A quick google search shows an overwhelming number of explanations for the significance of the number 108 in the practice of Japa – the mental repetition (or loud for beginners) of mantra as a meditative practice. Some explain that 1 stands for the highest truth, 0 for the completeness of spiritual practice and 8 for infinity. Another says that the diameter of the Sun is 108 times that of the earth! (It is actually a 109 times bigger, but close enough!)
Here’s a little extract of our group repeating Gaṇeśa Gāyatrī mantra 108 times.
This is an explanation from Swami Dayananda Saraswati whose teachings we follow through our teachers. He says that a certain number of repetitions are advised for japa of a particular mantra to be efficacious. All names in the universe are the names of Īśvara, of the divine, but it would be impossible to repeat all these names. Therefore, we use a formula! All names in Sanskrit are between a & h, the 54 letters. We account for all permutations and combinations of these letters by counting in ascending and also descending order.
Thus, one mantra chanted 108 times symbolically covers all names! When we chant a mantra for 1001 or 1008 times, it is symbolic of having done it an infinite number of times!
Here’s a little extract of our group repeating Mahāmṛtyuñjaya mantra 108 times.
Swami Harshananda of the Ramakrishna Math says that a mantra becomes effective only when its japa is done. The count of mantra for japa can be 10, 12, 28, 32 or 108, the last number being the most widely recognized. He further explains that if a human breathes on average 21,600 times per day (the number is actually a wider range between 17,000-30,000!), counting half that during sleep and daily functions of caring for the body and eating etc., leaves us with breathing 10,800 times during our active waking state.
In other words, we are expected to utter the mantra with every breath and the number 108 is a reminder of that ideal.
On a more practical note from me – does the number matter? Yes and no. Yes, because 108 seems long enough to give your practice the time required. No, because it doesn’t matter how many times you repeat your mantra, if it wasn’t infused with a prayerful attitude.
More on that prayerful attitude in another post 🙂
Thanks to my new friend Jens Keygnaert for giving me the idea for this post. If you know of other explanations for the number 108, please leave your comment below!