Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The significance of various numbers in Ancient Indian Knowledge

There is an interesting comment by one of the readers, posted to Arshajnanam, in the context of the story of the sixteen kings. The question is about the significance of the number sixteen and whether it has any relation to the number, four, signifying various concepts like the four Vedas and the four stages in life. The answer to that question, probably, is “no”.

The number four is important, no doubt about it. So are many of the others as given below. As far I understand the reason for picking up sixteen kings is not because of the four Vedas or the four epochs. There are so many other issues with sixteen. For example, there are sixteen purification ceremonies (for Brahmins) – the shoDaSa samskaaraas - starting from conception of the embryo till death. The moon is supposed to have sixteen (and not fifteen) phases (Kala) which is reflected in many of the Tantric rituals.

Most of the numbers starting from 1 (and even zero) have significance associated with them in the ancient Indian sciences. In a philosophical discussion, if some one mentioned the number 1, it may be interpreted as signifying one god or the one absolute truth. Two could mean the two aspects of god, one being the reflection of the other, like the temporal (of humans or the “jeevaatma”) and the absolute (of the ultimate god or the “paramaatma”). Three signifies the three worlds, the three fires in rituals and so on.

Associating concepts with numbers is used widely in ancient Indian knowledge like astronomy and mathematics. Poetry was the medium to record and transmit knowledge. Words meaning elements in nature and concepts in philosophy fit in better than numbers in poems. The following two stories, though esoteric, demonstrate the significance of numbers.

The story of Ashtavakra

We had covered the story of the great scholar with eight bends on his body (Ashtaavakra) in Samskruthi. We mentioned, in that context, a philosophical discussion he had with an opponent by name Vandi. We did not go into the details. Let us go a bit into that now.

Vandi started. “One is the fire which burns in different forms, one is the sun that alights the whole world, …”

To that Ashtaavakra responded. “Two are the gods – Indra and Agni, two are the heavenly sages – Narada and Parvata, ….”

Vandi refuted. “……There are three offerings – savanam- in Yajnas , there are three worlds and ….”.

It went on and on, one upping the other with the significance of the next number. When Ashtaavakra reached thirteen Vandi accepted defeat.

A parody for the story

There is an amusing story which sounds like a parody of the above. It is widely told and retold, but, we are not sure of its origin.

As in the case of Ashtaavakra a great scholar announced his arrival at the palace of a king and challenged all in the kingdom to meet him on a scholarly debate. It was the custom for such scholars to go around, challenge opponents, defeat them and win gifts and fame in the process.

The reputation of the visitor was such that no one in the host kingdom dared to face him in a verbal duel. If they got beaten which was highly likely, they would get into the bad books of the king. The scholars of the land went into quick consultations on the possible way out. Finally, they came up with a plan. They caught hold of the greatest fool around and gave him strict instructions to follow. The first rule was that he should not open his mouth at all. What all he needed to do was to raise one finger more than what was shown by the opponent, in response.

The Debate

Then, they went to the king and revealed their arrangement to him. They convinced the king that that was the only way to face the opponent and retain the prestige of the kingdom. The king realized the situation and gave his approval. Then, they announced in the assembly that the scholar of their choice was, unfortunately, in his period of silence (Mauna Vratam). But, there was no problem. He would meet the visitor in a debate. He would listen to the arguments and respond appropriately by raising his fingers. It used to be quite a normal practice those days for people to observe periods of silence. It even carried a certain respect for such people. The guest was impressed with the arrangement. But, he was confident that he could beat any opponent, silent or not. Against a silent opponent what was the need to talk? He was quite capable of arguing a point through gestures.

The debate started. The visitor raised his finger, probably meaning that god was one. As arranged, the defender looked at the raised ringers with a grim expression and, after giving the right time gap raised his two fingers.

The challenger was not worried with the response. He could easily interpret the response as “the ultimate god may be one, but, is manifested as two – the Jeevaatma and the Paramaatma”. He thought for the appropriate argument against it and raised three of his fingers. He might have meant to say that the real manifestation is as the triumvirate – Brahma, Vishnu and Siva or that the two are manifested throughout the three worlds. It made no difference for the defender.

After a short “studied” pause four fingers of the defending scholar were raised. The visitor looked at the fingers and thought. “Surely he is saying that the god is manifested as three, but, we know about them through the four Vedas”. He was impressed. How profound!

How to refute that argument? He thought deeply and raised five fingers. Soon enough, he was refuted by six raised fingers of his defender. The debate went on and on like that. Each response from the defending scholar made the challenger go deeper and deeper into thought, pondering over all the sciences and scriptures. His respect for the defender increased every time he was refuted ‘appropriately’ by him. Finally, he gave up. He accepted defeat. It was a great privilege for him to meet such a brilliant scholar, well versed in all fields of knowledge!

The king was happy. He rewarded both the challenger and defender with lavish gifts. He did not leave out the supporters of the great scholar. It was not a small matter that the prestige of the whole country was held high by the silent scholar.


Melissa said...

Thanks for a most interesting and entertaining answer

Kunjunny said...

Thanks, Melissa, for the appreciation and encouragement.