The exact origins of the use of a sequence or string of beads to count mantras and as a device for meditation are fallen to history. Most authorities concur that the earliest use of prayer beads originates from India in the 8th century B.C.E. The word mala in Sanskrit translates approximately as 'garland' and this word is associated with both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The method of using beads in religious devotion can be traced from India, then to Asia and then this practice travels through the middle east and to medieval Europe. Some Native Americans employed beaded belts and bracelets (known as wampum) as a form of payment, a device for memory, as diplomatic or ceremonial tools and as a way to pass on their knowledge, rituals and tradition. However, Native Americans are not known to have used them as a daily meditation tool like the yoga mala beads or Buddhist rosary.
A beaded mala is almost a universal spiritual technology and has differences in most of the world's major religions - from the Christian rosary to the Arabic tasbih. Malas have recently entered mainstream culture in the form of power beads worn on the wrist by everyone from pop celebrities to teenage girls.
This ancient meditation tool has been used by innumerable people throughout the ages to help them focus their minds, attain deep meditative states, relieve stress and worry and provide a functional tool for counting prayers or recitations in their spiritual practice.
The promise and appeal of mala beads is easy to understand. Just pick up a strand of these beads and roll them through your fingertips. The effect on the mind, body and spirit is instantly detectable. You feel the smooth surface of the beads glide and roll, almost by themselves, and as you touch each bead in the strand, your mind calms, your breathing slows, and you mind focuses on the simple act of moving your fingers from bead to the next bead. When this act is linked to a powerful recitation of a Sanskrit mantra and with the intent and focus of a spiritual practice, the true power of mala beads becomes unveiled.
The common form of a mala comes with 108 counting beads which can be broken into a mala bracelet of 27 by counting beads (this is more common with Tibetan Buddhist malas). A traditional mala should be terminated by a larger bead (known as the "guru" or "meru" bead) and with a tassel. The "meru" bead as it is known in Sanskrit, is placed at the end of the counting beads to indicate when the cycle of 108 or 27 mantras has been completed. Traditionally, when the "meru" or "guru" bead has been reached, the mala is turned around and the mantra repetition is reversed across the mala beads until the practitioner reaches the "meru" bead again, at which time this process is repeated until the meditation is finished. It is considered disrespectful to touch or cross over the "meru" bead as it is said to contain the power and energy created by the chanting the mantras, and it also represents one's teachers. In the Hindu faith, the middle finger and thumb are the only ones allowed to count the mala, most other faiths place no restrictions on which fingers or hands are used.
There are many ways to use mala beads, and we encourage you to explore to find which technique is the one that calls you the most. The most important thing to remember is the intent and love that you have when you are practicing japa meditation.
Check out the video below for more information on the history and myths of mala beads: