The Importance Of Religious Numbers

I hate math. I don’t understand it. Math says A=πr2, but I know pies are round. The Trinity Doctrine tells me I must believe 3=1. Math says I can’t. Math says I need evidence and verifiable facts; religion says all I need is faith. Mathematics can prove the existence of imaginary numbers (√-1) and entities; religious followers need only to believe in them. Religion and math are thus in conflict, though there are those who try to nudge each into the other’s territory.

My UH colleagues in the math division claim mathematics offers a beauty, power and clarity all its own. So does religion. Religion and math make odd bedfellows, however, and blurring the boundaries between the two have produced strange offspring. Numerology — the belief that numbers are a code that, when deciphered, reveals deeper meaning — is an example.

Pythagoras (ca. 570 to ca. 490 BCE) was a great mathematician, and in fact had his own religious following. Thankfully there are no “Pythagoras Lives!” bumper stickers or silly decals like “PYTHAGORAS>i” on cars or T-shirts. Still, it seems Pythagoras, his followers and even others in different cultures believed numbers convey the real nature of things. If so, what insights do numbers provide?

Here’s a brief and terribly incomplete list of what some numbers symbolize:

1) One truth (Dharma), one God (Allah), one reality (Dao).

2) Duality (good/evil), contrast (yin/yang), tension (dharma/maya).

3) Encompasses beginning, middle and end. Various religions have triads (Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity).

4) Good in western religions, symbolizing totality and togetherness (directions, seasons, Gospels). Bad in East-Asian religions, as it is homonymic with the word for “death” in Chinese, Korean and Japanese languages. As a result many hospitals, hotels and apartments will not have a fourth floor.

5) There are lots of fives (five elements in Daoism, five precepts in Buddhism, etc.) and 10s (10 gurus in Sikhism, 10 avatars in Hinduism, etc.) in religion.

Pythagoras thought 10 was the number of perfection. Indeed, because of his influence, we are accustomed to the idea of a scale from one to 10.

In antiquity, most people were illiterate. The fingers on hands probably functioned as a mnemonic device to help people remember teachings or practices — not coincidentally, there are two sets of five Pillars in Islam, and there are 10 Commandments. Read the lists carefully (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5) and you’ll notice there are actually more than 10, but we don’t have enough digits on our hands for them. (This didn’t stop me. Being a boy had its advantages — I could count to 11.)

6) One of the most feared numbers of all is 666. The Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible states 666 is the number of the beast, and throughout history, trying to decipher whom the number is referring to has fascinated people. From the scholarly point of view, the number 666 refers to Nero Caesar, the Roman emperor who ruthlessly persecuted Christians in the first century. In Hebrew, letters were assigned numerical value. If the Greek spelling of Nero Caesar is transliterated into Hebrew (nrwn qsr), the numerical equivalent is 666. (nrwn qsr: 50+200+6+50+100+60+200) Despite what scholars think, many still insist 666 is the numerical value of mother-in-law.

7) Seven symbolizes completion or perfection: seven gods of good luck in Japan; the baby Buddha took seven steps at birth and declared himself free from samsara; Muslims throw 49 stones at Satan; seven days of creation; Shavuot follows 49 days after Passover. In Hinduism, a wedding ritual is not complete until the bride and groom take seven steps around a sacred fire and recite seven vows to seal their marriage.

8) The Chinese love the number 8. It is common to see car license plates with lots of 8s. Eight is the highest single-digit yin number (odd numbers are yang) and part of its power comes from its homonymic quality in Cantonese. The word for eight is bat, which sounds like the word for luck and prosperity — fat/fut (as in Gung Hee Fat Choy). 8FATFAT8 does not refer to a bar for big people. The Beijing Olympics officially began eight minutes after 8 p.m. on the eighth day of the eighth month in the year 2008.

9) In a base 10 system, nine is the final number, thus it symbolizes the highest attainment: 99 names of Allah, cloud 9, nine lives. In Chinese religions, 9 is the highest single-digit yang number and is homonymic with longevity in Cantonese. It is therefore good luck to give newly married couples monetary gifts that end in 9.

Religion is bizarre and wonderful enough without help from mathematics. But some believe blending the two provides order and meaning to our lives, and gives us access to the gods. In the end, the answers to the square root of -1 in mathematics, the number of gods that exist in religion and the value numerology has for our lives may all be the same number.

One more number: This is the 13th installment of this column. Enough said.