Malas are a great tool in Mantra Yoga. They help you keep count of your repetitions. But that’s not all, there is a lot associated with malas, with their care and upkeep and their significance in your practice.
A mala is a string of 108 beads of either wood, seeds, pearls or semi-precious/precious stones. It has a 109th bead which is called the Meru bead which sits at the head of the mala. It is said to be that bead that retains all the energy of your practice.
The history of malas or prayer beads is a long and elaborate one. Most of the main religions in our world use prayer beads – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. Over 66% of the world’s population employ them in their prayer and recitations.
The first mention of malas seems to be around 800 B.C.E. They first originated in India and were used as a counter as they didn’t have clocks back then. Keeping count is of utmost importance in Japa yoga, as there are certain levels you can attain by the number of repetitions you complete.
Buddhism originated in India, and as Buddha started out his life as a Hindu, he was probably very used to using malas in his practices of Mantra. So naturally, his students followed suit as Mantra repetition is such a core practice in Buddhism. Once Buddhism took hold, it spread out it’s use of malas to China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet.
The rosary – the catholic churches version of the mala – a half mala having 54 beads – came into being sometime between the 12th and the 15th century. The name rosary came from the Sanskrit word ‘Japa’ – the practice of reciting Mantras. ‘Japa’ in Sanskrit means ‘china rose’. The idea that each recitation of a Mantra is like creating a garland of roses is in play. The word rosary comes from the Latin name ‘rosarium’ which means rose garden. In 1520, Pope Leo X gave the ‘rosary’ official approval in the catholic church.
When using a mala, it is important to never cross the Meru bead. It’s an old custom. The Meru bead is supposed to symbolize either Buddha Nature, the Guru principle, or the Divine. To show our respect, we turn around and go the other way. In this way, we never touch the Meru bead and in time great energy builds up in the bead. This is why the best malas are all made of natural substances like wood, seed, pearl or semi-precious stones which can hold the energy.
In time, when that energy is gathered there – if someone is sick you can place the Meru bead on their forehead at the third eye and ‘give’ them the energy of your practice. A lovely thing to do and very healing.
Each tradition has its own way of putting together their malas. Shaivists of Hinduism, who worship Shiva, prefer their malas to be made with Rudraksha seeds. Vaishnavism of Hinduism, who worship Vishnu, like the Tulsi beads. Buddhist’s often like the seeds from the Bodhi tree or semi-precious stones like Lapis Lazuli or Carnelian and sometimes bone.
Another important point to note is that it is vital you don’t touch the beads with your second finger – the one you point with – as this finger is considered the ego finger. So we just hold that one away while we turn the beads with our thumb while the beads rest on our third finger.
It is also advised not to let anyone else touch your mala as your energy is stored in the beads. It should never be left on the floor, stepped on or over and it is helpful if you keep them on your puja or somewhere special when you are not using or wearing them.
It is said that when a mala breaks that you have burnt off some of your karma by your practice. It is looked upon as something to be celebrated. So when your mala breaks – which it will if you use it, just get it re-strung with a jeweller or whomever you bought it from.
Since I’ve had a hard time finding malas that I like personally, I started making my own. You can find some of them for purchase on my website at: www.peaceshaktiyoga.com
I also make custom malas, so if you’d like one, just email me and I can make it for you. All malas are made while chanting Sanskrit Mantras and made with love.
The mantra to make a mala your own after you get one, or it comes back after being re-strung is:
THE SEED SOUND FOR THE ESOTERIC CHAKRA – THE HRIT PADMA
Say it on each bead and then you can go on and start chanting your Mantras on it.
Aly M. Dunne