Numbers in Religions

by V.V. Raman
October 13, 2006

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We tend to associate numbers only with mathematics, or with practical matters like measuring, counting, and keeping accounts. But numbers have played important roles also where there is no immediate use. Every major religion refers to numbers and attaches particular significance to certain numbers.

A hymn in the Leiden Papyrus, (of the Old Kingdom: 2575-2150 BCE) reveals that in Egyptian religion there was number mysticism. The Karnak Temple complex was called Apet-sut or Enumerator of the Places. One of the books of the Bible presents the results of 2 census, and so it was translated into Greek as Arithmoi which means Numbers. 2 is an important number in all dichotomies, as in the Yin-Yang principle. The number 3 takes on a special significance in many religious contexts: Anu, Bel, Ea in Mesopotamia; Isis, Osiris, Horus in ancient Greece; Brahma, Vishnu, Siva in the Hindu tradition; Father, Son, Holy Spirit in Christianity; and so on. It also enters into many categorizations in the Hindu framework, such as 3 doshas and 3 gunas.

4 was important in ancient recognitions of elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. 4 is sacred in the Hindu world as the number of Vedas (primary sacred books). The word Yahweh, spelled out in Hebrew, consists of 4 letters.

In Chinese lore, 5 is the important number. There are 5 locations of cardinal directions: east, west, south, north, and center; 5 principal colors: jade, red, yellow, white, and black; 5 tastes: sour, bitter, sweet, astringent, and salty; 5 elements: earth, water, metal, wood, and fire; and five principal tones on the musical scale.

The Pythagoreans regarded 6 as the perfect number because its factors (1, 2, and 3) also add up to it. 28 is the next perfect number. Pythagoras also associated properties with numbers; and later, numbers were given to the letters of the alphabet. The combination of these two led to numerology, a system of questionable scientific standing, by which practitioners describe characteristics and predict events on the basis of numbers associated with letters and names. In the Book of Revelation we read that the number associated with Man is Six hundred three score and six (666).

In the Judaic tradition, numbers are associated with Hebrew letters, and this enables expert in gematria to uncover esoteric meanings in words. The gematria numerology has been traced as far back as Sargon II of Babylonia who lived in the 8th century BCE, and found its way into other cultures as well.

The ancient Babylonians recognized seven celestial bodies that move differently than all the stars in the heaven: the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. They dedicated a day to each of these (which were deified). Thus, we got our 7 day week. From this arose the magical properties of 7: seven deadly sins, seventh heaven, seven wise men, sapta rishi, seven days in the Book of Genesis, etc.

Islamic scholars point out that the Qumran's magic number is 19: Its first sura, called Basmalla, has 19 letters (in Arabic). The number of suras in the Qur'an is 114 (= 19 x 6): the number of times Basmalla occurs in the Holy Book, etc. The word Allah appears in the Qur'an 2698 (= 19x142) times, etc.

Buddhism speaks of the 12 Golden Rules, Jacob and Ishmael had 12 sons, Elijah built an altar of 12 stones, Christ had 12 apostles, etc.

Thus, numbers come into religious contexts in many instances contexts. Could this be because numbers are as abstract as God and as relevant to human life as religion?

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is emeritus professor of Physics and Humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He's written many books including Variety in Religion and Science: Daily Reflections.