Symbolic Significance of Numbers in Hinduism


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 one to ten from Hindu perspective and their association with some important concepts and divinities of Hinduism. It also explores how ancient Indians used numbers to organize the knowledge they had about creation and systematically ascertain the order of divinities in a complex pantheon to envision a grand view of Hindu cosmology from a numerical perspective.

Most of the information, which is provided in this essay 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. The ancient seers of India intuited the play of numbers in the order and regularity of the world. For their times, it was an astounding discovery, which is now confirmed beyond doubt by modern science.

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 withdrawing 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, Shunya

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.

It is 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, Eka

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 Brahma, 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.

Two, Dvi

The number two is a symbolic representation of the state 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 and immortality.

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 existence 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).

Three, Triah

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 limited faculties.

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 an 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 of 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 helps 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 known as triloka and trikala jnani or the knower of three worlds (higher, lower and the middle) and three times (past, present and future).

Aum the Sacred Symbol of HindusThe number 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:

  • the 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 evening,
  • 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,
  • the 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 their foreheads.

Buddhi is the third tattva. Buddhi is rationality, the discriminating power where by we know the right from the wrong, the appropriate from the inappropriate.

Four, Chatur

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 for a 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 thought.

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 intent to 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 (principles) 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 other concepts.

  • The aims of life (purusharthas) are four, dharma (righteousness), artha (wealth), kama (desire) and moksha.(salvation).
  • The stages (ashrama) 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 also hear of  the following

  1. the four divisions of an army,
  2. the fourth great element (mahabhuta), which is identified as water,
  3. the four faces of Brahma,
  4. the four quarters of the earth,
  5. the four hands of gods and goddesses and
  6. the four means of accomplishment (friendship, charity, conflict and aggression).

Five Panchan

Five is a symbol of the physical body and the planet earth. Of the five great 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 respects, 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, food).
  • 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), nakshatra (position of the stars), karan (position of the moon) and yoga (auspicious moment).
  • In the Svetasvatara Upanishad 1 we 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 world.
  • 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 ordinary enema),
  • 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 sins (panchamahapatakam),
  • 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 Mahabharata epic pitted against a 100 jealous cousins filled with pride.

Six, Shashtan

The number six is a symbolic representation of the human mind. The mind is the sixth sense organ, with six faculties: reason, 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 end.

We find the use of number six in reference to other subjects.

  • The Vedangas known as the limbs of the Vedas are six in number (sikhsa, kalpa, vyakarna, nirukta, chandasa and chitihi.
  • The Tantras are also six.
  • In the Brahmanas a Brahman is prescribed six fold duties: teaching, studying, performing sacrifice, offering sacrifice and charity: For his survival he was allowed six vocations including begging, commerce, farming, etc.
  • 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 and vedanta.
  • The six sided hexagon is a symbol of Durga and used in the tantric symbols.
  • Katyayani, an aspect of Durga is known as shashti.
  • Married couple perform shastipurthi, almost another marriage function, when the husband attains 60 years of age while the wife is still alive.

Seven Saptan

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,
  • the middle world of air (bhuvarloka) inhabited by celestial beings, and
  • the 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 beings),
  • janaloka (the world of deities),
  • tapoloka (the world of pure souls) and
  • 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) with bhuva, mental plane (manomaya) with svarga, the plane of intelligence (vignanamaya) with mahar, 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:

Higher Organ Higher World Chakra Body Sheath Lower Organ Lower World
Navel Earth Muladhara Anna Hips Atala
Abdomen Bhuvah Svadhishtana Prana Thighs Vitala
Heart Suvah Manipura Mano Knees Sutala
Throat Mahar Anahata Vignana Calves Talatala
Mouth Jana Visuddha Janah Ankles Rasatala
Brain Tapah Ajna Tapo Feet Mahatala
Top of the skull Satya Sahasrara Brahma Soles of the feet Patala

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 Energy Form
Brahmi The awakening power that is latent in the Pranava Nada or the primal sound AUM
Vaishnavi The organizing power that creates beauty and symmetry in the beings
Maheswari The concealing power that creates the sense of individuality in the beings
Kaumari The awakening power that creates aspiration for spiritual liberation in the beings and leads them to a guru for enlightenment
Varahi The assimilating power that lets beings enjoy foods and energies of all kinds
Aindri The conscientious power that destroys all the sensory opposition to the perceived moral code
Chamundi 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.

Eight, Ashtan

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, Vivsvant.

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 Lord Krishna.

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 sexual enjoyment,
  • 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 visions,
  • 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 fruit),
  • 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

  • saumya or anugraha murthi,
  • ugra or rudra or samhara murthi,
  • nritta or tandava murthi,
  • dakshinamurthi,
  • lingodbhava murthi,
  • bhikshatana murthi,
  • haryardha murthi and
  • ardhanariswara murthi.

The eight terrible forms are:

  • Kankala Bhairava,
  • Gajasuravadha murthi,
  • Tripurantaka murthi,
  • Sarabhesara murthi,
  • Kalari murthi,
  • Kamantaka murthi and
  • Andhakasura-vadha murthi.

Nine, Navan

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 to God).

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 rarely alone.

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, Dasan

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 guidance.

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.

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Suggestions for Further Reading


1. Svertasvatara 1.4 &1.5

2. We also find reference to nine rasas instead of eight.

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