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Stay playful: The mantra young India needs to know

By Shakti - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A friend from my childhood was in town last month. He runs a successful startup, and as we sat drinking chai in the scorching heat, I was struck by his easy sense of playfulness. He seemed not to take himself seriously nor worry about competence. He was open to surprise and to appearing a fool, and turned all my answers into questions. Between the search for truth, and the possession of it, there is a comma, and he had a distinct preference for the comma. I was in a state of agitation when he arrived but I was smiling calmly when he left.

Nations too could do with more playfulness. Fortunately, India has its politicians who can be trusted to forget the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Watching the Congress party’s feeble convulsions over the Agusta Westland deal in recent weeks was sheer political comedy. We moan over the time and resources wasted on our incessant elections, but perhaps we should value them for the laughter and political play they offer.

The day after my friend’s visit, I attended a workshop of young entrepreneurs, all bursting with enthusiasm. Their excitement was due, I expect, to the startup mania that has gripped certain circles in urban India. Not a day goes by without someone complaining in my neighbourhood that his son or daughter has quit a safe corporate job to start a business. One of these youngsters confessed that four out of five startups would fail but he knew in his bones that his would survive. I admired the passion of these youngsters even though they were as mad as our medieval Rajputs who went to battle knowing fully well in their hearts that defeat or death was their only prize.

The talk turned to innovation and I was reminded of my childhood friend. I suggested that the magic ingredient in creativity was an attitude of playfulness. The young Indian of today is a serious animal: a worker, thinker and problem solver. He or she strives for focus and efficiency, resisting frivolity in the name of being a grown-up and staying on a task. He expects the same from others. I have never seen a matrimonial ad in India seeking a ‘playful’ partner. But we don’t need the findings of western psychology to uncover the sources of innovation. It lies in the ancient idea of leela — of gods at play.

Both the English word ‘play’ and the Indian word ‘leela’ have the same two meanings — game and drama. But leela has a third connotation — the creative activity of the divine. Ancient Indians understood that god is playful. Shiva dances and creates the world in play. Krishna steals butter, plays tricks, flirts with young gopis and defeats demons, all in a day’s work. On hearing his flute, the women of Vrindavan sneak out of their homes to dance the raas-leela in a circle with their lover god through the entire Brahma night of 4.5 billion human years.

Human beings act because we desire something but god has everything and so he plays purposelessly like a child, for the sheer joy of it. Ramanuja, the great Vaishnava saint, compared the divine pleasure of leela to a great monarch who lacks nothing but goes on to the playing field for the sake of amusing himself. Chaitanya, the Bengali mystic, compared him to a healthy man who wakes up in the morning from deep sleep and breaks into a dance merely to express his exuberance.

I reckon that ancient Indians must have created the idea of leela because they were struck by the distressing contrast between the radiantly creative child and the feeble creature of habit, the adult. The child’s world is forever fresh and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement for he lives neither in the past nor the future but enjoys the present. God’s leela is to remind us that we don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. Parents and grandparents who play with their children seem to be livelier.

I cannot help but feel that humanity has advanced not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been immature, rebellious, and playful. A good reminder for our young entrepreneurial startups: there is a child in every adult and playfulness actually accomplishes things. So, the next time, don’t walk around the puddle, just jump into it.

Gurcharan Das, May 27th 2016

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