Is numerology a science or a myth?

MK**

All the universe is made up of numbers, and all human beings have to deal with numbers from the time of their inception till death. Numbers vibrate and have their own energy the way electrons have in atoms. We do not feel them does not mean these vibrations do not exist.

This is what you will find numerologists say in describing ‘one of the very basic sciences of existence’. It is also dubbed as a ‘divine science’ unfathomable by humans. Numerologists refer to mystical properties of some numbers, how some numbers repeat in one’s life much beyond explanation and how they have themselves observed numbers working according to a providential plan.

Before we examine the question, ‘Is numerology a science?’, let us briefly capture the essence of numerology, starting with its history in brief.

The history of numerology

Associating numbers with life events seems to have started many thousand years back, the same way as humans later started associating major happenings with the calendar days and celestial events. Greeks, Chaldeans and Hebrews are credited with an early form of numerical association with human life-events. China, Greece, Japan and India also developed their own ways for this but not to that extent. In India, though astrology developed as a major occult practice, numbers were seldom associated with occult the way numerology does. Much before the term ‘numerology’ was coined, arithmancy, isopsephy, gematria etc were used in Europe for assigning numerical values to names, etc.

Number associations have been part of all civilizations. In one of the most ancient Indian scriptures, Rig Veda, the number 7 seems to have found a speciality: Agni has 7 wives and produces 7 flames while Surya rides the chariot pulled by 7 horses. The world is supposed to have 7 parts. For prayers, Hindus recite holy mantras 108 times (and one reason given for this is that there are 27 major constellations, each with 4 stages; so, in a cycle of 108 recitations, one connects to all of them). Christians assigned 888 to Christ and 666 to the devil, by associating their names with Greek numerals.

Pythagoras*1 is supposed to be the person who gave birth to the western numerology we know today; the term ‘numerology’ however arose much later. His followers, called Pythagoreans, further experimented on numbers and associated mysticism with them.

Pythagoras was able to establish a relationship between the length of the string on a musical instrument with the nature of notes it produces. That led Pythagoras to associate vibration with numbers, a concept that gave numbers a heavenly property. Pythagoreans also arranged dots in geometrical shapes and tried to find specialities in numbers that came out of such arrangements (e.g. 1, 3, 6 and 10 were called triangular numbers as they can be obtained by creating triangles in which the dots decrease by 1 at each level from base to the top). These hitherto unobserved properties fascinated people and they accepted them as something divine.

Pythagoreans didn’t stop at examining numbers but they associated them with whatever mattered to humans. Their interpretation of numbers in relation to basic human properties was interesting: 2 represented female properties; 3 depicted male properties; so 5 (=2+3) represented marriage! Since the first four numbers when added make 10, this was called the perfect number. Many such principles were evolved to assign numbers to shapes, character and behaviour, planets, colours, etc.

For relating numbers with planetary bodies, Pythagoreans even thought of two planets that could not be observed by the human eye, so that their total number became 9 (6 planets, the sun, taken as a planet +2).

The interest in number mysticism ebbed but did not die down in Europe, though Christianity for a long time disapproved of it. The modern numerology seems to have got a fillip with a series of books written by L. Dow Balliett in late 1880’s asserting how numbers had vibrations, and musical and colour properties. Many books were written on Numerology after that. It again got a major boost when Balliett’s student, Juno Jordan, presented it emphatically in 1965. After that, the flight of imagination (observations, if we believe numerologists) led to numbers being associated with alphabets, days of the week, deities, colours, celestial bodies and so on.

The present-day numerologist considers himself in the same league as an astrologer. He uses all sorts of electronic gadgetry to create number patterns and make associations. He also offers guidance on the use of right numbers for material attainments, and solutions for harmful effects of discordance among numbers.

The conceptual basis of numerology

Numerology is the belief that numbers play a part in human destiny. If so, a study of numbers should be able to give a reason for good or bad occurrences in human life, assess a person’s strengths and weaknesses, predict future occurrences and suggest remedies against harmful effect of certain numbers.

Numerologists have developed codes for calculating definitive numbers, which can look very complicated and mystical to the uninitiated. Any number can be reduced to one of the numbers from 1 to 9 by repeatedly adding up the numbers. So, 18th December 1978 becomes 1+8+1+2+1+9+7+8= 37, which then becomes 3+7=10, which in turn gets reduced to 1+0=1.

Numbers are supposed to have specific properties. Some numbers are negative and some, positive. Some numbers beyond 10 are called Master Numbers (11, 22, 33). Numbers are also assigned masculine and feminine, light and dark, and good and evil properties. Let’s take the number 1. It belongs to the Sun and so the Sun-god; it represents independent, focused and innovative mind; people of this number are lucky in business or profession; its colours are gold, brown, orange and yellow; ruby is its lucky gemstone – the stone of 4 carats, cast in gold, is prescribed to be worn in right ring finger on Sundays.

Names of persons, places, companies, houses and everything else can be converted into numbers. The most common way is the one in which each alphabet in Roman has a rising number till 9 and then the cycle is repeated again from 1 to 9. So, A is 1, B is 2, I is 9 and J is 1.

The birth date and the birth name (converted into numbers) are two most important determinants of a person’s fate, according to all branches of ‘modern’ numerology. The date of birth totalled and reduced to a number of single digit is called Life Path Number. Other important numbers are Soul Urge Number, Expression Number, and Personality Number. Some numbers take a lot of calculation, and some are arrived at using specially created charts.

The present-day numerology tends to believe that numbers have a sort of mystical power and they vibrate with different frequencies. These frequencies decide their attributes and how they impact different people in different ways – because all things that have a bearing on humans including their bodies, objects, colours, foods and planets vibrate. It is also stated that numbers are guided by ‘the law of attraction’. Some numerologists see an uncanny relationship of numbers with astrology and Tarot. Numerologists also argue that our taking birth on a particular date and with a particular name is no coincidence – it is destined and has a bearing on our entire life’s happenings, and the numbers give us the key to read that.

Is numerology a science indeed?

The areas in which numerology is supposed to be especially precise are assessing the personality of a person, helping to choose one’s life partner, finding the best career path, and knowing one’s lucky days and numbers.

Numerologists talk of many ‘branches’ of numerology, depending on their origin, and the way they calculate numbers and draw inferences. The main branch, of course, is the Pythagorean one. The Chaldean branch also has a good following. Gematria is an ancient Hebrew system of number-name association. The Kabbalah branch takes elements from the Hebrew as well as Pythagorean systems. Some talk of one branch that lays emphasis on the Sun as Sun numerology. I have also come across Holistic Numerology to emphasize that all branches have some weaknesses and by taking their best points, a modern numerologist can make more precise predictions/ assessments.

Though mathematics and astronomy evolved quite well in ancient India (which led to the evolution of astrology), numerology did not take roots in India. Yet some tout of their expertise of ancient Indian numerology (they call it Indian, Tamil or Vedic numerology). Interestingly, they use English alphabets and Gregorian calendar for numerological calculations – the entities that arose much later than the Vedas.

Realities behind numbers

Numbers exist everywhere and they relate to a person from the day he takes birth, maybe before that. His date of birth and his age, the class in which he studies, the days that come in his life either on their own or by his choosing: days of exams, getting jobs, promotions, marriage, birth of children… The numbers on his birth certificate, driving licence, personal ID, telephone, house address, bank account. One can also relate numbers belonging to his family and friends to his own. Maybe numbers of his office or business name/ address, his tours, his berths on the plane, the rooms of the hotels he checks in, and so on.

When you also assign numbers to alphabets, nothing remains on earth that cannot be represented in numbers. When you assign numbers to celestial bodies, things even beyond the earth can be represented in numbers. Numerologists perhaps are right when they say, everything can be reduced to numbers. Well, almost everything!

Numbers in modern mathematics are based on the decimal system ( or base 10) in which there are nine digits representing numbers that increase by one, and a null number, zero (numerology either does not recognize it or gives it a negative connotation). This number system is not unique or of universal existence; it is purely a human invention which stays with us because this was adopted by advanced ancient civilizations such as Indians, Mayans, etc. This was more practical than some systems that had too few (even 3) or too many (up to 60) numerals. Before zero was discovered, numbers were written in an additive way, having signs for numbers above 9. For example, in Roman, C represents 100 and M, 1000. So, 1101 is written as MCI.

Certain numbers have an astronomical basis. These include the days in a year (because the earth revolves around the sun in a fixed number of days), days (the time span between two sun-rises), lunar month (the time taken by the moon to revolve around the earth) or month. These are not integers but have an approximate value (a year has 365.24 days, so after 3 years of 365 days, there has to be leap year of 366 days). Many astronomical measurements are also not constant, mainly because the celestial bodies take an elliptical path, not a circular one, but are represented by an approximate constant integer.

Humans also invented units to measure distances, weights etc. So, there is a certain distance from the earth to the sun, which can be measured in km. The number would be different in miles or light-years.

Numbers behave interestingly. When numbers are repeated with a fixed or dynamic separation, series develop. Some series are highly fascinating, even baffling. Thousands of formulae in physics, astronomy, trigonometry, geometry, etc give results that may look unbelievable to the non-mathematicians.

Individual numbers (not part of a series) too have many properties, and some numbers are unique in that respect. In fact, some mathematicians spend their whole lives studying special numbers. We all have studied pi (π) and the Pythagoras theorem in middle standards. You might have overlooked these interesting properties of common numbers that we come across daily: all numbers that can be fully divided by 3 have the sum of their digits divisible by 3; those fully divisible by 9 have the sum of their digits 9; the difference between 2-digit numbers when reversed is divisible by 9 and the divider is always the difference between the digits (e.g. 75-57= 9×2. This 2 is the difference between 7 and 5). Some such properties of numbers gave rise to a branch of ancient mathematics, called Vedic mathematics, which can make some calculations very fast.

Number coincidences

Since numbers are everywhere, they result in coincidences that, when they occur too often, might convince us to believe that a particular number is correlated with our life in a significant way.

Let us take an example: A person is born in January. His marriage takes place in January, his first child is borne in January, he gets his first job in January, his father dies in January and he meets with a serious accident in January. Does that mean, January has a special meaning in his life? Let’s analyze: There are only 12 months in a year. That person, in his 50’s, should have had hundreds of events that can be said important: his passing graduation, breaking up with a girlfriend, meeting his lover (who is now his wife), birth of his second child, his wife falling ill, getting job and promotions, failing in a venture… If you put them in different months, these will be distributed nearly equally – depending on what you consider as important. Moreover, if he fell sick many times in January, that could be due to his being susceptible to an infectious disease that happens in his area in the cold season. But in his obsession with January, he will discard happenings of other months as minor. One can go on and on, but let’s do with one example. The same may happen with a day of the week or similar-looking calendar years (e.g. major lucky things happening in 1967, 77, 87, 97).

When you reduce all alphabets and numbers to just 9 digits, the probability of coincidences becomes huge, because now you are choosing from thousands of events or things and categorizing them into just 9.

Numerological associations

Numerology draws its meat from associating numbers with one’s character, and objects and events in one’s life, and then deriving conclusions based on a set of assumptions.

The first problem in such associations is with the number system itself. Zero has been declared a non-number; ironically, if there is any mystical ‘number’ in human knowledge, it is zero, and zero fits in any numeral system (binary, tertiary, decimal, etc). Why should the decimal system be taken as sacrosanct for calculations, why not the binary system – the one so much part of our lives after computers came into being? Decimals have been ignored in numerology though these are as important (sometimes more) than integers. Ignoring or accepting them can result in different numbers.

Many numbers used in numerology have hardy any logical basis. For example, months in the Gregorian calendar. There are highly arbitrary. The dates in the earlier Julian calendar were advanced by 10 days in 1582 by a decree. Different number of days in different months and the leap year make the calendar itself a bit eccentric. The number of months kept changing before stabilizing to 12; the 7 days for a week started by Babylonians who had a fixation with the number 7. The division of the day into 24 hours, each hour into 60 minutes etc seem to have evolved due to easy divisibility of such numbers into the smallest fragments (2, 3). So, assigning a significance to months and week days in terms of number does not look logical.

Then, why should Sunday be assigned 1, why not 2? Why not assign 1 to March, the month of the equinox? By what imagination has the number 9 anything to do with the planet Mars – a planet that revolves around the Sun without disturbing us on the earth?

Why not use multiplication to get a number: that should capture the values of the constituent numbers in a strong way, rather than a much weaker addition?

Units that you choose for measurement can make a big difference. In a numerology discussion, the distances of the earth with planets were used to prove a point. The unit taken was days. Why not hours or light year? A simple example will show how the numerological numbers change when we change the unit of measurement: 1.97m is nearly 2m (so it has a numerological value of 2) but if you ignore the decimal, it is 1m (value=1). You change the scale to cm and you get 197cm, which is more precise. This will have numerological value 8. Which one do you choose?

Number-alphabet associations in numerology

Associating numbers with the alphabet is the most irrational but a germane feature of numerology. The English alphabets were associated with numbers by Pythagoreans arbitrarily: they started at 1, ended at 9 and repeated the numbers in the same sequence. So, A=1, B=2, C=3, etc. There could have been hundreds of other ways to associate the alphabets with numbers. Then why just Roman letters? Has English been chosen by the laws of creation as so special that only its alphabets have numerical values and in a particular sequence? English alphabets have also changed over time. How about names that were not given in English at the time of birth? Names in some languages (e.g. Tamil) cannot be precisely written in English – what about those sounds? Why not a phonetic association, which looks more natural?

One important number in numerology, heart’s desire number, is calculated by using only the vowels from the full birth name. The softness of vowels as compared to consonants might have been the reason for its association with heart (figuratively, the place where feelings reside). Does that not look a bit too far-fetched?

Unlike the Pythagorean numerology, Gematria numerology assigns numbers 1 to 7 to Hebrew alphabets and the numbers are repeated, omitting 8 and 9. Chaldean numerology, which started in ancient Babylon, uses numbers 1 to 8 for alphabets, taking 9 as a holy number. In this branch of numerology, the commonly used name (not the birth name) is considered important.

One answer usually given to probing questions about the association of numbers with alphabets is that like taking birth, one has no control over his name and so it is providential – being given by the will of God. On the other hand, some numerologists say that the baby in the womb selects his own name and transmits it to his parents who are compelled to give the child that name, and that makes the birth name providential in a different way! If a name were to have a special occult significance with the person’s luck, character etc, the name that is used more often (adopted name/ shortened name/ official name/ most popular version of the name/ nickname) should be more appropriate. However, the main branch of numerology insists that the birth name is what matters.

Mystical properties of numbers

Mysticism often arises when people do not have answers to probing questions, and they give winding interpretations that cannot be proved or disproved easily.

It is said that before magnet was discovered, stories of ghosts and lost souls were common in areas where magnetic rocks were found, as the stones pulled people by their shoes (horse-shoes were nailed into shoe soles to make them last longer). People even visualized faces of their dead relatives on those rocks!

When Pythagoras found a certain relationship between the height, base and hypotenuse of a right triangle, he was naturally fascinated by it, and it was also natural that he thought there was something mystical about it. But then, he and his followers started imagining various types of associations with numbers much beyond the association between three arms of a triangle.

Similarly, at one stage, it was found that elements existed in the form of a triad: the properties of three elements increased or decreased in a pattern. In fact, this helped discover some elements that were so far hidden from human sight but their adjacent elements had been discovered. This gave 3 a special place among the numbers. Though this could have been perfectly OK if ‘triads’ were an absolute reality, this nature of rising atomic properties did not last long when a large number of atoms were discovered.

To the uninitiated, numbers may sometimes look really magical. For example, you could ask a semi-literate person to take a rope, measure it and draw a circle from a point using this rope as the radius. With the knowledge of pi (π), you will be able to tell the measurement of the circumference of the circle, whatever length of rope he chooses. After that, the choice is yours: you can teach him the formula that converts radius to circumference, or you can mystify it. You can make a story around this number that it was given to you by a seer. One or two stories about how someone got rich overnight using this secret formula – and the man might be floored.

In one branch of numerology, 11 has been given special significance because it is the first number after 10. It is also told that its digits total to 2. 11 is the smallest integer that has 1 (representing uniqueness) and 2 (representing duality). People with 9 as their main number are supposed to be idealist (and if you tell 10 people that they are idealist, there are chances that 8 of them would agree). Similar, long winding, attributes can be found attached to other numbers.

The association of numbers with different objects gives rise to many possibilities for mystical interpretations. So, days, alphabets, vibrations, colours, planets, Zodiac signs and deities together can lead to a web of mystic interpretations. When exaggeration, selective ‘evidences’ and jargon are used, these get further mystified.

Encyclopaedia Britannica has to say this on number mysticism:

Many of the coincidences listed here are exaggerations, lies, elaborations chosen from an infinite range of potential targets or the result of a hidden selective process. Still, a few of the coincidences are quite startling. Although rational explanations exist, a true believer cannot be convinced. It is in this fertile territory that number mysticism thrives.

Read a book on numerology or check numerologists’ websites and you will find that mysticism has been deliberately introduced to make the gullible get convinced about the divinity of numerology.

Please read carefully this statement about ancient Indian numerology, taken from a website*2, full of made-up stories about Vedic numerology. Note that the link at the end of it tries to bait the reader deeper into the imagined specialization:

This form of Numerology uses Vedic Squares which have numerous geometrical arrangements, patterns, and designs, also seen in some of the Islamic arts as well. It signifies a divine connection between an event and a number which helps in making predictions. But it is a difficult task to calculate the name numbers as they involve complex calculations based on the frequency of sound that each number emits. Link: Know other types of Tamil numerology with calculation methods and Tamil numerology charts.

Superstitions have a big role in people getting hooked to numbers. Some numbers are supposed to be lucky or unlucky, and the notion of such numbers is accepted by young people from their parents and society. This seems to be reinforced as time passes.

Among popular notions, 13 is considered an unlucky number across the world – even race cars are not assigned this number, buildings do not have a 13th floor, people do not marry on the 13th! When the 13th of a month falls on a Friday, it is considered so unlucky that some people do not even go for a drive. In China, 4 is considered unlucky as it sounds like death in Chinese. In India, people avoid 420 in their house numbers etc if they can, because section 420 in the Indian penal law happens to deal with cheats.

Religions also give importance or discard certain days and numbers. This is based more on mythology or tradition or a religious diktat rather than logic. Fridays and the days of Eid are especially important for Muslims. Christmas, Good Friday and Ester happen on particular dates and days. Traditional Hindus observe fasting and do special prayers on days and dates that are supposed to relate to specific deities according to the lunar calendar. Many Muslims in South Asia think the number 786 represents Allah or the almighty. For Budhists, 8 is sacred, probably because it represents the symmetrically arranged 8 petals of lotus, the flower supposed to represent purity. Numbers 18 and 36 have a special significance in Judaism. Such associations serve a religious purpose but do create an aura of mysticism around numbers, days, months, etc.

Evidence in favour of numerology…or the lack of it

Numerologists claim that they have been able to predict major events, and their guidance to people has been very useful. Rationalists rebut them, saying that they cunningly choose incidences that favour them.

A popular numerology website*2 says, numbers 1,3,5 and 6 belong to Sun, Jupiter, Mercury and Venus respectively. Each of them, in turn, has an influence on many Zodiac signs. The site goes on to prove that the dates of birth of some of the richest men on the earth (Bill Gates: 28; Warren Buffet: 30; Lakshmi Mittal: 15; Mukesh Ambani: 19) add up to one of these numbers. Another proof comes from the fact that the numbers derived from the names of the top companies of the world also are among these four numbers (Google:1; GE:5; Microsoft:3; China Mobile:1).

Look at the range of numbers (four numbers out of 9) that are given the ‘richness’ property. Look how persons (around 10 out of hundreds), the part of their name (not full but only first name) and companies (just 10 out of hundreds, and a chosen part of the company’s name) have been picked up as examples. Mathematics can easily demystify this by showing that the probability of numbers/ names of 500 richest persons and Fortune 500 companies adding up to one of these four numbers is as much as the totals adding up to another set of four numbers.

One of the most popular examples cited in favour of occult is the seeming parallels between Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy, two US Presidents. Similarities are seen in their years of election, the fact that both were assassinated, names of their assassinators, first or last names of some people associated with them, some places associated with them and their assassinators, and so on. In the first instance, these similarities look puzzling. However, soon you realize how the points of similarity have been chosen selectively and exaggerated. In addition, some of these are folklore and have been proven to be factually incorrect.

At least two studies have investigated numerological claims, both producing negative results: one in the UK in 1993, and the other in 2012 in Israel. The UK experiment involved 96 people and found no correlation between number 7 and a self-reported psychic ability. The experiment in Israel involved a professional numerologist and 200 participants, and was designed to examine the validity of a numerological diagnosis of learning disabilities, like dyslexia and ADHD, and autism. The experiment was repeated twice and still produced negative results.

The final word…

Human life is full of numbers. The importance of numbers has risen even more after people started getting roll numbers, IDs in number formats, numbers in addresses, PIN/ area codes, phone numbers, security PINs and so on. Life in today’s data-driven world is full of numbers.

These numbers certainly have a purpose and are important in life. It is also true in a way that when these numbers are not chosen by us, we get them providentially. A belief that numbers (and other identities) have the potential to influence our lives beyond their stated objective, may also have merit in certain contexts.

Fascination with numbers is fine, and it goes well with the inquisitive and experimental human spirit. Let mathematicians reveal to us the beauty behind numbers. Creating mysticism around numbers and then using this for one’s gain does not serve humanity. That only makes people superstitious, fatalists and lazy. It makes people fail as they seek shortcuts where there are none. It takes us to darkness from light, much against the spirit of tamaso ma jyotirgamay*3.

Footnotes:

  • *1: Pythagoras lived in Greece in 6th century BC. He discovered what was later known as the Pythagorean theorem, which states that in a right triangle, the square of the length of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. He studied numbers in detail and when he found fascinating patterns among numbers, he started believing that numbers were at the heart of everything. This all looked magical, and that resulted in a good following not only among mathematicians but common people. He believed that numbers had musical properties. He is also known for his eccentricities and weird beliefs. He did not allow his followers to eat beans, and thought that the sun revolved around the earth.
  • *2: Web resources have been linked where they would contribute to the discussion. I have avoided linking or identifying sources where the link is presented in a critical light.
  • *3: tamaso ma jyotirgamaya (Sanskrit, taken from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad): [Lead us] from darkness to light.

**About the author: This article has been contributed by MK. He does not like to call himself rationalist but insists on scrutiny of apparent myths as well as what are supposed to be immutable scientific facts. Please don’t take the views of the author as the views of Raag Delhi.

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