The precise historical origins of this pan-Indian concept are unclear, but it may be understood from two interrelated perspectives, the theological and the anthropological. From the former perspective, līlā appears in the 1st centuries ce, with the rise of the great monotheistic systems, as an expression of God's spontaneous, joyful, and gratuitous creative power; in this respect, it is the corollary of his omnipotence and freedom, particularly from those constraints which are so characteristic of the limited human condition, i.e. desire (kāma) and karma. The first extant theological justification of this idea appears in the Brahmasūtra(s) (2.1.33) (redacted early centuries ce), the locus classicus for later, often divergent, commentaries within the Vedānta tradition. The idea continued to inspire creative theology, and was later taken up by the sophisticated rasa theoreticians of Kashmir(i) Śaivism. Nevertheless, the most consistent development of the concept occurs in the context of Kṛṣṇa bhakti: in Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism, for instance, it is thought to be the defining characteristic of Kṛṣṇa's childhood and youth (as narrated in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa), so that, in the earthly Braj, every grove and pond is connected with a particular ‘pastime’ (līlā) of Kṛṣṇa, reflecting his eternal play with Rādhā and the gopīs in heaven. Furthermore, through the enactment of various devotional practices, which narrate, visualize (in līlā-smaraṇa), or otherwise evoke these līlās, the devotee can hope to achieve a permanent, blissful, and liberating participation in this heavenly play, either while still alive, or after death.
From the anthropological perspective, līlā is a descriptive label applied to numerous popular performance traditions—i.e. dramatized forms of ritual worship (pūjā)—originating in specific localities. Characterized by a mixture of the staged—recitation of texts, song, ritual processions, and drama—and the spontaneous, examples include the Līlākīrtan(a) of Bengal, the Pāṇḍavalīlā of Garhwal, the Rās(a)līlā of Braj, and the Rām(a)līlā of Vārāṇasī (the last two now having a pan-Indian significance).