Vast and variegated, the great lands of Hindoostan are a rich patchwork of local traditions even though, together, they accumulate into a single edifice of belief and practice that may reasonably be designated by the term ‘Hindooism’, especially as seen from the outside (things being less clear when standing in its midst.) From north to south, east to west, local traditions, flavours and colourings vary, yet somehow they converge into a single stream, a unified tradition. Do not expect consistency or system, though. There is no Pope of the Hindoos to bring the swarming variations into a coherent orthodoxy. Very wisely, the Hindoo cherishes variation and tolerates a very wide range of religious expression. This fact has become very noticeable to the present writer in his current sojourn across the Indian sub-continent. Any expectation of consistency or system is foiled at every turn. Just when he thinks he has a handle on some aspect of Hindoo religious life, he moves on to a new town, a new location, and there different traditions and ways prevail, even though they are in some way entirely apiece with the whole. Reflecting on Hindooism is an object lesson on the problem of the one and the many.
The western coast of India is very different to the north and one encounters there, sure enough, a different assembly of myths and legends and accompanying practices. The author arrived in the temple town of Udupi several days ago and since then has been observing the local religious life, especially as it is centred on the great Krishna temple complex that makes the town a centre of pilgrimage. A full description of the rites and mysteries of this temple will have to be postponed until a later post: they are very complex and very profound and would require a long and detailed exposition.
Instead, the purpose of this current post is simply to record an observation concerning the symbolic powers of the celebrated number one hundred and eight (108). The meaning of the number – or at least something of its essential symbolism – has become obvious to this writer since arriving in Udupi and becoming immersed in the local traditions of the place. A group of connections have come together. A particular order of symbolism has become plain. The purpose of this post is just to make note of that symbolism. How it fits into the greater symbolism evident in Udupi and its surrounds is another matter and must wait for another time.
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The author has long observed the special character of the number 108 in certain religious contexts. It is an important number with symbolic import. Most notably, there is the fact that the rosary beads – or japa beads (japa mala) – commonly employed by both Hindoos and Boodhists consist of 108 stones or seeds or peas strung on a string which are then counted with the fingers. Thus, in any cycle of prayer the Hindoo or Boodhist makes 108 utterances or mantras of some sacred name or phrase. The author, indeed, has purchased a set of the said beads at the store in the Udupi temple where they hang on wracks in great profusion. Everywhere about, one can see Hindoos fingering their beads and muttering their mantras – one of the most common and easiest forms of devotion. There are no Boodhists to be seen in Udupi but elsewhere they use the rosary of 108 beads as well. (The Mahometan tesbe is different since it consists of 99 beads – a decimal rosary, as it were – being based on the literal – and quite mistaken – reading of a certain hadeeth in which the Prophet declares that God has ninety-nine names. This is just an instance of semitic hyperbole and it means that God has a large or indefinite number of names, but Mahometans, stupidly, draw up a litany of ninety-nine names, even though there are clearly more than that number given in the Holy Koran.)
Nor, however, is 108 only a preferred number in oriental symbolism. The author, being a student of the Greeks, knows also that in Homeric myth the number of suitors of Penelope is very specifically 108. And it is found in many other contexts besides. It is a auspicious number which occurs in certain symbolically significant contexts in traditions east and west.
But why 108? Why this particular number? What particular symbolism is attached to this number? What are its traditional powers?
The answer to this presents itself in Udupi. The name of the town is said to come from two roots signifying the idea “Lord + Stars” = “Lord of the Stars”. A local myth relates that, once upon a time, the “twenty-seven stars” were dimmed by decree of a certain king. Thereupon, the “Lord of the Stars” – that is, the Moon – appealed to Lord Shiva to restore their brightness, and Lord Shiva looked favourably upon this request and did so. Consequently, Shiva came to be worshipped locally and the place became known as Udupi – the land of the Lord of Stars, which is to say a land of the Moon. Shiva, of course, is himself a lunar deity and wears the lunar crescent as a crown. It is one of his chief emblems. He is essentially a time god, and the Moon, in this context, is the marker of time. Thus, in the Udupi temple complex the oldest temple, called ‘Chandramauleshvara’ belongs to the Moon-crowned Shiva (Chandra = Moon). The restoration of the twenty-seven stars for the Lord of the Stars is celebrated in this temple in this town.
Moreover, a second myth told in this same region concerns the axe-wielding avatar Parashurama who, it is said, severed the land from the sea. The whole coast of western India – Goa, Konkan, Karnataka, Kerela – is collectively known as the Land of Parashurama. He split the land from the sea with his axe, and then – it is said – he established 108 statues of Shiva throughout the land. Indeed, these 108 statues or linga – Shiva shrines - still exist today, distributed along the coastal lands with the shrines in Udupi being prominent among them. Now, the axe of Parashurama is without question itself a symbol of the crescent Moon – the crescent shaped axe is lunar wherever it is found - and so once again in this myth we have a lunar motif associated with Udupi and with the lunar deity Shiva, and the number 108 is explicitly given in this context.
Furthermore, as this present writer notes in a casual observation that turns out to be relevant, Udupi is a thriving centre for Hindoo astrology, particularly in its lunar mode. There are astrologers on every street corner, and many astrologers have set up practice in the confines of the temple complex itself. It might seem that there are more astrologers in Udupi than in the rest of India combined. The signs and shops throughout make it clear that it is nothing less than an astrological centre. Pilgrims who come to Udupi to make observances at the temple also take the opportunity to have an astrological reading since here, as elsewhere in India, astrology is indeed regarded as a sacred art and an important feature of the Hindoo religion. As it is practiced, it is based upon the twenty-seven lunar mansions (nakshatra) and the sub-division of those mansions into astral regions known as pada. Typically, the Hindoo takes a name from the pada in which he was born. (Typically, also, astrologers inform inquirers that this was done in error and that the error can only be corrected by prayers and generous donations to the temple – such being the way of seers.)
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Let us now string all of these factors together. Udupi is a charming town and the temple is a place of remarkable fascination. There is much that can be said but, again, it will need to wait for another post. What is important at this time is that in Udupi, and its local myths, the nature and import of the number 108 becomes obvious. Even in this there is much to say, but for now it suffices to point to what is plain.
Most crucially, let us note that 27 x 4 = 108. That is, there are 27 lunar mansions each divided into four parts. This is essential to Hindoo astrology. This makes the number 108 symbolic of the lunar zodiac. It is a number that represents the whole cosmic cycle considered by its lunar delineations. It is a lunar, not a solar number. Many numbers measure time (cycles) by solar measures – the number 360, for example. But the number 108 is resoundingly lunar in its essential meanings. In the foundation myth of Udupi, the “twenty-seven stars” dimmed by the evil king and restored by “Moon-crowned” Shiva are the twenty-seven lunar mansions. When, in the other myth, the axe-wielding Parashurama separates the land and the sea and establishes the 108 Shiva shrines, we have the finer division of the pada. The rosary of 108 beads, then, represents the year, and by extension the cosmic cycle (since an annual year is a reflection of the Great Year.) The Moon, in this scheme, is the measurer of time – a function of Lord Shiva – and so it is with lunar time reckonings, great and small, that we are concerned. The beads (japa mala) is a device symbolic of the full lunar cycle. To prayer the japa is to be united with and contextualized by that cycle.
The same significance prevails, surely, in Homer. Penelope’s weaving and unweaving as she awaits the return of Odysseus in the epic poem is, surely, itself a lunar motif. This has been widely observed from ancient times to modern. Just as the moon waxes and wanes, so Penelope weaves and unweaves. But now we can understand why there are 108 suitors seeking her hand. The number is the number of the lunar cycle (and it is furthermore no accident that the total journey of Odysseus is nineteen years, the number of the metonic or lunar eclipse cycle.) Penelope will not submit to any particular division of the small cycle. Odysseus himself, and his journey, signifies the greater cycle. Let us also note, in a Greek context, that 108 is a number relevant to the Platonic Nuptial Number, the calculation of the Great Year given in the Republic: the figures are 12,960,000 = 108 x 120,000.
In any case, 108 is the number of the lunar cycle. Wherever it is found it is likely to have this significance. It features in Udupi because Udupi is the land of the “Lord of Stars” i.e. the Moon. This is an old layer of symbolism in the Udupi temple. The associations of the temple with Krishna are much more recent – medieval rather than ancient. The oldest layers of the Udupi cultus go back beyond this association to Shiva as “Moon-crowned” or “Moon-faced”. It is a cultus that is particularly cosmological and in which an ancient cosmological symbolism has been well preserved. A more detailed description will be given some other time. For now, it is enough to note that 108 is a lunar number – the number of the cosmic cycle in its lunar mode.
Harper McAlpine Black