If you have been following or practicing different traditions from India, by now you probably have heard many times about the use of the number 108 in different practices and as a popular number for repetitions. In the same way, you may have heard from our culture the importance of doing a new practice for at least 40 days – this being another important number. But today we will refer to the practice of 108 times and why this amount of times. This is always a question which comes up from several participants when we gather for chanting, meditation practices, or during my workshops.
Nothing wrong about asking why 108, though you may find it interesting that in India when one is under the guidance of a guru, as it could be also a mantra guru, the practitioner would never ask 'why' or why such number of times. It is part of our culture to simply accept what the guide is telling us without questioning why. We trust that it comes from a wise source and would never doubt that. Sometimes I think that this is also one reason why in the west there are hundreds of 'yoga magazines' and in India, the source of Yoga - none. We are more connected to the source, not to long articles and explanations. In the west everything is much more in the mind, in the intellect... so it is much more frequent that people want to have full explanations about the meaning in order to trust or in order to invest time in a new practice - they want to know the meaning of the words, what the practice will bring, the reason for number of repetitions and other things. The mind also wants to know, the mind is smart, it wants to know all the benefits, “If I do this, this will be the outcome” is the way the mind functions.
I understand the interest to know as a curiosity; but what is important is that we don’t make out of this a mechanized machine. As much as possible, it is better to trust. Besides the correct practice (pronunciation, etc.) the mystery of mantra is a pure trust phenomenon: trust in the deity, trust in the sacred sound, trust in the process. For example, if we don’t believe in Ganesh, even though we may chant thousands of times a Ganesh mantra, it will not reflect its energy – even when we know intellectually what the mantra means. This is important to keep in mind, because in any practice from the path of Sanatan Dharma, like Yoga, Mantra, Tantra, meditation, first thing is to leave the intellect and let oneself dive into the unknown with trust and patience, the most important ingredients.
In many Eastern paths, such as Sanatan Dharma (Hinduism,) Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, the number 108 is considered sacred. That is why many of its derived practices have an important connection to this number, like Yoga and Dharma based practices, sadhanas and rituals.
The number 108 has an interesting significance in different practices. Firstly, it is a number which is auspicious and protective. Though our ancient sages knew the power of 108 intuitively, it is said to be derived from Vedic mathematical calculations, related to the stars: basically, when the nine planets move through the twelve zodiac signs, they create 108 kinds of effects in our lives. Also, the distance between the Earth and the Sun is around 108 times the diameter of the Sun, the distance between Earth and Moon is around 108 times the diameter of the Moon, the diameter of the Sun is around 108 times the diameter of the Earth. And this information is not new! nor was it calculated with today’s modern technology. There is evidence that 5000 BC this was already known in India by our ancients. They were times in which the technology was not there, but people were much wiser and more connected to the whole so they would perceive much more the functioning and essence of the universe, they were more connected to say it in other words. Western astronomy managed to catch up much later with these estimates. When the western world believed in a flat Earth only to later ‘discover the earth was round’, many centuries prior to that in India we were calculating the diameter of planets and their distances from the Sun.
Another aspect is that of all the stars, the Sun and the Moon in astrology have the largest influence on human destiny or more influence. Of course all these are not pure coincidence, and it shows us one more time how everything in this perfect universe is functioning with total precision and inter-related in different ways.
It is also interesting to see the significance of the number 108 in Vedic astrology where the number one symbolizes the solar or male energy, zero represents the female or Moon energy and eight the infinite.
So by choosing 108 repetitions, we are moving around the cycles of a perfect functioning system which helps bring harmony in ourselves tuning in with the natural vibrations of the universe. One of the reasons mantras would be repeated 108 times would be to balance the negative planetary energies that may have influenced the desired outcome of the mantra or prayer.
In addition to the above examples of the origin of number 108 calculations, our chakras are crossing points of invisible energy lines in the body, and there are said to be a total of 108 energy lines or channels combining together to meet in the heart chakra. One of these channels is Sushumna which connects to Sahashara, the Crown chakra, the chakra of unity and realization connected with the infinite. So the practice of 108 times, as anything we repeat, may have a transformational or awakening impact; like repeating the OM mantra. Though it is important to know that any spiritual practice should be free of expectations, otherwise it defeats its own purpose.
As you must know, we use a Mala to count with the beads the 108 times or more times that will have our mantra practice. Hindu Malas or garlands have 108 beads, plus the ‘Guru bead.’ There are Malas of different materials and the mantra guru will let the practitioner know which is the material advised for his/her practice as well as how many times he/she should do the repetitions of 108 mantras per day, and for how long (40 days, 108 days, etc.)
Besides the mantra practice, there are countless other areas where one can see the significance of the number 108. Some examples of these are:
In the Sanskrit language, we have 54 letters, both representing the two genders also called Shiva and Shakti respectively; 54 X 2= 108.
In Yantras, the Sri Yantra has 54 intersections and each one has masculine and feminine energy leading to 108.
In Ayurveda, there are 108 Marma or Bindus – pressure or energy points – which right understanding can lead to the perfect system balance.
There are 108 Upanishads and 108 Puranas, the ancient sacred texts in Sanskrit.
There are 108 Nadis, the energy channels uniting in the heart or Anahata Chakra.
Gods have typically 108 names (or more.)
Indian traditions have 108 dance forms.
In Kriya Yoga, the maximum number of repetitions practiced in one sitting is 108. As when we do Sun Salutations 12 times, 108 is the twelve times of 9 which is the number of steps in Sun Salutations matching with the breathing.
It is said in Pranayam practice, that the one who can manage to breath only 108 breaths a day will achieve enlightenment...
Of course there are many more like this, also in Buddhism and other eastern traditions, where the number 108 is of extreme importance.
The number 108 is known to be referring to spiritual completion, and it is no surprise that the early Vedic sages were renowned mathematicians and in fact invented the number system. In Vedic science, 108 represent the whole of existence, being the equation 2sin(108°/2)=Φ
As I said at the beginning, all these facts are interesting and amazing. The best is not to give to the intellectual curiosity much energy… and just continue with the practice in a simple, earnest, truthful and honest way – not expecting anything in return.
Just remaining in pure trust and patience and if anything comes out of it, it is pure Grace.
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