The significance of beaded jewelry has been a part of humanity since the beginnings of our time here on Earth. At the very southern tip of Africa in a cave known as Blombos, nassarius shell beads were discovered to have been strung on a cord and worn as decorative ornaments. These beads are believed to be from around 70,000 BCE and have provided archaeologists insights into technological advancements and the comprehension of self-awareness in early humans.
Through centuries our fascination and love of beads have carried on. It was around the 8th century BCE when the ancient seers of India began to use beads to assist with their meditation and prayers. Continuing with the practice of self-awareness and a desire to seek higher knowledge, the beads would come to be known as "mala beads" or "prayer beads".
A mala is a string of beads used traditionally to count mantra (prayer) while meditating. Mala beads are also worn as a necklace or bracelet to accompany meditation practice or for spiritual growth and other personal reasons.
Mala beads are often made with any combination of natural gemstones, crystal, pearls, wood, or seed beads. A tassel is often attached to the beads, some are adorned with talismans or amulets depending on one's personal preference or tradition. For more information on the technical aspects of a mala check out our guide to choosing mala beads.
Mala is a word from the Sanskrit language of ancient India and Nepal, it translates to "garland" in English, just as the word rosary which is a Latin term similarly means "garland of roses".
The word Bead as we know it comes from the Anglo-Saxon term "bede" which means "prayer" or "to pray".
The Tassel on a mala is a representation of the lotus flower, a symbol of the higher consciousness.
The Sanskrit word Japa means "to utter in a low voice, repeat internally" and is the meditative repetition of a mantra. Japa is a practice found in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism.
A Mantra is a group of words, a syllable, or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation. Some mantras are ancient Sanskrit words believed to have spiritual energy and may not have a literal meaning. An example of a Sanskrit mantra is:
There is a text from the 4th century BCE known as the Mokugenji Sutra that tells the story of a king named Haruri who sought Siddhartha Gautama's teaching of a way by which the wisdom of Buddhism could be shared with his people. According to the Sutra, the Buddha replied:
King, if you want to eliminate earthly desires and to put an end to their suffering, make a circular string of 108 beads made from the seeds of the Mokugenji tree. Hold it always to yourself. Recite "Namu Buddha - Namu Dharma - Namu Sangha." Count one bead with each recitation.
In decoding this text we learn that the Buddha suggested King Haruri craft a string of beads from seeds, then use it to recite mantra by counting each bead. The Mokugenji is a type of tree with a seed known as the soapberry that grows in warm regions such as India and South Asia.
The Sanskrit mantra loosely translates as "devotion to awakening (or enlightenment), the dedication to the right way of living, a devotion to the community (or all beings)."
It was from the Mokugenji Sutra that the number of 108 beads in a mala originated, but there are many suggestions that the Buddha derived the importance of the number 108 to ancient times, more on that below.
Pictured Left: 18th Century painting of woman using a mala at an altar in India. Center: Saint Vincent Ferrer's prayer beads painted in the year 1437. Right: Emperor Taizong from China holding his mala, circa 1592.
Although the number of 108 beads on a mala is the same in both Hinduism and Buddhism, the symbolism for that number is different. Hinduism draws on the cosmic significance of the number itself, while Buddhism refers to the number of passions to which one is striving to "put an end."
Mathematicians of Hindu Vedic cosmology believe 108 is the basis of creation, a number that represents the universe and the wholeness of existence and the ultimate consciousness is that we are all one and the same.
In Hinduism, the number 108 represents units of the distance between our body and the God within us. According to yogic practice, there are 108 sacred sites throughout India, 108 ancient Vedic texts, and 108 sacred life force points in the body.
A mantra is chanted 108 times because each chant represents a spiritual journey from our material body towards the highest spiritual self. With each mantra chant bringing you 1 unit closer to the God source within us.
The Sanskrit alphabet has 54 letters, each letter a Shakti (feminine) and Shiva (masculine) quality, multiply 54 by 2 = 108.
In Buddhism, there are 108 human passions that impede enlightenment (see list below). Some suggest there are 108 feelings, with 36 related to the past, 36 to the present, and 36 to the future.
Some further Buddhist calculations are of the six senses and sensations: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, and the mind. Then multiply the three types of sensation: neutral, pleasant, and unpleasant. (6 x 3 = 18)
Take the eighteen senses and sensations then apply them to the three timelines in which we receive them: past, present, and future. (18 x 3 = 54)
Throughout the timeline, there are two ways of handling the sensations. (2 x 54 = 108).
Throughout the year there are instances when Yogis will complete a sequence of 108 Sun Salutations, this yoga tradition is performed to welcome change, such as the passings of seasons from spring to summer, to welcome a new year, or during a time of adversity for reflection and to respect and bring harmony.
There are 12 houses and 9 planets in Astrology. Multiplication of 12 times 9 equals 108. The number 108 also connects the Sun, Moon, and Earth with the average distance of the Sun and Moon to Earth is 108 times their individual diameters.
Monks and meditators of all kinds use mala beads to count the number of mantras or prayers they recite. It's no surprise such phenomena based on one number has given rise to many types of spiritual significance.
In recent years, it has become common for non-religious individuals to wear mala beads as fashion accessories, with the beads having differing significance without religious affiliation. Some different uses of mala beads are:
Here is a list of the 108 worldly desires, human passions, or defilements that block the path to enlightenment.