Significance of 108
The number of beads on a māla, the number of repetitions of a mantra- What is the yogic significance of the number 108? There are, in fact, many answers to that question, reaching into Hindu lore, astrology and astronomy, and scholarly interpretation of scriptures. Where we can begin is with the resonant synchronicity of its frequent appearance. The number 108 is important for the simple reason that it keeps on showing up.
Although the solid point of connection is lost in time, the number 108 comes up so often in yogic teachings that it is worthwhile to consider-
- Both 9 and 12 are considered numbers of spiritual significance; 9 x 12 = 108.
- There are said to be 108 desires.
- There are said to be 108 delusions.
- In astrology, there are 12 houses and 9 planets.
- There are 54 letters in Sanskrit, and each has a masculine and a feminine form. 54 x 2=108.
- In the journey of Ātman, (the human soul) there are 108 stages.
- Astrologically, silver represents the moon; the atomic weight of silver is 108.
- The angle formed by two adjacent lines in a pentagon is 108 degrees.
- There are 108 Hindu deities, each of them have 108 names.
- There are 108 styles of meditation.
- There are 108 forms of Indian dance.
- Krishna has 108 gopis ( maid servants).
- In Sanskrit, the number 108 is a Harshad number, meaning it is an integer divisible by the sum of its digits. Harshad means “great joy”.
- Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, bells in Buddhist temples are rung 108 times to announce the passing of the old year and the beginning of the new.
In classic yogic teachings, the philosophical admonitions that can be seen from a mathematical perspective can open the mind in a different way, and that can be the moment when enlightenment comes through.
“For Patanjali, liberation depends upon the resorption of the primary constituents of prakriti…back into the transcendental ground of nature, whereupon the entire body-mind in all its levels of manifestation is dissolved…Transcending as it does space and time, the purusha is without a body, and its identification with the body-mind is merely an … illusion. That misidentification can be compared to a real person mistaking his or her mirror image for the real “I”. If the number 1 represents purusha, and the number 8 represents prakriti, the zero between them is yoga, the ability to create samādhi.
To imagine zero as yoga is a way to open the space in 18 and create 108. (Or, moving in the other direction, adding 1 to 8 makes 9, a number also considered sacred in many traditions.) Imagine it this way- a formula where 1 is divinity, 0 is emptiness (completed spiritual practice) and 8 is infinity or eternity.
While there is much popular belief that it was Arabic mathematicians that invented the concept of zero, it was in India, in the Vedic tradition, that we can find the idea of zero as “nothing” and as a place holder signifying an even greater quantity. Changing 1 to 10, changing 10 to 100 and so on. Consider this mathematical design- 1 to the 1st power is 1 (1x1=1), 2 to the 2nd power is 4, (2x2=4), 3 to the third power is 27 (3x3x3=27), and 1x4x27=108.
Delving into the Hindu legends, the number 108 is connected to the Goddess.
The Mother of the Universe agreed to take on a human form in order to entrance Shiva, her beloved. Shiva was deep in meditation, and would not be disturbed for play. So She entered the womb of Virini, Daksha’s wife, to be born as Sati (She Who Is). Sati was the first born of 60 daughters of Daksha. With the power of the Goddess within her, she succeeded in arousing Shiva, who then asked her to wed, so that creation could continue. When her father, Daksha, insulted Shiva at a feast, Sati was so mortified she entered a deep meditation and immolated herself. Shiva was horrified and grief-stricken and saved her from the flames. But as he carried her up to heaven, fragments of her body fell to earth in 108 places. These places are now sacred sites of goddess worship (dēvi- pītha) in India, dedicated to Shakti. The Mother of the Universe has 108 names.
While the physical energy centers of the chakras are familiar to many, not so well known is another system or energy points within the body called nādīs. There are said to be 108, with the lines converging at the fourth charka, the heart center. From the anāhata chakra, one line, the shushumna, leads to the seventh chakra, the crown, sahasrāra chakra, opening the body to liberation.
In Tantric thought, you take an estimated 21,600 breaths every day. Dividing these from one dominant nostril to another, you take 10,800 solar breaths and 10,800 lunar breaths (right and left nostril, respectively) every day. If your practice were advanced enough to slow your breath to 108 breaths per day, you would be breathing your enlightenment.
The astronomical evidence is among the oldest pieces of the puzzle, and gives us an understanding of how advanced the Vedic civilization was when the Upanishads were first written. How they came by their astronomical knowledge we cannot know, but their assumptions of distance have proved true with our precise technological measurements. The diameter of the sun is 108 times the diameter of the earth. The distance from the sun to the earth is 108 times the diameter of the sun. The distance from the earth to the moon is 108 times the diameter of the moon. (All these distances are considered on average, taking into account orbits and the rotation of the year.) In one symbolic interpretation, 108 is the number signifying the mid-region (antarīksha) between heaven and earth. Do we use the number 108 to remind us of our place in the universe? That would be a positive and humble theme to keep in meditation.
Looking at the great cosmic cycle of the yugas, every age is calculated as a multiple of 21,600 ( 108 x 200 ). Consider that
Krita-yuga 1,728,000 solar years = 21,600 x 80
Trēta-yuga 1,296,000 solar years = 21,600 x 60
Dvapāra-yuga 864,000 solar years = 21,600 x 40
Kali-yuga 432,000 solar years = 21,600 x 20
The total of all the ages of humanity is 4,320,000 solar years, which can be broken down to 108 x 40,000.
As the number of stages in the journey of Ātman, the beads on the mala are representative of the number of steps from the material to the divine, the constant transition of the soul.
The māla, the strand of beads itself, is also referred to as aksha-māla, and corresponds to the varna-māla, the “garland of the letters” in Sanskrit language. Keeping the sacred alphabet in one’s fingers while focused on the sound-vibration of mantra is another way of reflecting on the divine. When 108 repetitions have been made, the guru bead marks the division between one practice and the next.
So, while there is no one clear and obvious answer to the significance of 108, it seems to be present in so many different places, it must have been deliberately left there for us to discover. In Thailand, there is a huge reclining golden Buddha. On each of the Buddha’s feet are 108 sacred symbols, each inlaid with mother of pearl. Who decided to put that exact number of symbols on those parts of a statue that would be seen and venerated by hundreds of thousands of people? Perhaps as they walked away from the temple and the statue they began to count their steps.
- Tantra, the Path of Ecstasy, Georg Feuerstein, Shambala
- Spiritualtiy by the Numbers, Georg Feuerstein, Tarcher/Putnam
Copyright Yoga Next, 2012.
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