The History of Mala Beads

108 Mala Beads Necklace by Golden Lotus Mala

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". 

What are Mala 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 Beads Terminology

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:

  • Om mani padme hum (the sound that encompasses the universe)
  • Lokha Samasta Sukino Bhavantu (may all beings everywhere know peace)

The History of Mala Beads

    The History of Mala Beads

    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)."

    • Namu or "namas" meaning to devote or dedicate oneself.
    • Buddha means "awakening".
    • Dharma means "right way of living" or "cosmic order".
    • Sangha refers to a community or association.

    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. 

    History of Mala Beads
    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.

    The Significance of 108 Beads

    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." 

    Hindu Meaning of 108

    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.

    Buddhist Meaning of 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).

    The Importance of 108 in Yoga

    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.

    Astrological Meaning of 108

    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.

    A Phenomenal Number

    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.

     

    Different Types of Mala BeadsFrom left to Right: Good Fortune Mala, Rising Phoenix Mala, Follow Your Bliss Mala, Mindful Journey Mala

    Modern Use of Mala Beads

    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:

    • To count or chant a mantra.
    • Provide grounding while meditating.
    • Yoga practice.
    • Gemstone energy for balancing the chakras.
    • Worry beads for anxiety.
    • Healing grief, self-love.
    • Setting positive affirmations
    • Manifesting intentions and goals.
    • and many other uses.

    The 108 Human Passions

    Here is a list of the 108 worldly desires, human passions, or defilements that block the path to enlightenment.  

    1. Abuse
    2. Aggression
    3. Ambition
    4. Anger
    5. Arrogance
    6. Baseness
    7. Being a know-all
    8. Belittlement
    9. Blasphemy
    10. Calculation
    11. Callousness
    12. Capriciousness
    13. Censoriousness
    14. Conceit
    15. Contempt
    16. Cruelty
    17. Cursing
    18. Deceit
    19. Deception
    20. Delusion
    21. Derision
    22. Desire for fame
    23. Deviousness
    24. Dipsomania
    25. Discontent
    26. Discord
    27. Disrespect
    28. Disrespectfulness
    29. Dissatisfaction
    30. Dogmatism
    31. Effrontery
    32. Egoism
    33. Enviousness
    34. Envy
    35. Excessiveness
    36. Faithlessness
    37. Falseness
    38. Gambling
    39. Garrulity
    40. Gluttony
    41. Greed
    42. Greed for money
    43. Grudge
    44. Hard-hearted
    45. Hatred
    46. Haughtiness
    47. Headiness
    48. High-handedness
    49. Hostility
    50. Humiliation
    51. Hurtfulness
    52. Hypocrisy
    53. Ignorance
    54. Imperiousness
    55. Imposture
    56. Impudence
    57. Inattentiveness
    58. Indifference
    59. Ingratitude
    60. Insatiability
    61. Insidiousness
    62. Intolerance
    63. Intransigence
    64. Irresponsibility
    65. Jealousy
    66. Lack of comprehension
    67. Lechery
    68. Lust for domination
    69. Lust for power
    70. Malignancy
    71. Manipulation
    72. Masochism
    73. Mendacity
    74. Mercilessness
    75. Negativity
    76. Obsession
    77. Obstinacy
    78. Oppression
    79. Ostentatious
    80. Pessimism
    81. Prejudice
    82. Presumption
    83. Pretense
    84. Pride
    85. Prodigality
    86. Quarrelsomeness
    87. Rage
    88. Rapacity
    89. Ridicule
    90. Sadism
    91. Sarcasm
    92. Seduction
    93. Self-denial
    94. Self-hatred
    95. Sexual addiction
    96. Shamelessness
    97. Stinginess
    98. Stubbornness
    99. Torment
    100. Tyranny
    101. Unfriendliness
    102. Unyielding
    103. Vanity
    104. Vindictiveness
    105. Violence
    106. Violent temper
    107. Voluptuousness
    108. Wrath