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A Japamala or mala (Sanskrit:माला; mālā, meaning garland) is a string of prayer beads commonly used by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and some Sikhs for the spiritual practice known in Sanskrit as japa. It is usually made from 108 beads, though other numbers are also used. Malas are used for keeping count while reciting, chanting, or mentally repeating a mantra or the name or names of God.
Mantras are typically repeated hundreds or even thousands of times. The mala is used so that one can focus on the meaning or sound of the mantra rather than counting its repetitions. One repetition is usually said for each bead while turning the thumb clockwise around each bead, though some traditions or practices may call for counterclockwise motion or specific finger usage. When arriving at the head bead, one turns the mala around and then goes back in the opposing direction. There are typically knots between each bead. This makes using the mala easier as the beads will not be as tight on the string when used.
If more than 108 repetitions are to be done, then sometimes in Tibetan traditions grains of rice are counted out before the chanting begins and one grain is placed in a bowl for each 108 repetitions. Each time a full mala of repetitions has been completed, one grain of rice is removed from the bowl. Often, practitioners add extra counters to their malas, usually in strings of ten. These may be positioned differently depending on the tradition; for example some traditions place these strings after every 10th bead. This is an alternative way to keep track of large numbers, sometimes going into the hundreds of thousands, and even millions.
The 109th bead on a mala is called the sumeru, bindu, stupa, or guru bead. Counting should always begin with a bead next to the sumeru. In the Hindu, Vedic tradition, if more than one mala of repetitions is to be done, one changes directions when reaching the sumeru rather than crossing it.
- 27 Constellations x 4 Padas (parts) = 108
- 12 Zodiac Houses x 9 Planets = 108
- Upanishads or the Scriptures of the Vedas = 108
Thus, when we recite or recount number 108, we are actually remembering the entire universe. This reminds us of the fact that the universal self is omnipresent, that is the innate nature of the self.
Variations in usage
Some Hindu traditions hold that the correct way to use a mala is with the right hand, with the thumb flicking one bead to the next, and with the mala draped over the middle finger. The index finger represents ego, the greatest impediment to self-realization, so it is considered best avoided when chanting on a mala.
In northeast India, particularly those in the Shakta traditions in West Bengal and Assam, the mala is often draped on the ring finger of the right hand, with beads moved by the middle finger with aid of the thumb and avoiding the use of the index finger. However, draping the mala over the middle finger and using the thumb to move the beads is also acceptable in these regions.
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A wide variety of materials are used to make mala beads. Beads made from the seeds of the rudraksha tree are considered sacred by Saivas, devotees of Siva, while beads made from the wood of the tulsi plant are used and revered by Vaishnavas, followers of Vishnu. Other common beads include wood or seeds from the sandalwood tree or the Bodhi tree, and seeds of the Lotus plant. Some Tibetan Buddhist traditions call for the use of animal bone (most commonly yak), those of past Lamas being the most valuable. Semiprecious stones such as carnelian and amethyst may be used, as well. In Hindu Tantra, as well as Buddhist Tantra (or Vajrayana), materials and colors of the beads can relate to a specific practice.
- Apte, V.S. (1965), The Practical Sanskrit Dictionary (Fourth revised and enlarged ed.), Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, ISBN 81-208-0567-4
- Dubin, L.S. (2009). Prayer Beads. In C. Kenney (Ed.), The History of Beads: From 100,000 B.C. to the Present (Revised and Expanded Edition) (pp. 79–92). New York: Abrams Publishing.
- Henry, G., & Marriott, S. (2008). Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality Using Rosaries, Prayer Beads and Sacred Words. Fons Vitae Publishing.
- Untracht, O. (2008). Rosaries of India. In H. Whelchel (Ed.), Traditional Jewelry of India (pp. 69–73). New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc.
- Wiley, E., & Shannon, M.O. (2002). A String and a Prayer: How to Make and Use Prayer Beads. Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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