Significance of Eighteen

published on July 28, 2009

By V.N. Gopalakrishnan, Mumbai


There is special significance to Eighteen in Hindu scriptures. The Puranas and important Upa-Puranas are 18 in numbers. There are also 18 Dharmasastras. The epic Mahabharata has 18 Parvans (chapters) so are the Bhagavad Gita, the Song Celestial.

Puranas constitute a number of popular encyclopedic collections of myth, legend and genealogy sacred to the Hindus. Traditionally, a Purana treats five subjects: primary creation of universe, secondary creation after periodical annihilation, genealogy of gods and saints and history of the royal dynasties. Puranas are written almost entirely in narrative couplets in easy, flowing style as epic poems. 

Many ancient notions and traditions are preserved in the Puranas, but they have been so much mixed up with sectarian views, intended to favour the popularity of particular forms of worship or articles of faith. The 18 principal Puranas are often grouped according to whether they exalt Vishnu, Siva or Brahma. The main Puranas are usually regarded as i). the Vishnu, Narada, Bhagavata, Garuda, Padma and Varaha; ii). the Matsya, Kurma, Linga, Shiva, Skanda and Agni; and iii). the Brahmanda, Brahmavaivarta, Markandeya, Bhavisya, Vamana and Brahma Puranas.

There are 18 Upa-Puranas treating similar materials and a large number of Sthala Puranas or Mahatmyams, glorifying temples or sacred places, which are recited in the services of the temples. The Upa-Puranas specified in Devi Bhagavata are: Sanatkumara, Narasimha, Naradiya, Siva, Durvasav, Kapila, Manava, Ausanasa, Varuna, Kalika, Samba, Nandi, Saura, Parasara, Aditya, Maheswara, Bhargava and Vasishta.

Dharmasastras are the ancient body of jurisprudence and is in force subject to legislative modifications in India. Some basic principles of Dharmasastras include the propositions that duties are more significant than rights, that women are under perpetual guardianship of their male relatives and that the king (i.e. the state) must protect the subjects. The Dharmasastra literature exceeds 5,000 titles and is divided into three categories: Sutras, Smritis, and Nibandhas. The Dharmasastra of Manu is the most famous and Manusmriti forms the basis of Hindu Law. It may be noted that the ancient Hindu jurisprudence was introduced to the West by Sir William Jones in the 18th century.

The importance of 18 is best illustrated in Veda Vyasa’s Mahabharata, the greatest epic of the world which in volume is more than eight times the size of Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey put together. In philosophical content, Mahabharata is unparalleled in any other literature of the world. It is valued for its high literary merit and religious inspiration. The Mahabharata contains 100,000 stanzas, divided into 18 Parvans (chapters). The central theme of the epic is the story of the internecine war fought between Pandavas and Kauravas, two related families. The Mahabharata is an exposition on Dharma including the proper conduct of the king, of a warrior, of a man living in times of calamity and a person seeking to attain emancipation from rebirth.

The Mahabharata war was fought with 18 divisions of the army, 11 on the Kaurava side and seven on the Pandavas. The war lasted for 18 days. Finally, it is said that only 18 persons survived the war. The philosophical content of the epic lies concentrated in 18 chapters (chapters 25 to 45 of Bhishma Parvan) of Bhagavad Gita, the song celestial.  It is one of the greatest and most beautiful of the Hindu scriptures. It is written in the form of a dialogue between the warrior prince Arjuna and his friend and charioteer, Krishna who is said to be the earthly incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

Bhagavad Gita consists of 700 Sanskrit verses divided into 18 chapters. Here Lord Krishna defines His concept of the ideal Man in 18 stanzas towards the end of the 2nd chapter. There are again 18 traits which go to constitute the ideal Man.  The popularity of Bhagavad Gita is evident from the commentaries, glossaries and expository books written on it in both ancient and modern times. The earliest commentary that has come down is that of the great philosopher Sankaracharya. Outstanding modern commentaries are those of B.G.Tilak, Sri Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave and Dr. S. Radhakrishnan.

The original name given to the epic Mahabharata by Sage Veda Vyasa was JAYA which occurs in the opening stanzas of Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita. It means victory and the numerical value of this Sanskrit word Jaya is 18. In order to stress the importance of the word at every stage, the number 18 is given a prominent place throughout the Hindu scriptures. The theme of all the scriptures is the victory of the Higher Self over the lower self, the victory of the divine over the undivine, the triumph of Good over the forces of evil and finally the ultimate victory of Dharma over Adharma.

It is believed that Kerala, the land of natural scenes and entrancing beauty was brought into being by Parasurama, an incarnation of God who founded 18 temples for Dharma Sastha in 18 different places in Kerala. Sastha, the son of Harihara (Shiva and Vishnu) is called Ayyappa. Swami Ayyappa, the presiding deity of the famous hill shrine of Sabarimala is seen in a meditative posture of an ascetic seated in Padmasana and showing Gnanamudra. The temple has 18 holy steps and the pilgrims have to ascend these steps to get a darshan of the deity!! From these, the number 18 is found significant to the Hindus.

(The author is the Director, Indo-Gulf Consulting, a PR consultancy firm in Mumbai. He can be contacted on

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