Beads in general have had a significant influence in human history. Experts say that the oldest beads found can be about 420 000 years old. Throughout history people have used beads as amulets, talismans, status symbols, spiritual tools and a form of currency.
According to historians, the point of origins of prayer beads was around 500BC somewhere in India from where they spread out to the Middle East, China, Japan and Tibet. These beads are known by various names - Mala in India (Sanskrit, meaning garland), Misbah by the Muslims and Sufi’s, and Worry beads in Greece, and rosary or paternoster in Catholic tradition.
Prayer beads in India originate from the ancient Hindu Vedic system that considered sound to be sacred. The Sanskrit language with its alphabet were both considered to have divine origin. According to Vedic tradition all creation manifested from these cosmic vibrations and sounds of the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet. Om is the universal sound and the origin of all other sound vibration and therefore the manifest universe. Chanting the sounds of the Sanskrit letters and certain words used as sacred mantras served a purpose of reaching yoga (union) with God, Absolute Being.
Hindus who converted to the Buddhist faith brought their malas with them from India to China, Japan, and eventually Tibet where these beads became very important tools used in meditation and focusing on devotional aspirations. The malas, “garlands” of sacred sound vibration, were recited over and over, and they became empowered with spiritual energy that profoundly impacted ones practice. This devotional practice became part of Buddhism.
Buddhist mala beads are often made from seeds of the Bodhi tree. The majority of malas are made from wood or seeds, red sandalwood and rudraksha (seeds of lotus flower) and they are considered to be auspicious for most rites. Almost all have 108 even-sized beads, although there are varied numbered specified in religious texts for particular practices.
The Hindu Goddess Sarasvati is a Goddess of learning and also the alphabet. Therefore, her Mala has 50 beads, each of them representing the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet.
In Tibet, malas often include semi-precious stones. Turquoise, amethyst, lapis lazuli, and coral are often used with copper, nickel, silver and brass together with yak bone for their healing properties. The selection of mala beads is a very personal choice, although semi- precious stones are advisable, since this is like Offering jewels to The Buddha each time you recite your mantras. It is believed that the vibrations can be ‘stored’ in a mala. The general belief is that energy can be transferred from you to an object, transmuted within that object with the vibration of sound, and returned to you for healing and guidance. So, therefore it is believed that the effects of mantras increase with repetition.
Richer members of society and high ranking lamas could afford precious stone beads such as rubies, mountain crystal, turquoise, agate, coral, pearl, amber, conch or ivory. Stones were often selected to be appropriate to a specific deity. For instance, turquoise was used for Green Tara, red coral or carnelian for Vajrayogini and lapis lazuli for the Medicine Buddha. Sacred texts also prescribed different type of stones for different categories of rites associated with increasing, appeasing, controlling and destroying. For instance, to increase life-span, knowledge or religious merit, the best was said to be Bodhi or lotus seed, gold, bronze or copper, gold, silver. For peaceful rites, to clear obstacles related to illness, for instance, crystal, mother-of-pearl, moonstone, conch shell and ivory were recommended.
Why do malas have 108 beads?
The number 108 has a very powerful significance in the science and spirituality of India. To be more precise, the number 108 has a multi-dimensional meaning throughout history. There are 108 letters in the Sanskrit alphabet. Vedic mathematicians measured the Sun’s diameter to be 108 times larger than the diameter of the Earth, measured the distance between the Sun and Earth to be 108 times the Sun’s diameter. The earth cycle is supposed to be of 2160 years = 20 x 108. In the yogic tradition, we find 108 sacred texts of the Upanishads, 108 sacred holy sites in India, and 108 marma (acupressure) points on the body. In the bhakti yoga tradition stories are told of 108 gopis dancing with Krishna in Vrindavan, and there are 108 names of the goddess. An Indian legend speaks how the goddess of beauty, Lakshmi, was born of a rose that consisted of 108 rose petals. In tantric yoga, 108 energy lines are described throughout the body and they all converge and connect at the heart chakra.
Rosaries in Christian and Catholic Faith
Not to break the human story telling tradition, the stories about the prayer beads also vary - there are slightly different ideas on how they came about, how they got their names, etc. It is little bit similar to the children´s telephone game. For instance, I found quite a few interesting versions about the origins of Christian and Catholic rosaries. According to one source, in the Catholic tradition, the beads were carved into roses, from which the word rosary evolved. Another source indicates that the Sanskrit word Japa (meaning repetition) was involved. Namely, in India prayer beads are also referred to as Japa Mala, the word Japa meaning repetition. So, when the Roman Empire was trading with India, they mistook the word japa for jap, the Latin word for “rose.” Therefore, when these prayer beads came to be used in Rome, they were called rosarium (a latin word), or rosary in English. The prayer beads were called Rosarium, because of its association with the Virgin Mary, for whom the rose is an attribute. Perhaps it is just a lucky coincidence to match with details of Catholic faith.
By now it seems to me that the telephone game is in full swing, since I am starting to lose count of different stories. I also read about Saint Dominic who had a visitation by the Blessed Virgin Mary after which he introduced a rosary to Christians. And Thomas of Cantimpre should be mentioned as well, for he is the one who first used the name rosary, derived from the word rosarium or "rose garden," as the faithful used strings of rose petals and beads made of crushed rose petals to count prayers. Ireland is known as the origin for the Christian rosary in the 9th Century. However, the use of the rosary was officially approved by the church in the 16th Century when Pope Leo X gave the rosary approbation.
Rosaries usually contain either 50 or 59 beads and are used to count the prayers recited in honor of the Virgin Mary. When using a rosary - which is divided into groups of ten beads, called decades - in traditional practice, a Catholic repeats the "Our Father" and "Hail Mary" prayers as she marks off the beads with the fingers while meditating on the life of Jesus and Mary.
In the late 1980s, an Episcopalian priest created an Anglican rosary of 33 beads representing the years of Jesus' life on earth. There's also a non-denominational variation known as the "Earth Rosary." Consisting of four sets of 13 beads, which indicate the thirteen weeks in each of the four seasons, the Earth Rosary has a total of 52 beads, representing each week of the year.
Muslims began using prayer beads named subha, misbaha or tespih around 17th-century. These prayer beads usually have 99 counting beads and one long bead at the end. Subha beads are used for the practice of zikr, the recitation of the 99 attributes or names of God.
Kompoloi or worry beads have been used in Greek and Cypriot culture since the middle of the 20th century. The kompoloi have an odd number of beads between 17-23 and are used as an talisman or amulet.
Below: Russian Orthodox 33 Bead Chotki Greek man with Kompoloi
Why wear a mala?
Humans love stories through which they give meaning to events and things. These stories develop and change through time and human perception, making us sometimes question as to which one of them is exactly the right one. Perhaps it doesn´t matter that much, for the source of inspiration is always the same, pointing these eclectic pieces toward one single overarching story with a higher purpose. And this seems to also apply to prayer beads, malas, rosaries, paternosters or whichever we choose to call them. Though, a little different in number of beads, design, and legends about their origin - they all have the same function to aid with prayer and meditation and remind their user of their belief.
Monk at Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo: Monika Tartu
Boudhanath at sunrise. Photo: Monika Tartu
Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal. Faithful come here every morning and evening to circle the Boudhanath stupa and say their prayers and mantras as they use their prayer malas. The positive energy here is incredibly strong. It must be that the countless prayer beads here, that have been recited over and over again, contribute to this energy field.
ABOUT THIS BLOG
Welcome! :) My name is Monika. I am interested in crystals, different cultures, and good stories. As a linguist I have always been fascinated with semiotics and symbols, and how people of different cultures interpret them.