What Is a Mala?
The word ‘Mala’ is from the Sanskrit word meaning ‘garland’. A mala is a string of ‘prayer beads’, probably first used centuries before the birth of Christ in India in the practice of Hinduism. Later, the use of the mala was adopted by Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam – and even Catholicism* in their religious practices.
The main purpose of a mala is as a meditation tool when praying or chanting – to keep the mind focused on meditation and not distracted by counting the repetition of prayers / mantras. Sanskrit mantras are counted in sets of 27, 54 or 108 repetitions – which is why the malas we now know have 108 ‘counting’ beads.
Over time, several mala designs have developed – each with the 108 beads: traditionally referred to as: Tibetan, Zen, Mantra and 108. Some designs have ‘markers’ that break the mala into subsets of beads. Traditional designs also incorporate a large meru (mountain) or guru bead which provides the starting point and ending point for the mala – and for many, the intention of the mala itself.
Malas are made out of many different materials: seeds, wooden beads, crystals and semi-precious stones - and the properties of the beads used are said to have specific energetic effects. Different spiritual and religious traditions have historically used beads of a specific material to incorporate the energy of that material into their practice.
Today, malas are being adopted by ‘Western’ practitioners to assist in our yoga and meditation practices. They are beautiful ‘totems’ of the commitment we have made to deepening our practices and gaining a better understanding of ourselves and the Universe.
* It is believed that the Romans ‘mistranslated’ the word Japa (meaning recitation, and the adjective used in India to describe malas) to be ‘jap’ or rose – and from there the Catholic rosary was born.