Mathematics is the language of nature. It is the language by which man has been trying to understand himself and the world around him in the most profound ways. But apart from the physical laws governing the universe, can mathematics represent the universe itself ? Most importantly, can mere numbers represent the ultimate reality we all are seeking – namely God ?
Yes, it can.
The answer lies in the number 108
Most people who are familiar with mantra meditation and chanting would be aware of the ancient Indian fascination with this peculiar number 108, which is considered auspicious and divine.
There are several symbolic and metaphorical meanings associated with this number. But one attribution stands out due to its deep philosophical, spiritual and even scientific implications. Let us analyse this number digit by digit.
(Caution : Part of this analysis is based on what I have read from scriptures and commentaries. Part of this is based on my own understanding and reflections)
1 : Singularity
Hinduism might seem to be polytheistic to an outsider, even to those Hindus who are not very familiar with the scriptures. But at its core, Sanatana Dharma (ancient name for Indian, specifically Hindu philosophy) is monotheistic. As the famous verse from one of the oldest religious texts – Rig Veda (also the very first book of Sanatana Dharma ) points out :
इन्द्रं॑ मि॒त्रं वरु॑णम॒ग्निमा॑हु॒रथो॑ दि॒व्यः स सु॑प॒र्णो ग॒रुत्मा॑न् ।
एकं॒ सद्विप्रा॑ बहु॒धा व॑दन्त्य॒ग्निं य॒मं मा॑त॒रिश्वा॑नमाहुः ॥४६॥
Índraṃ mitráṃ váruṇam agním āhur átho divyáḥ sá suparṇó garútmān;Ékaṃ sád víprā bahudhā́ vadanty agníṃ yamáṃ mātaríśvānam āhuḥ.
Translation : They called him Indra, Mitra, Varuṇa, Agni; yea, he is heavenly Garuḍa, who has beautiful wings.
That which is One, the sages speak of as Multifarious; they called him Agni, Yama, Mātariśvan.
(Ṛg Veda 1.164.46.)
Similarly, most world religions like Christianity and Islam also uphold the belief that there is only one God.
The number 1 in 108 represents this singularity. The fact that we all are essentially the same. The idea that we all are basically God himself/herself/itself manifested in numerous forms. This ‘we’ include everything…from the tiniest quark that makes up an atom, to the grandest galaxies out there.
Besides, looking at this with an evolutionary point of view, didn’t we all emerge from a single cell ? Doesn’t every multi cellular organism take its birth as a single cell? Above all, doesn’t the modern theory of Big Bang claim that the whole universe itself emerged from a singularity?
Thus, 1 represents the collective, universal consciousness.
0 : Nothingness or Non-Duality ; ‘Brahmanda’
Zero is a magical number. This single number, often considered as the greatest contribution from India, has deep philosophical implications. The origin of zero itself has a spiritual flavor. It was used to represent the emptiness, or the nothingness, or simply put the ‘non-dual’ state, the loss of personal identity or ego on attaining enlightenment or ‘moksha’ (‘nirvana’ in Buddhist philosophy). Apart from this, zero, which is shaped like an egg, could also be thought to symbolize the ‘brahmanda’, which is the ‘primeval egg’ from whence the universe emerged. A parallel to this can be drawn in modern cosmology as well, where the primeval atom is the seed of the universe.
Also, zero represents a cyclic universe, as explained below.
8 : Infinity
Rotate this number through an angle of 90 degrees, and you have the universal symbol for infinity. Just like ‘nothingness’, infinity has a very special place in Indian philosophy. For instance, the divine serpent on which Lord Vishnu (the manifestation of God that sustains the creations) lies is called ‘Anandashesha’, where ‘Ananda’ means endless or infinite, or without an end and ‘shesha’ means that which remains.
Also, according to ancient Indian texts, creation is said to be without an ultimate beginning or end, with a cosmos that is cyclic in nature. This is similar to reincarnation. The universe (or universes, as there is one theory which says that there could be infinite universes) undergoes an infinite cycle of birth and death. Even modern cosmologists fancy the idea of cyclic universe, where a big bang is followed by a ‘big crunch’. Even otherwise, there is another possibility that the universe would continue to expand, stretching and remaining for an infinite time and space.
Putting all these together, 108 can be considered as a numerical representation of the absolute truth. I like to represent this as follows:
108 = Cosmos = God
The number symbolizes the universe,with all of its constituents considered to have arisen from the same source and would merge to that same source as well. It could be thought of as a single truth (I don’t know how else to describe it…it is the only reality that exists) that is non-dual, emerged from nothingness (meaning without another source of origin; self-borne), to expand to infinity, or to manifest itself in infinite forms, or to undergo infinite cycles, or all of these. This is what we (at least as per Indian philosophy) consider as ‘God’.
I hope that all these made some sense😅
Let me know your interpretations as well!
By the way, I would like to share a slight annoyance that I’ve been experiencing since I was a kid. Most people in the West don’t know that the modern decimal system from 0 to 9, is not actually ‘Arabic numerals’ but ‘Hindu-Arabic’ numerals. They had their origin in India, and were brought to the west through the Arab traders who frequented India.
I strongly encourage everyone to watch this wonderful documentary on the story of numbers, by BBC :
Thanks for dropping by !