the morning and saluting each of the pictures, clapping his hands and repeating the various names of God, flashes before our eyes. Or we hear Narendra singing in his beautiful voice, throwing Sri Ramakrishna into an ecstatic mood. He rises from his seat and begins to dance. The devotees form a circle around him and also dance. Then he becomes motionless in samadhi, Baburam quickly coming to his side to see that he does not fall.

We let the mind wander to the northeast corner of his room, where the large container of Ganges water sits, and we remember that blessed night of Phalaharini Kali Puja, when Sri Ramakrishna worshipped Sri Sarada Devi as Shodashi, and we watch spellbound as both the worshipper and the worshipped become lost in samadhi and pass the night in that state.

Or if the mind is not content to remain within the confines of Sri Ramakrishna’s room, we can accompany him to the Kali temple, and watch him sit before the image of Mother Kali, sing songs to her, wave the chamara before her, and enter into a state of divine inebriation. Or we can stroll to the north of Sri Ramakrishna’s room to the Nahabat,where Sri Sarada Devi is absorbed in the worship of Sri Ramakrishna, or standing behind the bamboo screen watching the divine scenes taking place in his room. There is no end to the diferent ways in which we can enjoy the divine sport and company of Sri Ramakrishna through the power of imagination and the practice of lila dhyana.

Advantages of Lila Dhyana

There are several obvious advantages to this kind of meditation. For one thing, it allows us to transform the faculty of imagination from an obstacle in concentration to an aid. The very same tendency of the mind to wander which gets us into so much trouble in other types of meditation becomes a positive help to us here. And by giving the imagination certain limits within which to work, we find that the mind does not wander to other things, such as job, relationships, family, or friends. A second advantage is that we can practise this type of meditation even if we lack the perfect control over the mind necessary in the path of raja yoga. We also find that this type of meditation counteracts some of the obstacles we often encounter in meditation,especially the feeling of boredom that may some-times come or the tendency of the mind to fall prey to drowsiness.

One of the ironies of lila dhyana is that, though we may take up the practice because we feel unable to concentrate the mind in any one-pointed sense on our Chosen Ideal, we find that, through this practice, our ability to focus the mind actually increases and we eventually reach a point where the mind does get fxed on the object of meditation. When we feel the mind gathering itself together,we can simply imagine the kirtan coming to an end, Sri Ramakrishna being slowly helped back to his cot, and again going into a deep state of samadhi, just as we see him in his photograph. Then we ourselves can resume our seat before him and simply gaze at the blissful image of Sri Ramakrishna in ecstasy. And like Arjuna, we have entered the state of focusing only on the eye of the bird, not notic-ing the surroundings or anyone else in the room or even ourselves.

Fruits of Lila Dhyanas

The first thing we notice after practising this kind of meditation is that there is a great deal of joy in it. That is because we feel our Chosen Ideal to be alive and present before us, and ourselves seated there alongside of him. We have, in a sense, crossed time and space, and experience the joy of the direct presence of our Chosen Ideal, all with the aid of the imagination. This type of experience, though far from being any kind of spiritual experience, nevertheless has a great power to transform our way of thinking and feeling. Our connection and relationship with our Chosen Ideal becomes something concrete and tangible. We feel him or her to be our very own, in whatever relationship we cherish—as a friend, child, father, mother, or master—and our feeling of love and devotion grows in proportion as this feeling of closeness intensifes.

Ramakrishna with Ramlala.jpg

Furthermore, because we identify with the imagined body of ourselves seated before the Chosen Ideal in the chamber of our heart, we find, at the close of our meditation, that we had unknowingly disidentifed ourselves from the physical body of the waking state. So, one of the consequences of this kind of meditation is that our identifcation and at-tachment to the body is attenuated. We also realize that while we were dwelling in the presence of the Chosen Ideal at the time of meditation, in a completely diferent realm of time and space, we had become oblivious to our own surroundings. We had, for a few precious moments, completely forgotten the world of our ordinary state of consciousness and had entered into the world of the divine play.

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From a philosophical point of view, we also come to realize that all of the elements of our meditation exist in the ethereal realm of pure consciousness and are composed of pure consciousness. Sri Ramakrishna ofen used to speak of chinmaya shyama and chinmaya dhama, both the Lord and his abode being embodiments of pure consciousness. And it equally applies to the image of the Chosen Ideal in this kind of lila dhyana, as well as to the surroundings — Sri Ramakrishna’s room at Dakshineswar, Sri Ramakrishna himself, and all of the devotees, including ourselves. We get a sense of the oneness of our Chosen Ideal with the infnite Brahman, a sense of the reality and limitlessness of the inner world of our own consciousness and a sense of the hazy, transitory nature of the external world.

This type of meditation has a tremendous power to transform us in another way as well. Since we meditate not only on the image of our Chosen Ideal in lila dhyana, but also on the personality and qualities, a kind of transference takes place wherein we begin to take on the qualities of our Chosen Ideal. As we think of Sri Ramakrishna and picture him showering his love and affection on the devotees, we cannot help but imbibe some of those same qualities of love. And as we picture him going into states of divine ecstasy and inebriation at the very mention of God, we cannot help but acquire a bit of longing for that same kind of God-realization.

And fnally, there is a great deal of carry-over effect with this kind of meditation, so that a portionof the mind continues to dwell in the presence other Chosen Ideal at all times—at Dakshineswar with Sri Ramakrishna or perhaps with Sri SaradaDevi, the Holy Mother, at Jayrambati—and we feel an unexpected bliss bubble up from time to time when these thoughts rise to the surface of the mind. In this way a kind of natural and spontaneous recollection of our Chosen Ideal and the divine play goes on in our minds at all times. And this brings us to the final component of this topic, lila chintana, refection on the divine sport of the Lord

Lila Chintana

Through regular meditation a kind of natural remembrance and recollection of our Chosen Ideal takes place, which again is reinforced by further meditation. This is one of the greatest aids in spiritual life. It is of such importance that both Sri Ramakrishna and Holy Mother ofen said that it is enough if we can practise these two things, constant remembrance of and reflection on God (smarana and manana). But it is equally true that our meditation depends on an active and intentional efort to remember our Chosen Ideal throughout the day. And one of the best ways to do this is to practice lila chintana, refection on the divine sport of the Lord. While there are many ways we can pursue this goal, there are two specifc aids that are especially helpful: spiritual reading and pilgrimage.

Many spiritual traditions have a specifc literature dealing with the divine play of God. For Christians it is the Bible, containing the tales and parables of Christ. For Vaishnavas it is the Bhagavata Purana and similar texts, filled with stories of the divine play of Sri Krishna. Followers of Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi have the special benefit of accurately recorded conversations between them and their disciples and devotees. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, in particular, is a unique contribution to the spiritual literature of the world, for we find not only Sri Ramakrishna’s words faithfully taken down by his beloved disciple Mahendranath Gupta, but also detailed descriptions of where he was sitting at the time, the direction he was facing, who was in his presence; each and every possible detail, including the phase of the moon.

This type of literature calls for its own particular kind of reading. The Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna and the Holy Mother are meant for daily and repeated reading, and we find that as we go on reading them, more and more light comes. While we are reading them, the mind can wander to the time and place of their origin and can picture the exact set-ting at the time. In this way our reading becomes an intense kind of contemplation bordering on meditation. We become flled with their spirit, infused with the joy that emanates from their words, and we feel the living presence of Sri Ramakrishna and the Holy Mother.

In addition to a regular habit of daily reading, there is another technique that is very helpful for meditation. That is to read a particular passage, and use the incidents or teachings described there as the subject of our meditation. For example, we read of Sri Ramakrishna’s visit to Balaram Basu’s house during the Ratha Yatra festival and picture ourselves on the inner veranda with him as he pulls the chariot. Or we read of the Holy Mother sitting in the kitchen in her home in Jayrambati, dressing vegetables and talking to her beloved young disciples from Koalpara, and imagine ourselves to be among them. The result of both of these approaches to the literature surrounding Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi is twofold: on the one hand we find that our minds easily fly to the presence of Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi in our meditation, and we feel ourselves seated before them; and on the other, we have the tangible experience of the reality of the divine lila at all times and feel that we can experience the joy of sitting in their presence at any time through the practice of contemplation.

The second great aid to refection on the divine lila is to actually go and visit the places associated with the earthly play of a divine incarnation. And it is important not only to visit these sacred places—Dakshineswar, Kamarpukur, Kashipur, Jayrambati, and Baghbazar, among others—but to breathe in the spiritual atmosphere, to contemplate the divine play that took place there, to picture the events that occurred and all the actors in that divine drama who played their diferent parts. The more we can burn the images of these holy places in our hearts and minds, the easier it will be to return to them in our meditation and contemplation.

This type of meditation and refection on the divine play of the Lord may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Some may prefer a more impersonal and philosophical kind of practice. But if we feel drawn to this kind of spiritual discipline and can practise it with great devotion and faith, a special kind of joy will come to us and we will feel that a new and precious dimension has been added to our spiritual life.