Why 108? Delving into the mysterious spiritually significant number...
The number 108 features extensively in the ritualized practices of Hinduism, Buddhism and what we call Yogic Tradition. It is the number to which most malas conform... But why? Why this number and not some other? Why a number at all?
The truth is – no one knows why 108 with absolute certainty, but there are many thoughts and theories. I have reviewed what is out there and summarized the most possible and plausible. It is certainly thought provoking...
What we do know is that the number 108 had very powerful significance in the science and spirituality of ancient India... It is believed that we can first trace reverence for the number 108 to Vedism (also called Brahmanism and ancient Hinduism). Vedism dates back to between 1750-500 BCE and provided the roots for most of the Dharmic religions of today including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Yogic philosophy and tradition.
The Vedic sages looked to mathematics to help them explain the mysteries of their known Universe. They came to believe that 108 was a sacred number in their numerology and cosmology and that it represented the whole of existence. But why?
Mathematics : Elegant patterns, divisions and equations
When you start looking, it's hard not to get lost in the mathematics of the reasons as to why 108 might be special, there are many mathematical theories such as:
- It has an elegant divisibility and geometry, producing endless patterns
- It is the hyperfactorial of 3 since it is of the form
- In Euclidean space, the interior angles of a regular pentagon measure 108 degrees each
- In base 10, it is a Harshad number (divisible by its integers) and a self number. (Harshad in Sanskrit means 'joy-giver')
- It is also an abundant number, a semiperfect number and a tetranacci number
There is a mathematical beauty to 108, but for many, it is its relationship to the 'Golden' Ratio (Phi) that has significance.
The Golden Ratio / Divine Proportion
The equation : results in something mathematicians call the Golden Ratio. It describes the perfectly symmetrical relationship between two proportions, like those we find in the classic rectangle:
The Golden Ratio (also called Divine Proportion) is a phenomenon that exists in nature. Examples of it abound: the layers of the petals of a flower, the successive sizes of twigs on a branch, the spirals of a conch shell, pineapples, honeycombs - all conform to this ratio. There appears to be a divine 'growth relationship' - a pattern which repeats at each stage of development of natural things, an order to the Universe and its parts - that provides an 'archetypal architecture'.
And we as humans find this 'proportion' innately pleasing. It is visual perfection and has fascinated and influenced artists, architects, naturalists and mathematicians for centuries.
The Pyramids, the Parthenon, the Eiffel Tower, the paintings of the Masters of the Renaissance - all carry the geometry of the Golden Ratio.
Explaining the 'Golden' Ratio with mathematics translates it into a universal constant - the whole of existence in a formula... Is this what the Vedics discovered? And having done so - did they then enshrine the sacred number 108 in their religion, philosophy and spiritual rituals? Maybe
The Sun, The Earth and The Moon...
Some have surmised that the Vedics arrived at 108 as a way to describe the 'cosmic relationships' they could witness between the Sun, the Earth and the Moon...
We can now verify that a lot of the significant' relationships within the Universe can be 'explained' by the number 108. The diameter of the Sun is 108 times the diameter of the Earth. The distance between the Earth and the Sun equals about 108 times the Sun’s diameter. The distance between the Earth and the Moon equals about 108 times the Moon’s diameter. (This is the reason that the sun and the moon look equally big in the our earthly sky - they have the same ratio between distance and diameter.)
It is claimed that the Vedics could have had the ability to deduce these relationships with the measurement techniques available at the time. Is this how they arrived at 108 as the answer to the whole of existence? Maybe
We also know that 108 is created by the multiplication of two sacred numbers in Hinduism (and Vedism before it) - 9 and 12. And that in Astrology (Vedic and Western) the nine planets rule the 12 houses or constellations of the zodiac. There are also 27 nakshatras or lunar constellations spread over the 4 elements - fire, earth, air, water and/or the 4 directions - north, south, east, and west (27 x 4 = 108). Still more ways of describing 'the whole of existence'.
Mathematics, ratios, planets, beliefs - whatever the reason the Vedics chose the number - what seems to have followed was the 'enshrinement' of 108 into Vedic (then Hindu, Buddhist and Yogic) cultures.
Some examples are:
- 108 Upanishads (the sacred Vedic texts that carry yoga philosophy)
- 108 primary Tantras and 108 chapters of the Rig Veda
- 108 pithas or holy sites throughout India
- 108 marma points, or sacred places - like acupressure points on the body where matter and consciousness meet
- 108 nadis – or lines of energy that converge to form the Heart Chakra
- The Sanskrit alphabet is comprised of 54 characters, each with a masculine and feminine form = 108
- Many Buddhist temples have 108 steps believed to represent the 108 steps to enlightenment
- In Japan, at Zen Buddhist temples, a bell is chimed 108 times at the end of the year closing a cycle to serve as a reminder of the 108 earthly temptations (Bonno) a person must overcome to achieve nirvana
108 has been well ritualized into the practice of yoga - symbolizing the number of completion:
- Pranyama is often completed in cycles of 108
- Sun salutations are often performed in nine rounds of the 12 postures (totalling 108)
- And of course, most malas have 108 counting beads for meditation work
By practicing chanting, breath work, or asana in rounds of this sacred number, the ancient yogis believed that we could align ourselves with the rhythm of the creation, and ultimately bring an end to our cycle of reincarnation.
Those we can't explain
When we start looking, 108 'coincidences' are everywhere. You will find endless '108' lists if you search on the internet. Some are hard to give weight to, but there some others worth mentioning - that can't possibly be traced back to Vedic influence. Are they the results of other cultures independently discovering the 'significance' of 108? These include:
- The Sarsen Circles (like Stonehenge) are 108 feet in diameter
- The temples of the Mayans in Belize and Guatemala are 108 feet tall
Randomized Coincidence or Divine Order?
While no one knows WHY exactly 108 has become a significant number - and has then influenced custom, practice and beliefs to the extent it has - there do appear to be cosmic, geometric, metaphysical and ritualistic reasons behind its importance…
But sometimes, to avoid getting lost in the theories, it's best to just look at the symbolism of the numbers and ask yourself what they mean to you:
1 = I, your higher self
0 = the Universe/God, all that is – or maybe the void that needs filling
8= Infinity / Timelessness, all that can be
1 = the one
0 = Nothing
8 = Everything
Whatever the actual history, and however complex and layered the explanations - if we could ask them - the ancient Vedics might simply take us back to the beginning - and say that for them, 108 was in sync with the rhythms of Universe.
And that when we use 108 repetitions of a mantra or 108 sun salutations, we are acknowledging the order of the Universe and aligning ourselves and our intentions with divine will. We are harmonizing ourselves and our vibration with the natural vibration of creation.
And that's what we're all striving to do each day - isn't it?