What is a Mala?
Mala style necklaces are pretty popular lately. The long beaded necklace with a tassel can be seen on fashion pages all over the internet and are being sold everywhere from department stores to high end jewelry stores.
But malas or other forms of prayer beads are much more than just a fashion accessory. The original purpose of prayer beads was to count prayers. The use of beads to count prayers may have originated with the Hindus in India somewhere between 185 B.C. – 320 A.D.
Although the number, arrangement and materials of prayer beads are different with each religion, one link that seems to run between religions is the use of multiples of three in the number of beads used. The Buddhist triad (Buddha, the doctrine, and the community), the Roman Catholic Trinity (the Father, Son and Holy Ghost). Buddhist and Hindu malas have 108 beads. Muslim strands include 99 beads and Roman Catholic rosaries have 150.
The ideas that these strands of beads embody are universal. The very act of pausing on a bead brings you back to the center of where and who you are.
The circular form of the necklace has significance as well; the cyclical flow of nature and of the human seasons: birth, life, death and rebirth. Many cultures have honored circles as enclosed places of mystical protection, symbolically bringing people together to ward off the advent of danger.
The Hindu mala is composed of 108 beads, with an extra meru bead and a tassel marking the beginning of the cycle. The word meru recalls the mythological holy mountain at the centre of the Hindu cosmic universe.
Hindu malas are used for the repetition of a mantra or divine name. By constantly invoking holy names and syllables the devotee is brought closer to the presence of God and in so doing, discovers the true nature of humankind, which is pure, eternal and free.
The ultimate goal of every practicing Buddhist is Buddhahood or nirvana, a permanent and supreme state of bliss which ends the constant cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Chanting and contemplation with prayer beads is one of the principal routes to this form of liberation.
The central prayer chanted in conjunction with the mala in Tibetan Buddhism is Om Mani Padme Hum (O thou jewel in the Lotus, hail).
Buddhist prayer beads consist of 108 beads, corresponding to the number of sinful desires that can be overcome by recitation with the beads. The circle of beads is marked by a tassel and guru bead which is a reminder to the devotee of the importance of having a spiritual teacher. Gu means “dark” and ru means “light”. The guru leads you out of spiritual darkness and towards enlightenment.
You don’t have to be religious however to wear and use a mala or strand of prayer beads. If you’re purchasing a finished mala, make sure it is one that really speaks to you and to the way you wish to use it. If you’re creating your own mala the act of choosing and stringing the beads should be done keeping in mind your intention for your finished mala. Even if you don’t use your mala for prayer or meditation simply wearing it will be a reminder to seek calm and stillness in your heart wherever you are.
“Deliberately holding the beads can in itself be the prayer, especially when the mind seems unable to formulate any meaningful thoughts. The chain of beads can reach far beyond itself, bonding us with a higher power…” ~ B. Pennington
When we are still, we can perceive things as they are.
When we are still – when the mind is still,
when we are not making things crazy –
there is clarity. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future,
concentrate the mind on the present moment. ~ Buddha
Parts of this post are extracted from the book “Beads of Faith”, Gray Henry & Susannah Marriott
I’ve put together a tutorial for making your own mala which you can find on my website: