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The Significance of 108

Posted by on Dec 1, 2009

The number 108 pops up in yogic discourse, in mantra repetition, as the magical number of sun salutations to complete and in spiritual verse often enough that you may have started to wonder about its significance. To begin, 108 is a semi perfect number. It is hyper factorial of three for those of you well acquainted with higher mathematics. In laymen’s terms, 108 is divisible by three. It is also what is called a Harshad number which means that it is divisible by the sum of its digits. If you multiply 9 times 12, the product is 108. Both numbers 9 and 12 are said to have spiritual significance in many traditions. The term ‘harshad’ is Sanskrit, and later was adopted by mathematicians. It translates to mean, “Great joy.” The number 108 is considered sacred within several philosophical traditions, including Buddhism, Hindusim, and many branches of Yoga.

Mala beads which were actually a precursor to the Rosary beads used in the Catholic religion, have 108 beads. Hindu deities usually have 108 names. Namajapa, or the repeating of these names while counting beads of the mala is a common spiritual practice throughout India and countries where malas are used as a means of meditation and worship. It is thought that the repetition of these names 108 times is extremely beneficial for the reciter.

Mala beads number 108 because there are said to be 108 earthly desires which mortals must overcome. There are 108 lies human beings are said to tell themselves and one another and there are 108 forms of delusion and ignorance to overcome. So, with the repetition of mantra using a mala, we eliminate these ignorances one by one. The Sikh tradition has a mala of 108 knots tied in a string of wool, rather than beads.

Hare Krishna devotees give great significance to the number 108 and Krishna dances with 108 cow-herders in the Bhagavad Gita. There are 18 chapters in the book for this reason as well as in the Purnas. 108 divided by two gives us nine for the number of tattvas in the Hindu religion. Tattvas are considered absolute truths or principles of reality and are often depicted in the form of deities in order to give our ‘limited’ awareness a definitive visual metaphor for the many aspects of God. The Rig-Vedic verses are customarily counted as approximately 10800. Similarly, In the Jain tradition, 108 are the combined virtues of five categories of holy ones, including 12, 8, 36, 25, and 27 virtues respectively.

In Tibetan Buddhism there are 108 sins which we must overcome to obtain enlightenment. 108 bows are often recited in this tradition in order to differentiate oneself from the lower aspects of mankind which are not Buddha-like in quality. There are often 108 steps in Buddhist temples for this reason. There are 108 moves in many tai chi sequences. There are 108 seats in the Nepalese government’s legislative assembly. There are 108 pressure points in Chinese martial arts. There are 108 forms of dance in the Indian traditions. In astrology, there are 12 houses and 9 planets. 12 times 9 equal 108. The first manned space flight lasted 108 minutes, and was on April 12, 1961 by Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut. There are even 108 stitches in a baseball – perhaps to permeate good karma?

In yogic philosophy, 108 sun salutations, especially when performed at significant times throughout the year, are a very auspicious way to change the body’s energy. They are performed at the equinoxes, for example, to welcome the changing season. 108 is divine number. There are 54 letters in the Sanskrit alphabet and each has masculine and feminine, totaling 108; 1 stands for Higher Truth, 0 stands for Emptiness and 8 stands for Infinity. The same trinity is spoken of in the Buddhist religion. The number also has great significance within the chakra system of yoga. Chakras – intersections of energy lines – are composed of a total of 108 lines converging to form the heart chakra. One of them, Sushumna leads to the crown chakra, and is said to be the path to Self-realization. Tantra yoga traditions estimate the average number of breaths per day at 21,600, of which 10,800 are solar energy, and 10,800 are lunar energy. Multiplying 108 by 100 is 10,800. Multiplying 2 x 10,800 equals 21,600. Furthermore, On the Sri Yantra there are marmas where three lines intersect, and there are 54 such intersections. Each intersection has masculine and feminine, shiva and shakti qualities. 54 times 2 equal 108. Thus, there are 108 points that define the Sri Yantra as well as the human body.

108 has limitless meaning but its significance is lost if we get caught up in the Truth which it points to. It is the finger pointing to the moon, not the moon itself. The number is a reminder and a metaphor for a greater state of awareness. Pema Chodron has written a delightful book called, Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings. In this book, she uses the symbolically rich number, 108, to teach us ways to achieve higher awareness. Just as the average distance of the Moon from the Earth is 108 times the diameter of the Moon, we can use this metaphor as a mindful place to rest when contemplating the journey our souls must take to reach higher ground. The journey is filled with uncertainty, as Chodron teaches us, but the end result is no less magnificent than the first flower that bloomed on the earth. We are all awaiting the Divine, but the divine has placed itself everywhere, even in our numerical system. 108 is full of import and consequence, but it is only when we pay attention that the number can bring its significance to full flower.

The Gāyatrī Mantra

Yoga practitioners often practice mantra chanting along with asana practice and meditation, due to the belief that there is a primacy and eternal quality to the vibration of sound. Mantra can profoundly affect our bodies, minds and surrounding environments. Mantra repetition began in Vedic India and later was adopted by Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. The literal translation of mantra is “mind-tool” because we are able to channel the energy of the mind into one-pointedness via chanting. According to the Indian Upanishads, mantras are manifestations of infinite reality or Brahman. Each mantra is considered to have certain qualities outlined in the vibrations they encompass. A mantra can be made up of what are called ‘seed’ syllables. They do not have a direct meaning, but represent multiple layers of meaning and thus have multiple layers of effect on ourselves and surrounding environment. It is thought that energy can be grown from these vibrational seeds.

One of the most well-known and important mantras in all of India is the Gāyatrī Mantra. It has been around since Vedic Times, around 1700–1100 BCE. The mantra is attributed to Vishwamitra, a venerated rishi. The mantra is actually a poem written in Vedic style with very specific meter and syllable division. The goddess Gāyatrī is an incarnation of the Goddess Saraswati, and a consort to Lord Brahma. She is patroness of the Arts, a poet, musician, and composer. She embodies the true Knowledge, purity and virtue. The mantra is as follows:

Om bhoor bhuvassuvaha,

Tatsa Vitur varenyam,

Bhargo devasya dheemahi,

Dheeyo yonah prachodayat

It translates to mean, “May we meditate on the effulgent Light of he who is worshipful and who has given birth to all the worlds.” May he direct our intelligence towards the path of the good.”

According to Bhagawan’s Divine Discourse, there are many benefits to chanting the Gāyatrī Mantra, or doing Gāyatrī Puja. They include, “revealing our inner vision to us by opening the third eye or sixth chakra, the atmosphere surrounding us is illumined by the vibration produced by the mantra, our intellects are illumined, we are protected by all the Divine Potencies, peace and prosperity, health and wealth are obtained in our homes, the exercise of repetition of Gayatri mantra is essentially one particular type of Pranayama and hence our entire breathing system is regulated, channelized and perfected. This will improve one’s ability to render good music and ensures better performance, and beneficial boons will come to us in times of need.”

Upon further investigation of the Gāyatrī Mantra, one finds that in the Tantric tradition, each syllable is linked with a deity, a color, a bodily function and a cosmic principle. The Gāyatrī Yantra (similar to a mandala, a sacred geometric picture of a specific vibration) integrates these symbols in form. The corresponding archetypes for this mantra are listed below:

Mantra Syllable/Color/Goddess/Cosmic Principle or Bodily Function

Tat/yellow/Prahladini/earth

Sa/pink/Pradha/water

Vi/red/Nitya/fire

Tuh/blue/Visvabhadra/air

va/fiery/Vilasini/ether

re/white/Prabhavati/smell

ni/white/Jaya/taste

yam/white/Santa/sight

Bha/black/Kanta/touch

rgo/red/Durga/sound

De/red on lotus/Saraswati/speech

va/white/Visvamaya/hands

sya/golden-yellow/Visalesa/genitals

Dhi/white/Vyapini/anus

ma/pink/Vimala/feet

hi/conch-white/Tamopaharini/ears

Dhi/cream/Suskma/mouth

yo/red/Visvayoni/eyes

yo/red/Jayavaha/tongue

Nah/color of the rising sun/Padmalaya/nose

Pra/color of the blue lotus/Para/mind

co/yellow/Sobha/ego

da/white/Bhadrarupa/mahat first causal principle

yatwhite,red,black/Trimurti/Three qualities of material nature (radiance, activity, inertia)

(Taken from Mandu Khanna’s Yantra, The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity)

Mantras can be practiced by using mala beads to count the number of repitions.

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