November 15, 2012

108: The Number of the Cosmos

The number 108 is considered special, sacred, and mystical by many cultures, especially Eastern cultures. It is common in Hinduism, Vedic teachings, Daoism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and many yoga practices. We will take a look at where this number shows up and try to understand why it is considered so important.

Many malas, both Chinese and Indian, consist of 108 beads. Many taijiquan (t'ai chi ch'uan) forms consist of 108 postures. In Buddhism, there are 108 defilements. In Hinduism, there are 108 names for each deity. Vedic mantras typically are repeated 108 times. The list goes on and on. So why was this number considered so important? In part, because it seems to show up everywhere and was thus thought to have a place of importance in the grand scheme of the universe. It shows up in many fields of study.

Mathematics - There are many mathematical properties that make the number 108 special.

  • 9 x 12 = 108, and both 9 and 12 are considered sacred.
  • 1 + 0 + 8 = 9, and that 9 x 12 = 108.
  • It is an abundant number. This means that the sum of its divisors are greater than the number itself. The divisors of 108 are 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 12, 18, 27, 36, and 54. The sum is 172, which is greater than 108.
  • It is a semiperfect number. A semiperfect number is one that is the sum of some of its divisors. From before, the divisors of 108 are 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 12, 18, 27, 36, and 54. 18 + 36 + 54 = 108.
  • It is a tetranacci number. This is derived from a sequence of four starting numbers, where the next number in sequence is the sum of the four previous numbers. If we start the sequence with 0, 0, 0, 1, then the sequence continues as 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 29, 56, 108, ...
  • It is the hyperfactorial of 3. This means that 1x 2x 3= 108.
  • 108 is divisible by its φ function, which is 36.
  • The interior angles of a pentagon, a symbol considered sacred in many cultures, is 108 degrees.
Religion - In religion, the number 108 also plays an important role.
  • The individual digits 1, 0, and 8 symbolize, respectively, the One, Nothing, and Infinity. This idea exists in Buddhism, Daoism, and Hinduism, among others.
  • The teachings of the Buddha in the Tibetan Kangyur are comprised of 108 volumes.
  • The Bodhisattva Mahamati was said to have asked the Buddha 108 questions.
  • In Gnostic teachings, a person has 108 chances to achieve enlightenment before their soul is lost forever.
  • In Japanese Buddhism, a bell is rung 108 times to celebrate the end of each year.
  • Several religions believe that there are 108 earthly desires.
  • There are 108 Upanishads in Vedic and Hindu teachings.
  • In Hinduism, each Brahma is said to live for 108 "Brahma Years" (about 1.6 trillion human years)
  • Indian and Buddhist religions say that man is a microcosm of the outer universe, and that 108 is the distance between a person and the God within them (the units of distance aren't specified).
  • The inner circle of Stonehenge is 108 feet in diameter.
  • The dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in London is 108 feet in diameter.
Astronomy and Astrology - For many ancient cultures, astronomy and astrology were one and the same. In these fields of study, 108 shows up once more.
  • The average distance from the Sun to the Earth, divided by the diameter of the Sun is approximately 108.
  • The average distance from the Moon to the Earth divided by the diameter of the Moon is approximately 108.
  • There are 12 constellations, and 9 arc segments called namshas or chandrakalas. 9 times 12 equals 108.
  • There are 12 houses and 9 planets. 12 times 9 equals 108.
  • Chinese Daoist astrology says there are 108 sacred stars (The 108 Stars of Destiny).
Medicine - Since the study of medicine in many cultures is closely tied to other esoteric teachings, it should be no surprise that the number 108 is present, as well.
  • There are 108 lines of energy converging in the Heart Chakra
  • There are 108 marmas (energy centers) on the body, according to Ayurveda.
  • In some systems of acupuncture, there are 108 primary acupuncture points on the body.
Arts & Literature - The study of all arts was integral to many religious practices, and therefore the number 108 shows up there, too.
  • The Sanskrit alphabet has 54 letters, each with a masculine and feminine form (shiva and shakti), for a total of 108.
  • Indian tradition holds that there 108 versions of dance.
  • The Chinese novel The Water Margin consists of 108 heroes.

As we can see, the number 108 shows up in many forms, in many fields of study, in a variety of cultural and religious contexts. Perhaps this is just coincidence, or perhaps it is a sign of something greater. Ancient cultures certainly believed it was the latter.


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