THE POWER OF MANTRA - Part 3
The Significance of the Number 108
By Dennis Gaumond
Many mystical traditions deem it important for rituals to be performed a specific number of times. The number 108 is very significant to the practice of mantra because, in Vedic and Tantric traditions, a mantra is repeated 108 times. This is thought to be a special number of repetitions, much more powerful than 107 or 109 repetitions, for instance. In other words, mantra is considered to be most effective using sets of 108 repetitions. The Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sihk, Islamic and Taoist religions all use a string of prayer beads, usually called a mala, that have 108 beads or knots. The Christian rosary also derives from these malas, with 54 beads (not counting the 'tail'). I am often asked why this is - what is the significance of this enigmatic number? That is a question to which there is no quick and easy answer.
I will explore several possible ways to shed light on the significance of this special number. Before we focus on the significance of the number 108, it would be useful to consider a concept called 'sacred numbers,' There is a school of thought that claims that some numbers are 'sacred' or significant in that they appear often in nature and in many different contexts throughout history, in many seemingly unrelated cultures. For example, the same numbers might appear in measurement systems (distances, volumes, weights, etc.); in geometrical relationships; angles, measurements, and geographical positions of ancient structures such as Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid; in ancient texts; in ancient references to magic or alchemy; in certain characteristics of our planet and solar system and other contexts. Sacred numbers hint at a great knowledge held by some ancient societies that had complex calendars and number systems. Some say that the study of sacred numbers can show us the divine order of the universe.
Here are examples of some of the more well-known significant numbers. The numbers, 144,000 and 666, appear in Revelations in the Bible. The former is said to be the number of souls who will be 'saved' on judgment day, while the latter is said to be the number of the 'beast.' Another interpretation is that 144,000 refers to mankind in its enlightened, metaphysical form while 666 refers to mankind in its earthly, physical form. There are other significant aspects to these two numbers as well.
There is a very significant cycle of time associated with a phenomenon that science calls the precession of the equinoxes. This cycle was referred to often by some ancient societies, particularly the Mayans and Sumerians. The number associated with this cycle is 25,920, which is the number of years required for the Earth to complete a grand orbit in the galaxy. In other words, our planet's position relative to other cosmic bodies is exactly the same now as it will be in 25,920 years. This phenomenon is assigned great importance by some schools of thought. Human consciousness is thought to be greatly influenced by our position in the cosmos. This notion forms the basis of the practice of Astrology.
When the number 25,920 is divided into the 12 signs of the Zodiac we get 2,160, another very significant number that appears in many contexts. One of the more enigmatic contexts is in relation to the moon, which is 2,160 miles in diameter. If we divide the precessional number by 5 we get the number 5,184, which is the number of years in a period of time that the ancient Mayans called an ajar. They believed that human consciousness differs dramatically from ajar to ajar.
There are many more of these sacred numbers that are significant for a variety of reasons, which are too detailed to discuss here. It is thought that these numbers hold clues to the nature of reality, the human condition and the metaphysical blueprint that underlies our physical universe. Researchers have compiled a fairly long list of them: 3, 12, 36, 60, 72, 108, 144, 216, 252, 288, 396, 432, 576, 648, 846, 1152, 1269, 1548, 1728, 2304, 2592, 3024, 3168, 3456, 3888, 5184, 6912, 10368, 13824, 20736, 27648, 41472, 55296, 82944, 165888, 331776. (Munck, 1997)
Let us now look at some of the 'sacred' numbers that pertain specifically to 108. Two of the roots or factors of 108 are 9 and 12. Curiously, when you add up the digits that constitute almost all of the numbers listed above , they add up to nine. (Try adding them yourself.) The number nine is also significant in that it is the number of digits in our decimal system, not counting zero.
Twelve may be the most significant of all numbers, and is the basis of a phenomenon sometimes called the 'Law of Octaves.' This law and others have been referred to in ancient writings and traditions such as Tantra, alchemy, Hermetic magic, Qabala and shamanic rituals. For some reason, energy often subdivides into increments of twelve. In fact, twelve is a number that appears over and over in many contexts, in many cultures throughout history. Some of the more common contexts are: twelve months in the year, twelve signs of the Zodiac, twelve hours on a clock-face, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve gods in the Greek pantheon, and twelve apostles surrounding Jesus (who would be the thirteenth). There are far too many examples to list here. It is noted that if a sphere (picture a ping pong ball) had other equal sized spheres perfectly packed around it, each of them touching all of the spheres next to it, there would be twelve such spheres. The one in the center would be the thirteenth. In music, an octave contains twelve separate notes (both white and black keys on a piano). It is just the natural way that energy divides itself, in a variety of forms. Many bodies of mystical knowledge further claim that there are twelve realms or levels of reality. The one we call the physical, material realm is said to be the third level, the third 'note' in this grand octave.
The number 108 comes up in a variety of contexts. There are 54 letters in the Sanskrit alphabet. Each has a masculine/feminine or shiva/shakti aspect: 54 x 2 is 108. On the sacred geometrical configuration know as the Sri Yantra, there are points called marmas where three lines intersect, and there are 54 such intersections. Each intersection also has masculine/feminine or shiva/shakti qualities. In the human body, marmas or marmastanas are energy intersections similar to charkas. There are said to be 108 marmas in the subtle body. Also, it is said that there are a total of 108 main energy lines or nadis that radiate from the heart chakra. Thus, the number 108 relates to the Sri Yantra as well as the human body.
The diameter of the sun is 108 times the diameter of the Earth. In astrology, there are 12 houses and 9 planets. In the Krishna tradition, there were said to be 108 gopis or maidservants of Krishna. There are 108 forms of traditional Indian dance. In the Vedas there are 108 Upanishads as listed in the Muktikopanishad. There is said to be 108 Tantric texts. Ancient texts say that the Atman, the human soul, passes through 108 different stages on its path to enlightenment. The list goes on and on.
It may be very difficult to know, in a logical way, why 108 repetitions of a mantra enhances its efficacy. It may in fact be impossible to explain this number's significance in a scientific way. The ancient mystics certainly held it in high esteem. They would say that the number 108 is in sync with the rhythms of time and space. When we use 108 repetitions of a mantra we are saluting the order of the universe and aligning our intentions with the divine will. Said another way, we are harmonizing our personal vibrations with the natural vibrations of creation.