LEELA / LIILA
Classical Sanskrit(1) doubts the word liila (f). Suggestions are given such as play , sport , diversion , amusement , pastime, mere appearance , semblance , pretence , disguise , etc.
The hindu Mahābhārata has the episode of the Pándavas in which a warrior is mentioned by name of Duryódhana. This Duryódhana is known as ”the warrior with the broken thighs”, i.e. he was crippled as a result of warfare, says one of India’s legendary accounts. The same or another manuscript describes Duryódhana as one with knowledge of the “Gada-Vidya”, the science of the Mace. The entire war against the Pándavas took place in Mithila, today a town in Bihar, India, and the story goes that Duryódhana, once defeated decided to die by starvation. However, a heavenly being interfered and told him to go on living. It may well be that Duryódhana, after this interference, crippled or not, performed a little dance: I’m alive!
When thereafter Duryódhana’s men (warriors) sported the same way of walking this was a show of solidarity and belonging: We, Duryódhana’s men, we’re all like that. Centuries later, when the story about Duryódhana and his warfare came to be forgotten, dancers in the traditional theatrical style of the Khmer sported this crooked walk and transformed it into an art form. This is what we see today (21rst Cent.) in both traditional Cambodian as well as Siamese theatrical plays of which dance is an integral part.
One of the statues belonging to the Cambodian Khmer sites, the Koh Kher-site where Hinduïsm merged with Buddhism had a ”Duryódhana Bondisant”: Duryódhana bodhisattva (see picture). In May 2014 this statue was handed over to one of Cambodia’s museums. It shows ”Duryódhana” as one with legs that at first sight seem to be in a dancing position. Hence William Sax(4) mentions the hindu folk festival Pándav leela and suggests that this is a dance festival dedicated to the Pándava mentioned in the Mahābhārata, and more particularly dedicated to Duryódhana’s dance. In actuality Duryódhana’s līlā (or liila, or leela) is the gait of a crippled man, see above.
April 4, 2020
Two more similar statues were ready to be returned to Cambodia. One day later they arrived at Phnom Penh International Airport where Buddhist monks — see the above incorporation into the Khmer Buddhist lore — received them as lost sons of the nation. The National Museum is henceforth the place where both statues are on display.
All in all, leela, lílā, liila should be translated as “swaying gait”.
Hybrid Sanskrit(2) mentions līlāyit-tatva in relation with Buddha’s descent from Tushita where he taught his mother the Abhi-dharma, as it is mentioned in the Mahā-vyūtpatti(3). The Thai amulets that relate to this episode are called Phutta Leela (Buddha līlā). They show Buddha with one foot standing and one foot in the air. Līlāyit-tatva is therefore the swaying gait of a person descending a stair.
Tibetan Buddhism has appropriated the Mahā-vyútpatti as one of their own manuscripts, but in actuality this manuscript belonged to some or other Indian Buddhist sect, either in Nalanda or elsewhere, and as of the 7th century the manuscript, or copies of it, migrated to Tibetan reading rooms.
- 1: Monier-Williams, 2008
- 2: Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dict., F. Edgerton, New Haven and Delhi 1953, 1970
- 3: Wiki Maha-vyútpatti