Mala, Japamala, Yoga Beads: The History, Definition and Uses of the "Prayer Garland"
If you've ever seen a Buddhist monk, either in person or on t.v., or been around any number of hipsters chances are you've seen them wearing either what appears to be a necklace or bracelet made up of beads. These "beads" are in fact called mala; more specifically japamala. Japamala is a Sanskrit word which literally means "prayer garland".
As the title of this article would suggest, mala have been and still are referred to by many different names. Some of these names include: mantra beads, meditation beads, Buddhist prayer beads and Hindu rosaries. No matter what name you choose to call them by malas have been used in many cultures and religions all around the world for ages. Over 60% of the world's population utilize some form of prayer bead as part of their spiritual practice. Some of the earliest accounts of beads being utilized in prayer date back to the 8th century B.C. in India. As you may or may not have noticed Buddhist aren't the only religion to utilize prayer beads. In Catholicism prayer beads are called rosaries and Muslims use what is called subha (i.e. misbaha or tespih).
Malas are ancient tools developed to keep the mind focused and clear from thoughts. A malas beads are used to count the number of times a mantra, prayer or intention is repeated. Typically a mala contains 108 counting beads plus one more which is referred to as the the guru (teacher) or meru (mountain) bead. A 108 bead mala can be worn as a necklace or wrapped and worn on the right wrist. Some malas can have as few as 54 beads and in some cases only 27, those with 27 beads are usually worn exclusively as bracelets. The counting beads in a mala are usually between 6mm and 10mm with 8mm being the most common. Indian malas have knots between the beads while those from Tibet, Nepal and China do not. Some Tibetan mala styles have beads called counters attached to each side of them usually accompanied by metal spacer beads that are used for decoration and not to be counted.
Throughout history certain objects (materials) have held spiritual significance. Many of these materials have been incorporated into the construction of the mala's beads. The most common types of beads in mala are made from wood (Sandalwood or Rudraksha), seeds (Bodhi or Lotus), or semi-precious gemstones (jade, agate, amethyst, etc.). In some Tibetan Buddhist traditions beads are sometimes made from animal bones, most commonly yak. Each material used has a specific purpose; chosen for it's properties and affect it will have on the wearer of the mala.
The guru/meru bead is most often made of the same materials as the counting beads however it is larger and it provides a starting and ending point for counting the repetitions of a mantra or prayer. A tassel is connected to the end of the guru bead to finish the mala with a final or terminating knot. Tassels and the cords the malas are strung on are usually made of cotton, silk or nylon string.
Malas have held an important place in the development and practice of spirituality in human history. Utilized all around the world in many different shapes, sizes and colors the mala is a powerful tool to be employed in cultivating spiritual energy. Seeing or wearing a mala can serve as a reminder of your intentions and meditative goals. Choosing a mala to purchase can help in the process of achieving your spiritual and personal aspirations. Whether your goal is ascending to Buddhahood or simply looking stylish a mala from Bonsai Creek is an ideal accessory to accompany you along your journey.