For ILS, preeminent Hindu scholar Narayanan to share spiritual imperative of play


The last time Vasudha Narayanan spoke at Chautauqua Institution, it was during the Interfaith Lecture Series week dedicated in 2018 to “The Spirituality of Play.” She spoke to the importance of playfulness in Hinduism, and at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy,  she’ll discuss aging and playing in Indian religions, and take her argument one step further.

It’s not just that people who have reached retirement age are freer than their working counterparts to play; it’s actually their spiritual responsibility to do so. Hinduism calls them to do that.

Narayanan is distinguished professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Florida, former  president of the American Academy of Religion, and a preeminent scholar of the Hindu faith. This will be her sixth appearance at Chautauqua.

The author or editor of seven books and numerous articles, chapters in books, and encyclopedia entries, Narayanan is associate editor of the five-volume Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. 

Throughout her career, her research has been supported by grants and fellowships from organizations like the Centre for Khmer Studies; the American Council of Learned Societies; the National Endowment for the Humanities; and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, among many others. 

In 2018, Narayanan spoke on “Creation, Recreation and the Joy of Play,” highlighting stories and games to indicate the importance of play in Hinduism.

She shared a story about Krishna, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu — a story that “evokes a sense of wonder, a sense of enchantment, enjoyment and engagement with life and creation itself,” Narayanan said then. “All those who participate in the story are drawn to the wonder and playful nature of God.”

Narayanan also used her 2018 lecture to share the evolution of the classic childhood board game, “Chutes and Ladders” — a game that originated in India, where it was called “the ladder to the Supreme.” It’s a game of morals by design, originally with more snakes (chutes) than ladders to indicate “how much easier it is to slip down than it is to go up,” Narayanan said.

Western players made the game more child-friendly and more equitable — snakes became chutes, and there were an equal number of chutes and ladders. But the game still “signified the culture and idea that for every sin a person commits, there is an equal chance of redemption” and remained “aligned with the very life-affirming, happiness-invoking values of Hinduism. The traditional board game actually focused on the passage to salvation (and) how to get there.”

One of Hinduism’s foundational texts describes God’s creation of the universe as a form of divine play. The idea is that God is not motivated by any kind of desire because he is not lacking anything. God, she said, is inherently playful.

“There is nothing you stand to gain for the creation, maintenance and destruction of the world; these come by sheer play,” she said.

The ultimate argument, Narayanan said in 2018, is that it is our destiny to reach our own playful and supreme state of bliss — a liberation called “Moksha,” or the separation from the cycle of life and death.

“This comes with surrender or being in alignment with the ultimate power of the universe,” she told her audience then. “When one has grace, one is no longer playing the music for will, for money, but to wind away the time, to play the music for the sheer enjoyment until that release comes.”


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