What is a mala (AKA chanting beads)?

Mala beads are a string of beads used to help chant a mantra. It can also be referred to as a prayer bead or a rosary. In Hinduism, the mala typically has 108 beads which is considered a sacred number (more on this later in the article). There is an additional bead called the Guru Bead, which is sometimes called the Meru Bead that hangs perpendicular to the circle of 108 beads and this bead should not be crossed over when chanting. 

Any mantra can be used when chanting with a mala bead such as OM Nama Shivaya or OM Namo Narayanaya. These mantras connect us with a specific aspect of the Divine and when chanted for a number of years, can lead to a state of Self-Realisation. The beads in a traditional mala are Rudraksha seeds or Tulasi wood, but rose wood or crystals can be used in the mala. In the yogic tradition, the beads are used in japa meditation practice, reciting mantras in deep and focused absorption on the Divine.

Why are they used?

Mala’s should be used for their traditional purpose: counting mantras in meditation. They are utilised as a prop to develop concentration on the mantra. This helps the yogi chant the same number of mantras each day by regulating the number of repetitions. A typical number in many spiritual traditions is 16 rounds – that means 16 x 108 = 1,728 mantras per day. The history of mala beads is believed to have originated in India around the eighth century B.C. Many of today’s world religions also use chanting beads to help meditate on and recite prayers. The English word ‘bead’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon words bede and bidden which mean ‘prayer’ and ‘to pray.’ *If you are interested, you can buy malas at our BhaktiShop.

Is It OK to wear them around my neck?

Although western media may encourage you too ware a mala around your neck, most spiritual traditions do not recommend wearing a mala as a fashion statement. Some wondering monks in India wear a mala around their neck. This is due to their vows of renunciation and they would certainly not be wearing the beads just to look ‘spiritual’. The beads are sacred and help the striving aspirant progress on the path towards Self-Realisation and should be given due respect. In the Vishnava tradition, the mala is kept in a little bag to prevent the beads dragging on the floor or touching dirty surfaces. The bag can be attached to the wrist or hung around the neck making it available for chanting throughout the day.

Mala Beads and Mala bag
Mala Bag for Japa

Why does a mala have 108 beads?

Why is there 108 repetitions in a single round of japa? Like many explanations in Hinduism, this question has many answers. Some of the most common are:

  • Grammar: Sanskrit alphabet has 54 letters. Each letter has a masculine (Shiva/Vishnu) and feminine (Shakti/Lakshmi) energy 54 X 2 = 108.
  • Astronomy: The diameter of the sun is 108 times the earth.
  • Desires: There are said to be 108 earthly desires in human beings.
  • Time: It is said we have 108 feelings. 36 related to the past, 36 related to the present, and 36 related to the future.
  • Astrology: There are 12 constellations and 9 arc segments. There are 12 houses and 9 planets 12 X 9 = 108.

To understand the significance of the number 108, we can add the two digits, one and eight, and get number nine, which is the number of ‘completion’ of the one digit series. When we have moved from one to nine, we have traversed all the numerological sequences one step at a time and absorbed all the vibrations of each number in between. This circle of beads represents the path of the sun and the moon across the sky. Ancient Indian astronomers have divided this elliptic into twenty seven equal sections, called ‘nakshatras’. These twenty seven nakshatras have been sub-divided into four steps each, called ‘padas’, taking the total of the steps that the sun and moon take in completing the elliptic to one hundred and eight steps.

What about Tradition?

Tradition demands that when we have completed one turn of the mala and have reached the 109th bead and that is the Guru bead. On reaching the Guru bead, it is also common practice to flip over the mala, and restart from the same bead that we ended at. This represents going backward along the path and also has a spiritual significance with all patterns of nature. The Guru bead represents the summer and the winter solstices, where the sun seems to have stopped in its elliptical path and has reversed its direction. Just like a pendulum that swings back and forth, the movement of the sun also displays a to and fro action. This is why we flip over the mala at the end of a round.

Tulasi Mala beads

In conclusion

When researching the meaning and symbolism of yogic techniques, it is easy to get lost in detail and forget about the reason why we started chanting in the first place. Ultimately, the mathematical mechanics and astrological references only add extra weight to the use of a mala. The reason we chant a mantra is ultimately to build a relationship with the Divine. Even if our mala had 107 beads or 89, if we chant the Divine name with focus and surrender, then the effect could likely to be the same.

Many yogis chant a mantra with no mala at all because they are in a state of ajapa-japa. This is the practice of japa without the mental effort normally needed to repeat the mantra. The mantra just repeats by itself! The advice we give the students on our yoga and meditation courses in Bhakti Marga is to set aside a block of time, such as one hour and chant with focus and devotion (with or without a mala). *Check our events calendar to see upcoming chanting courses.

Mantras are so powerful that they act like a megaphone calling out to God and they allow us to swiftly build a relationship with this Divine personality. There is no difference between the name and the Divine – the more you chant, the more the Divine can manifest within you – so just chant and let the journey unfold. Jai GuruDev!