by Jayaram V
"The ingenious method of expressing every possible
number using a set of ten symbols (each symbol having a place value
and an absolute value) emerged in India. The idea seems so simple
nowadays that its significance and profound importance is no longer
appreciated. It's simplicity lies in the way it facilitated
calculation and placed arithmetic foremost amongst useful
inventions." Laplace, a French mathematician, :
This essay tries to explain the symbolic significance of numbers from
ten from Hindu perspective and their association with some
important concepts and divinities of Hinduism. It also explores how
ancient Indians used these numbers to organize the information they had
about creation and the order of divinities in a systematic way to arrive
at a picture of Hindu cosmology from a numerical perspective. Most of the
information that is provided in this article is a product of this
writer's intuitive awareness and personal study and may not be found
elsewhere. This article is an attempt to present before the readers the
idea that numbers were used in religious ceremonies and rituals as
symbols of divinities and their energies.
In ancient India people lived very religious lives. They prayed and
worshipped several divinities in whom they had faith. They believed that
the purpose of human life was to achieve liberation from the cycle of
births and deaths and ascend to sunlit worlds. They did not believe in
from life or abnegation of duty as a necessary condition to pursue God. Enjoyment
of life and material wealth were important goals of human life but not
the ultimate. The highest aim was moksha or liberation from the
delusions and distractions of life through spiritual discipline and self
surrender. The best way to achieve it was through a divine centered life, where every
activity was meant to achieve inner purity and experience God as the
witness, guardian, guide and rescuer.
They reflected this attitude in many aspects of their
lives. Whether it was the practice of a profession, or study of the Vedas or tending of the cattle, or engaging
in some mundane affair, they sought the intervention of divinities
through the practice of dharma. They reflected the same attitude in
using the numbers and believed them to be symbols each having a potency
and symbolic significance of its own They believed that the numbers
could be used in the practice of religion and spiritual discipline to
reference the divinities and their attributes.
To the intuitive seekers of Brahman,
the numbers offered many opportunities to meditate upon and realize the
hidden symbolism. In the following paragraphs we will try to explore the
symbolic significance hidden in the numbers from zero to ten. And in doing so we
will also realize why the decimal system and the use of present day
symbols for numbers originated in ancient India.
Zero is a numerical or symbolic representation of Nirguna Brahman or
the Brahman who is without a form and without qualities. Nirguna Brahman
is an eternal mystery. Very little is known about him. He is the known
unknown. So is zero. No one knows for
sure what this number is, what it represents and what its true value is.
What we know about it are but assumptions. The physical laws of the
universe do not apply to zero. It stands as a bridge between physical and
the metaphysical realms and between reason and faith. It is indefinable and
can be explained only in terms of "not
this" and "not that". It is indivisible, without form,
without qualities, without a beginning and without an end.
difficult to say whether it exists or not, whether it is a number or
not, because no one knows for sure. It is a void, where nothing
else exists but itself. Finite as
well as infinite, the first and the last, the smallest and also the largest of
all, it could neither be destroyed nor created. You can find it everywhere, hidden in every
other number. Any number that you try to multiply with it becomes zero,
but if you know the right way you can enhance the value of a number
infinitely. Zero is thus a very apt symbol of the primal Being. There is
no other symbol in our knowledge that can represent Brahman with such
clarity and simplicity.
One is a symbolic representation of saguna Brahman or Brahman with
qualities and form. Saguna Brahman is the awakened Brahman who projects
the worlds and the entire creation out of himself. He is also called the
cosmic soul or Hiranyagarbha. He creates the worlds and beings by his
will and dynamic power. He is the creator of Brhama, Vishnu and Siva and the rest of the
gods. He is referred as tadvanam. He is beyond
the grasp of the senses and the mind. He is bliss consciousness
who is experienced by seekers in a state of samadhi. By realizing him
everything is realized. By knowing him everything is known.
Like saguna Brahman, one is the first to manifest, somehow
mysteriously from the equally mysterious zero. It is not zero that
creates other numbers, but actually the number one. Just as Brahman
exists everywhere in his entire creation, the number one exists in every
other number. The value of other numbers increases greatly when you bring
the number to their forefront. It is like placing God before everything
else in our daily living.
As a subjective reality, one also symbolizes atman, the individual
soul. Atman is Brahman in its microcosmic aspect. Atman is the number one
hidden in every other number. It is the essence of the eternal
One. Hindu scholars are not
unanimous about the relationship between atman and Brahman. All agree
that both share the same essence and same bliss consciousness, but
disagree when they talk about their origin and relationship. According
to monistic (advaita) schools Brahman and Atman are one and the same
reality and in the end Atman becomes Brahman. The dualistic (dvaita) schools believe that the two
are distinct and that though they are the same in essence they never
unite, but remain distinct for ever. According to them, an individual soul may achieve self
realization but would continue to exist eternally as a separate self.
The number one may not have the range of zero in symbolizing Brahman,
but it has many of the latter's' qualities. Like Saguna Brahman who is
the creator all empirical reality, the number one is actually creator of
all other numbers. As in our creation, the one become many by
multiplying itself and then resides in them. It is also different from
zero because it has the quality or value of one. Is it however not eternal in the true sense of the
word because like Saguna Brahman it dissolves into zero or nothingness
when the former is withdrawn into the latter.
The number one also symbolizes the state of non duality, the oneness
of existence hidden in all of creation beyond the veil of delusion. The
oneness of being is
also the subjective state of both Brahman and Atman, in which there is no
experience of distinction and separation between the known and the knower, the object and the
subject, the self and the non-self. One alone exists by oneself, illumined
by the self, immersed in the self, permanent, unchanging and unmoving. It
is a state in which one simply is, the state of "I am I am"
in which "I" transcends the ego to become "I" alone. Does
the self know that
it exists? Perhaps not, except in a state of duality.
The number two is a symbolic representation of the sate of duality which we
experience objectively through our minds and the senses. It also symbolizes
Purusha and Prakriti (God and Nature), Brahman and Atman as two separate
entities, the knower and the known, the subject and the object, the doer and the deed, the self and the not self, the bhutatman (ego
or physical self) and the antaratman (real Self), Siva and Shakti,
Vishnu and Lakshmi, Brahma and Saraswathi, the earth and the sky, cause
and effect, the day and the night, the heaven and the hell, the good and
evil, the right and wrong, knowledge and ignorance, higher knowledge and
lower knowledge, life and death, illusion and illumination and mortality
Our suffering and bondage to ignorance and mortality is symbolically represented as
Adam and Eve being cast away from heaven in the Biblical story of
Genesis and philosophically
explained as bondage to ignorance and earthly life in our Vedanta. The
creation of two from one was the wish of the Self because it wanted to
amuse itself by not being alone. From that single seed of thought ensued
all creation as ripples in a pond in his own waters. The emergence of two out of one is the cause of our
and also our problems of mortality and suffering. It is a puzzle or paradox we
have to resolve by finding our source either by attaining the one
(self realization) or the zero (nirvana).
In the grand scheme of creation , one is God and the second is
Prakriti or nature. Together they manifest the rest of the creation. One
of the things that they manifest together is Rtam,
which is recognized as the universal rhythm or order and regularity. Rtam is the underlying vibrations
pervading the whole creation. It manifests itself in many ways as
the orderly progress of time and events.
Creation cannot be a chaotic and disorderly process. It is a
projection of God who is a perfect Being, complete in all respects. It
cannot be imperfect because imperfection cannot come out of perfection. Any
imperfection or failure that we may discern in creation is but God's willful concealment
of perfection for a reason, part of a grand design, a universal Rtam or
order of things, which we may not be able to understand because of our
We can see this regularity and orderliness (rtam) in
every aspect of creation, from the atoms to the galaxies, from the DNA
to the ecosystem, from the heavens to earth
and within our own minds and bodies, manifesting itself as the orderly progression
of time and events, of arrangement of things and energies and as beauty,
symmetry, regularity and harmony. It is the dance of Siva in his cosmic
form. Despite the seemingly chaotic process of
creation and manifestation of the universe, we can clearly discern in it
orderly progression of events, a certain rhythm and predictability of movement and constitution of objects and beings.
And what is the first manifested Rtam or rhythm of the universe? It
is the universal order of creation, preservation and destruction.
And who regulate it? The Trinity of gods, Brahma, the creator,
Vishnu, the preserver and Siva the destroyer. Their manifestation itself
is an expression of Rtam and they are also the highest and ultimate upholders
of universal Rtam.
The number three is also a symbolic representation the Trinity. The
Trinity have one aspect of purusha (number one), one aspect of shakti
(number two) and one aspect of their own (number three). Their third
aspect is a combination of their functions, their individual attributes and
their place (Rtam) in the universal scheme of things. Although they are the absolute Brahman in their
highest aspect (since the one and two are hidden in them), their
functions and roles differ.
Brahma is the creator. He is
prajapathi, the lord of beings. He creates beautiful forms through his
divine mind. In him divine will and energy work in perfect harmony to
manifest divine intention instantaneously. Vishnu is the preserver. He maintains the
Rtam (order, harmony, rhythm and regularity) of the universe by helping
and nourishing. He
ensures that the planets and heavenly objects stay their course and that
the process of creation is in harmony with the divine will. Siva is the destroyer.
He ensures the Rtam of the universe by cleaning, purifying, destroying
and transforming. He destroys whatever that is moving out of the course
or in conflict with the Rtam. He facilitates the renewal
and regeneration of the worlds and their beings and help them in their
inward journey back to their source. In the end he dissolves everything into
the vast unknown (zero).
We find reference to the number three frequently in Hinduism. The
number is a symbol of Siva because he is the third in the Trinity. He has three eyes (trinetra), carries a
three pronged weapon called trisul or triayudha (trident), brings forth the triple gunas
(triguna) of sattva, rajas and tamas and also destroys them through his
grace (trident). He removes sins of three
births (tri janma papa samhara). He has three braids of hair (trijata).
He is knowns as triloka and
trikala jnani or the knower of three worlds (higher, lower and the
middle) and three times (past, present and future).
three also symbolically represent AUM in its vocative and diagrammatic
aspects. The Symbol of AUM consists of three curves representing the three
states of consciousness. The sound of AUM has three hidden sounds and
the word AUM has three letters. Together they symbolize the Absolute
consciousness (zero). The Mandukya Upanishad explains this
symbolism in great detail. The lower curve in the symbol of AUM
represents the outward moving wakeful consciousness. The middle one
represents the inner moving dream consciousness. The upper curve
represents the silent consciousness of the deep sleep state which is a
condition of oneness and peace in which all desires and dreams subside.
The semi circle above the upper curve represents the turiya or the pure consciousness of Atman itself. It is neither
inner nor outer, neither consciousness nor unconsciousness. Self
luminous, illuminating everything else, it exists alone and beyond.
These three states of consciousness are also represented by the three
sounds A, U and M. When we utter the word AUM, as one word it symbolizes the
fourth state of supreme consciousness.
The number three symbolizes many other aspects of creation:
triple qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas,
- the three layers of nature,
light, fire and darkness,
- the three states of being immanent,
transcendent and the absolute,
- the triple division of time, past,
present and future,
- the three periods of the day, morning, noon and
- the three worlds of bhur, bhuva and the swaha, or the three
worlds of heaven, earth and the hell,
- the three phases of life, young
age, middle age and old age,
- the three paths to self-realization, the
path of knowledge, the path of love and the path of action,
- the three
types of breath, the in breath, the out breath and the held breath,
three steps of Vishnu in his incarnation of Vamana,
- the mystic syllable
AUM consisting of three parts,
- the three duties of a Brahmin, sacrifice,
study of the Vedas and charity,
- triangle or the female genital organ,
the triple control of thought, word and deed,
- the three staves of a
sanyasin or ascetic
- the control of body, mind and action by an ascetic
- and the three lines of ash worn by the Saivites on
Buddhi is the third tattva. Buddhi is rationality, the discriminating
power where by we know the right from the wrong, the appropriate from
While Rtam may bring about the orderliness of creation, by itself it
may not be effective in maintaining the order in the affairs of
self-willed beings. At some stage in the
evolution of beings they develop their own egos and awareness of a false
sense of self. Driven by their own desires and sensory inputs, deluded
by maya these beings would be driven much deeper into darkness and
delusion unless they are presented with a
system of values and moral percepts which would remind them of their
primary purpose in their lives. By following it consciously and
judiciously they can reverse their
outward journey and turn inward to their source.
Thus Dharma becomes the fourth most important aspect of creation.
Dharma is system of religious and moral laws which is brought to the
mortal worlds by gods in order to assist beings in their journey towards
salvation. The aim of dharma is two fold: to preserve divine
order and to assist the beings. All the divinities in the cosmos are created
to uphold dharma. The reason why we see four hands for most of the divinities in
the Hindu iconography is because they enforce dharma which is
symbolically represented as number four. The divinities that we know in
Hinduism are but a small percentage of a vast
multitude that operate in higher planes vastly unknown. Some of them descend into our plane
brief period of time for a specific purpose and then withdraw forever, leaving
behind a brief reference in a long lineage of gurus and schools of
Dharma is eternal (sanatana) because what ever may be the time and
space, it will always be the same. It is manifested at the beginning of
creation and withdrawn at the end. Because it is not created, we receive
it always as bits and pieces of revelations. What is revealed is only a part of a much greater dharma.
No one knows its full extent except Brahman itself. It is revealed in accordance with the divine
help the beings and guide them on the righteous path. And most important
of all, it can be revealed only to
those who are qualified to receive it by virtue of their knowledge and
their inner purity. Dharma declines from time to time to the
extent beings move out of their paths and disturb the Rtam. Whenever there is disorder and decline of
dharma, Vishnu reincarnates as a mortal being upon earth and restores order.
The number four is thus a symbolic representation of santana dharma
which is the traditional name for Hinduism. It is the solution to the
problem of ahamkara or ego, which is the fourth in the 24 tattvas (principes)
of creation. Dharma has four legs. In each mahayuga or epoch it loses
progressively one leg. Thus in the first epoch, dharma walks on four
legs, in the second on three, in the third on two and in the last,
which is the current epoch, on only one. The world will come to an end
before the fourth leg is completely lost. The Vedas which constitute the
Dharma are also four in number. The Vedas are eternal. They were
revealed by Brahma to his mind born sons. Lord Vishnu is their
protector and preserver. And Lord Siva helps us to understand them by
destroying our ignorance.
In Hinduism the number four is also used in association with many
The aims of life (purusharthas) are four, dharma (righteousness), artha
(wealth), kama (desire) and moksha.(salvation).
- The stages (ashrma)
in life are four: the age of studentship (brahmacharya), the age of
householder (grihasta), the age of retirement (vanaprastha) and
the age of ascetic (renunciation).
- The varnas or castes are four based
on the four levels of human activity: pursuit of knowledge, pursuit of
selfless action, pursuit of selfish action and pursuit of ignorance.
Besides these we hear of
- the four divisions of an army,
- the fourth great
element (mahabhuta), which is identified as water,
- the four faces of Brahma,
- the four quarters
of the earth,
- the four hands of gods and goddesses and
- the four means of
accomplishment (friendship, charity, conflict and aggression).
Five is a symbol of the physical body and the planet earth. Of the five
elements (mahabhutas), the earth is the
fifth element. Ether (akasa) is the first element, the essence of God
himself. Omnipresent, it has always been there and never created. None
of the senses can reach it, including the mind. Air (vayu) is the next
element. Closer to ether in some respects, but still within the reach of
most sense organs. Agni (fire) is the third element. Similar to vayu in
some resepcts, but its body (flames) has color, heat and smell. Both
vayu and agni belong to the mid region (bhur) while ether belongs to the
higher region (suva). Water (jalam) is the fourth element. It is the
most important element as far as the earth is considered because life
upon earth originated from it. Earth is the fifth element. It is the
densest and the grossest of the five.
Our earthly bodies are mostly
composed of earth and water, which are densest of the five and hence our
limitations in movements, awareness and experience. The physical body is called
annamaya kosa, because it
is created entirely by food (annam). It is our outermost sheath and
depends exclusively upon the senses for nourishment and contact with
sense objects. Because we are gross, we
identify ourselves with our gross bodies and depend
exclusively upon food for our survival and existence. Ascetics who transcend the
limitations of the body through austerities and spiritual discipline can
survive without food for long because they know how to nourish their
bodies through other means of taking in the energies of other elements.
The earth body is therefore a slave to the senses. The senses are five in number: skin, eyes, nose, ears
and tongue. These are considered to be the five external or physical
senses and the five means to know. We function through these
five senses to interact with the objects of our world. Corresponding to
the five external senses are five organs of action or karmendriyas, hands, legs, genitals, larynx and anus. These five perform the
five functions of grasping, walking, generating, speaking and excreting.
They are the five means to do. In addition, there are five subtle or
internal sense organs known as tanmantras which are touch, form, smell,
sound and taste. They are the five means to experience.
Human beings have all the external and internal sense organs,
but subtle beings will have only the
subtle senses or the tanmantras, which means they can experience what we
experience but without dependence on the sense organs and
without the means to know or do. People who practice asceticism and yoga
can awaken their subtle senses and experience the world through their extraordinary siddhis or supernatural powers without the
need to know or do.
Number five is thus a symbolic representation of the earth and the
earth body. We also find the number being
associated with many other concepts of Hinduism.
- In Saivism we have the
five fold manifestation of Paramasiva or Parameswara (the primal being):
Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver), Rudra (destroyer), Maheswara (concealer)
and Sadasiva (revealer).
- In Vaishnavism we have the five aspects of
Vishnu as Isvara: para (transcendent), vyuha (emanating), vibhava
(incarnating), antaryami (immanent) and archavatara (consecrated image).
In the Vedanta we have the five qualities of Supreme Being (Saguna
Brahman): truth (satyam), knowledge (jnanam), infinity (anantam), bliss
(anandam) and purity (amalatvam).
- In the Vedas we find the mention of
five sacred fires.
- In the devotional literature we find reference
to five types of devotion.
- In the traditional form of Hindu worship we
see five types of worship being performed in front of on an idol, each
corresponding to a specific sense organ (fan, water, flame, incense,
- The Hindu calendar is called panchang because it has five angas
(parts). They are thithi (date or position of the sun), vara (day of
the week), nakshtra (position of the stars), karan (position of the
moon) and yoga (auspicious moment).
- In the Svetasvatara Upanishad 1
come across five kinds of errors, five breathing winds, five fold
fountain of consciousness, the river of life and its five
whirlpools, five violent waves of sorrows, five stages of pain and
five dangerous windings and turnings.
- In the Hindu temples deities
are offered food made of five sweet things called panchamrutam.
- When a person dies he is considered to be in the fifth state (panchama
avastha) because the other four elemental bodies have left this
- Manmadha, the god of love is known as pancheshu because he
carries five arrows (corresponding to the five senses) with which he
pierces the hearts of lovers.
We also find reference to
- five digestive powers in the body,
- five methods of
treatment (Vaman- administering emetics- rechan, purging, nasya- giving
sternutatories, anuvasa- giving oily anema, and niruhan- giving an
- five products of a cow, milk, curds, clarified butter, ghee and urine,,
- five classes of beings, gods, men, gandharvas, serpents and ancestors
- five tantric substances. wine, meat, fish, mudra or gesture and intercourse,
- five breaths of life, prana, apana, vyana, udana and samana,
- five great
- five daily sacrifices of a Brahmin,
five topics of the puranas,
- five types of salts
- five types of
vata (fig) trees (panchavati) and
- five Pandavas of the Mahabharat epic pitted against a 100 jealous cousins
filled with pride.
The number six is a symbolic representation of the human mind. The mind is the sixth sense organ, with six faculties:
emotion, thought, awareness, knowledge and intelligence, and six
enemies or impurities: lust, anger, greed, pride, delusion and
envy. The most potent organ of the human body, it is the seat of our
knowledge and ignorance and also the cause of our bondage and
liberation. A mind that is out of control or under the control of the
aforesaid six impurities is the cause of our bondage and suffering. A
mind that is pure and withdrawn from the senses into itself is an
ideal means for achieving self-realization. The Upanishads repeatedly
emphasize the importance of having a pure mind in the realization of
Brahman. So does the Bhagavadgita. So declares the Mundaka Upanishad:
All mind is woven with the senses, but in a pure mind shines the
radiance of Atman.
In the Maitri Upanishad we come across the following verses:
Samsara, the duality of life, happens in the mind. Let therefore
one keep ones mind pure, for what a man thinks so he becomes. This is
the mystery of eternity.
The mind of man is of two kinds, pure and impure, impure when it is
bound to the desire and pure when it is free.
This purity can be attained by the practice of yoga, self-discipline,
control of the senses, devotion, selfless actions, contemplation and
meditation. The Supreme Path to self realization begins only when the
mind and the five senses are still and the reason (buddhi) becomes
seated in silence (Katha Upanishad). Through the mind a person
experiences three states, the wakeful state (jagrata), the dream state (svapna)
and the deep sleep state (susupti). Beyond these three states is the is the
pure (turiya) state of Atman, which is "neither outer
consciousness nor inner consciousness, neither semi-consciousness nor
sleeping consciousness, neither consciousness nor unconsciousness."
It is experienced only by transcending the mind and entering into a
state of samadhi, by becoming pure in thought and deed through the
practice of yoga and spiritual discipline and under the guidance of a
master. So declares the Maitri Upanishad:
When the mind is silent, beyond weakness or non-concentration, then
it can enter into a world far beyond the mind, which is the highest
We find the use of number six in reference to other subjects.
Vedangas known as the limbs of the Vedas are six in number (sikhsa,
kalpa, vyakarna, nirukta, chandasa and chitihi.
- The Tantras are also
- In the Brahmanas a Brahman is prescribed six fold duties: teaching,
studying, performing sacrfice, offering sacrifice and charity: For his survival
he was allowed six vocations including begging, commerce,
- A king in ancient India was allowed to receive one sixth
of produce from the farmers as his share.
- Ancient magicians performed
six acts of magic: creating peace, deluding, immobilizing, creating
enmity, ruining an enemy and causing death.
- There are six Hindu schools of
philosophy: samkhya, yoga, nyaya, vaisheshika, purva and uttara mimansa
- The six sided hexagon is a symbol of Durga and used
in the tantric symbols.
- Katyayani, an aspect of Durga is known as
- Married couple perform shastipurthi, almost another marriage
function, when the husband attains 60 years of age while the wife is
The number seven is a symbolic representation of the earthly plane.
Hindu scriptures declare that our earth is but one
in a series of several planes of existence, some belonging to the
higher regions and some to the lower. In all there are said to
be 14 planes or worlds of which six are above the earth and seven below
the earth. Above the 14th is the highest and the unknown or the zero
plane. If we include it there are 15 planes in all. Our
planet is considered to be in the middle with seven above (including the
zero plane) and seven below.
Our present knowledge of the different planes of existence seems to
have evolved in the Hindu world over a period of time. In the Chandogya Upanishad and
also in the shortened version of the Gayatri mantra we find reference to
only three worlds:
- the earth (bhur or bhuloka) inhabited by mortal beings,
middle world of air (bhuvarloka) inhabited by celestial beings, and
heavenly world of the sky (suva, svara or svargaloka) inhabited by devas or
gods ruled by Indra.
This is the most traditional view of Hindu
cosmology we find in the early literature of the Vedic people. In
the Puranas and in the longer version of the Gayatri mantra, however, we
find descriptions of the remaining four worlds, situated above the
heavenly world of Indra. They are
- maharloka (the world of radiant
- janaloka (the world of deities),
- tapoloka (the world of pure
- satyaloka or Brahmaloka (the world of Truth).
These seven worlds also said to correspond to the seven planes of consciousness or
sheaths in our bodies: physical plane (annamaya) with earth, breath plane (pranamaya)
mental plane (manomaya) with svarga, the plane of intelligence (vignanamaya)
the plane of latent divinities with janah, the radiant plane of spiritual fire
with tapo and
the supreme consciousness of Atman itself with Brahma.
While there are six planes
above the earth, there are seven below: atala, vitala, sutala, mahatala,
tatatala, rasatala and patala. These are darker worlds inhabited by
demons and dark forces. In the human body, which is considered as a
symbolic representation of the earth itself, we can find these 14 planes
The higher seven planes also correspond with the seven chakras in the
body and seven planets in the solar system. We can see this relationship
in the following table:
|Top of the skull
||Soles of the feet
On our planet itself there are said to be seven spheres each
recognized as a particular dvipa or island (jambu, shaka, kusha,
krauncha, shalmali, pluksha and pushkara) and seven seas (kara, ksheera,
sura, ghrita, rusa, dahi and jala).
The number seven appears very frequently in Hindu scriptures. The
Mundaka Upanishad refers seven tongues (sapta jivhas) or seven flames of
Agni, which are kali (black), karali (fierce),
manojava (swift as mind), sulohita (red as iron), sudhumravarna
(smoke-colored), visharuch-devi (universally pleasing) and sphulingini
(cracking). They are depicted as the seven hands in the iconography of
Agni and probably correspond to the seven dhatus (saptadhatus) of the
human body and seven energies that awaken during our spiritual practice.
Surya, the sun god rides on a chariot yoked by seven horses each
corresponding to a particular color, energy and day in the week.
According to the Durgasapthashati, during a fight with one of the
demons by name Raktabija, the Mother Goddess, Durga manifested herself
into seven forms who are popularly known as saptamatrikas or seven
little mothters. They are Brahmani, Maheswari or Sivani, Kaumari,
Vaishnavi, Varahi, Chamundi or Narasimhi, and Aindri. As their names
suggest they are the energies of Brahma, Siva, Skanda, Vishnu,
Varaham, Narasimha and Indra respectively.
According to the tantras
these seven shaktis correpond to seven subtle energies in our beings.
They are shown below
|Deity or Shakti
||The awakening power that is latent in the Pranava
Nada or the primal sound AUM
||The organizing power that creates beauty and
symmetry in the beings
||The concealing power that creates the sense of
individuality in the beings
||The awakening power that creates aspiration for
spiritual liberation in the beings and leads them to a guru for
||The assimilating power that lets beings enjoy foods
and energies of all kinds
||The conscientious power that destroys all the
sensory opposition to the perceived moral code
||The controlling power that destroys all distractions
of the mind and facilitates withdrawal and inward concentration.
The seven sages of Hinduism, known as saptarishis played an important
role in bringing the Vedas and other texts into our earthly
consciousness. They are considered as the mind born sons of Brahma himself,
who descended from the stars in the constellation
called Ursa Major to teach the knowledge of the Vedas to human beings.
The key musical notes are seven corresponding to the seven planes of
consciousness both within and without.
The number seven plays an
important role in Hindu marriage which is consecrated only after the
newly married couple walk seven steps together around the fire.
According to tradition, once married, the marriage bond between a couple
lasts for seven lives
Besides these, we also hear of
- Sapta-puris or seven holy cities: kashipuri, kanchipuruam,
mayapuri, ayodhyapuri, dwarakapuri, mathurapuri, and avantikapuri;
- Sapta-badris or seven sacred places: Sri Badrinath Dham, Adi Badri,
Vriddha Badri, Yoga Badri, Tibetan Badri, and Nrisinga Badri;
- Sapta-nadis or seven sacred rives: Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari,
Saraswathi, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri and
- Sapta-kshetras or seven battle fields: Kurukshetra,
Hariharakshetra, Prabhakshetra, Ramkshetra, Bhungakshetra,
Purushottamakshetra and Sukarkshetra.
The number eight symbolizes the division of space and divinities into
their constituent parts. In the Brahmanas we find reference to Adityas
or solar gods. They are the sons of Aditi, the Primal Goddess, and their
number vary from 7 to 12. In the earliest Vedic texts we find references
to eight Adityas: Mitra, Varuna, Aryaman, Amia, Bhaga, Dhatar, Indra,
In the Vedas we find reference to Rudras whose number also varies
from eight to eleven. The eight Rudras are Bhava, Sarva, Isana,
Pasupathi, Bhima, Ugra, Mahadeva and Rudra. They are the gods of
thunder and rain, the monsoon gods who were feared by the Vedic people to be the harbingers
of sickness and death, because the monsoon rains brought all kinds of
problems with them from diseases and infections to floods and destruction of the agricultural
crops and other properties.
The Goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu has eight forms, Adi Lakshmi
(primal), Dhanya Laskhmi (wealth of grains), Dhairya Laskhmi (wealth of
courage), Gaja Laskhmi (welath of elephants), Santana Laskhmi (wealth of
children), Vijaya Laskhmi (wealth of success). Vidya Laskhmi (wealth of
knowledge) and Dhana Laskhmi (monetrary wealth).
Corresponding with these eight Lakshmis are the eight shaktis of Lord
Vishnu: Sridevi (goddess of money), Bhudevi (goddess of land), Sarasvathi
(goddess of knowledge), Priti (goddess of happiness), Kirti (goddess of fame), Santi (goddess of
peace), Tusti (goddess of pleasure) and Pusti (goddess of health).
Corresponding with them again are
the eight consorts of
The attendants of Indra. known as Vasus, who are mentioned in the Vedas, are
also eight in number. They are Dhara (the earth), Anala (the fire), Apa (waters),
Anila (wind), Dhruva (north star), Soma (the moon), Prabhasa (the dawn)
and Pratyusa (the light).
The astadikpalas are lords of heaven, who rule the eight directions
of space each in the capacity of a Lord. They are Indra
(eastern Lord), Varuna (western Lord), Kubera (northern Lord), Yama (souther
Lord), Agni (southeastern Lord), Niruthi (southwestern Lord), Isana
(northeastern Lord) and Vayu (northwestern Lord). These were the Vedic gods who
were subsequently relegated to the level of space deities, with the
emergence of newer manifestations and the rising popularity of
Vaishnavism, Saivism and Shaktism. The qualities of these deities and
their respective directions play an important role in the Hindu
vastushastra (architecture) and temple construction.
The best form of salutation to a personal deity is considered to be
the eight fold salutation ( shashtanga namaskaram), performed with eight
limbs of the body as a mark of total respect, obedience and surrender.
The science of yoga is known to have eight limbs, hence the name as
ashtanga yoga or the eight limbed yoga. They are yama
(control), niyama (rules), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing
practice), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana
(concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (state of self-absorption).
In the ancient texts we also find the mention of
- eight types of
- eight duties of a king,
- eight qualities of a Brahman,
eight ears of Brahma,
- eight elephants guarding the eight quarters,
- ashtadhatu, an
alloy made of eight metals,
- eight auspicious encounters or
- eight rasas or emotions of a drama (love, humor, sadness,
anger, courage, fear, horror and wonder) 2,
- eight methods of worship
(water, sandal-paste, flowers, incenses, light, grains, sweets and
- eight types of misfortunes and
- eight forms of Ganesha (Maha-ganapati,
Varada-vinayaka, Chintamani-vinayaka, Girijatmaja-vinayaka, Vghneswara,
Bala-vinayaka and Siddhi-vinayaka).
Lord Siva is known as ashamurthi. Descriptions of Sivaling refer it
as being surrounded by eight petals (ashta dalo pariveshtitha lingam)
which are considered to be symbols of consciousness and awareness. In
the descriptions of Siva, we also find reference to his eight
peaceful and eight terrible forms. The eight peaceful forms are
or anugraha murthi,
- ugra or rudra or samhara murthi,
- nritta or tandava
- lingodbhava murthi,
- bhikshatana murthi,
haryardha murthi and
- ardhanariswara murthi.
The eight terrible forms
- Kankala Bhairava,
- Gajasuravadha murthi,
- Tripurantaka murthi,
- Kalari murthi,
- Kamantaka murthi and
Nine is the last of the single digit numbers and also the highest. In
Hindu tradition we find this number being used to express many
concepts and practices. We are mentioning a few below.
The Bhagavatapurana mentions nine forms of devotion : sravanam
(hearing about God), kirtanam (singing the praise of God), mananam
(remembering God), padaseva (serving the feet of God), archanam
(worshiping God), mantram (offering prayers to God), seva (serving
the cause of God), maitri (friendship with God) and saranam (surrender
In Hindu astronomy we recognize nine planets, collectively knows as
navagrahas, whose movements and configuration we believe would effect the lives and
destinies or the state (graham) of beings in different worlds. These
nine planets are the Sun (Surya), the Moon (Chandra), Mars (Managala),
Mercury (Budha), Jupiter (Brihaspathi), Venus (Sukra), Saturn (Sani),
Rahu and Ketu. The names of the seven days in a week are derived
from the first seven planets. The last two are not considered as planets
but only in relation to their influence on the moon. However in the
temples they all are worshipped collectively or as a group and very
The human body is considered as a city of nine gates which correspond
with the nine openings (two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, navel and two
excretory openings). Because atman or the self resides in it, it is also
called a temple with nine gates.
Lord Kubera is described as in possession of nine treasures
which are mahapadma, padma, shankha, makara, kacchapa, mukunda, kunda,
nila and kharva. We find different interpretations of what these nine
treasures are and so will not go into detail. We also find mention of
nine jewels or precious stones (mukta, manikya, vajra, vaidhurya,
gomedhika, vidruma, padmaraga, marakantna and nila) which are probably
related in some way to the nine treasures of Kubera. In the foundation
laying ceremony of a temple construction, it is a tradition to place
nine jewels and nine forms of grains (navadhanyas) in the earth where
the foundation stone is laid and also where the idols are installed.
According to tantrik tradition the goddess Durga is worshipped for
nine days and nights during Dusshera festival. During this period
devotees of the goddess observe a nine day fast
Ten is the first double digit number formed by the coming together of
one and zero. The zero stands for nirguna Brahman. The one stands for
both Saguna Brahman and the individual Atman. In the number 10 thus we
find a very deep symbolic significance. The number symbolically
represents the incarnation of God, the conscious and willful coming
together of the transcendent and the immanent,
of the mortal and the immortal, with God manifesting himself fully in
earthly form with his splendor and energies. In a less significant way
it also symbolizes a self realized yogi who has experienced Brahman or
Atman in human body. An awakened being is complete and different from an
ordinary mortal because she has the internal awareness of 10 while the
latter has only that of 01.
The extraordinary thing
about incarnation is that in it the conflict between duality and unity
are perfectly resolved. Outwardly an incarnation may lead an ordinary
life and go through the motions of life like any other earthly being,
but inwardly he always remains completely conscious of his true nature
and the purpose of his incarnation. An incarnation is not an emanation
or projection of God but God himself in human or earthly form. In the
first God manifests himself with his full powers, but in the latter he
manifests himself partially as divinities or godheads. So while the
incarnations are few, the emanations are many.
An incarnation comes to
the earth for the specific purpose of restoring
dharma and protecting the righteous. Once the task is accomplished the
incarnation withdraws leaving behind a glorious chapter of deeds,
revelations and miracles for the mankind to remember and serve as a
According to Hindu tradition Lord Vishnu's incarnations are
ten in number of which nine have already taken place and the tenth is
yet to come. The ten number of incarnations probably allude to the
symbolic mystery associated with the number ten. Lord Vishnu is known as
dasarupabhuta and Lord Rama as dasaripu as he killed the ten headed
demon king Ravana in the battle. The story is probably an allegory of a
egoistic man (01) trying to compete with an incarnation (10) with the
strength and knowledge of ten egoistic individuals but without the aid
of the inner self (one) and God (zero).
We can see from the above, that in Hinduism the numbers play a very
important role as symbols of divinities and energies and serve the same
purposes as the idols and mantras. Under the guidance of a guru, the
numbers can serve as a means of concentration and meditation and help
the seekers find the divinities hidden in each number. The material
world that we experience through the senses is but a projection of
numbers hidden in its design. These are the footprints that the divine
has left in the layers of his manifestation for us to meditate upon and
realize. They are the stepping stone to higher awareness and self-realization.
We have the choice to moving back towards the zero and eternity or
moving forward into infinity and relativity.
Suggested Further Reading
1. Svertasvatara 1.4 &1.5
2. We also find reference to nine rasas instead of eight.