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The Number 108

To: soc.religion.eastern
From: Bill Mayne
Subj: The Number 108 (0000.nmbr108.bm)
Date: unknown

Quoting: |>Vidyasankar Sundaresan and 
	 |Thomas Loomis (tloomis@halcyon.halcyon.com)

|>The number 108 may have been associated with some significance by early  
|>mystics, because of its association with astronomy. 
|>The number 108 is roughly the average distance that the sun is in terms of  
|>its own diameter from the earth; likewise...[the moon]
|>This may account for its frequent cropping up in almost all ancient  
|>religious writings.

This is very doubtful since it would require the cultures which produced
"almost all" ancient religious writings to have known and cared about
such astronomical trivia. It also fails to explain the selection of 108
and not some other number close to the ratios in question, such as 109
or 110.

|Where could I read more about this? How were the measurements taken
|(in ancient times) of the relevant distances and diameters? 

Considering that we are dealing with prescientific cultures, especially
ancient India in this case, I share your skepticism. The ratios, though
not the actual sizes and distances, could be deduced from the apparent
sizes of the sun and moon. If this is not already obvious, once you
think about t, ask and I'll explain in email. However I know of no
evidence that ancient Indian religious writers knew this or that they
would use the knowledge in the way suggested even if they did. The
Greeks did deduce the distance to the moon, as has recently been
discussed in sci.math. But they were more scientific.

To expect advanced scientific knowledge on the part of the authors of
the Vedas is about as ludicrous as western creationists claiming that
the earth is only a few thousand years old, or at the other extreme claims
that human civilization is tens of millions of years old and that human
artifacts have been found which were contemporary with dinosaurs. A Hare
Krishna devotee in their equivalent o the Institution for Creation
Research has told me about the human artifacts with dinosaurs with a
straight face!

To illustrate the state of astronomy in ancient India, consider the view
of Vedic "science" that the stars do not emit light of their own, like
our sun, but shine by reflected light, like the moon and planets. This
explanation is expounded by Sri Prabupada in "The Bhagavad Gita As It Is".
It is contained in the purport (commentary) on the verse "Of stars I am
the moon."

The numerological explanation, 108=1*2*2*3*3*3, and hence that it is
divisible by 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, and 12 is much more plausible. Ancient
Indians and others often used the structure of enumerated lists and
divisions in criptures for aesthetic/poetic reasons, as an aid to
memorization, and as check on the accuracy of transmission, as well
as mystical use. See for example the "Numerical Discourses" in the
Pali (Buddhist) canon. The number 108, being highly factorable and
constructable in other interesting ways, is well suited to this
purpose. Having found such a use it was natural to build mystical
interpretations around it. In particular, a mala with 108 beads
would be useful for reciting prayers and such with numerical
structure.

Another example of a highly factorable number being selected for a
seemingly arbitrary base is the number 60, used by the Babylonians. This
is divisible by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30. It is the reason
minutes have 60 seconds, hours have 60 minutes, and circles have 360
degrees.

Bill Mayne

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