Prayer Beads: The Hindu Japa mala


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj .

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The antiquity of the Japa mala, the Hindu rosary, is confirmed by its frequent inclusion in sculpture and painting along with Hindu deities such as Agni, Agastya, Ahirbudhnya, Ardhanarisvara, Bhadrakali, Bhringin, Brhaspati, Gauri, Kamantaka, Lakulisa, Manasa, Parvati, Rati, Risi(s), Shiva, Subramanya, Surya, Uma, and Vāyu, among others. Lesser spirits are believed to dwell in rosary-bead perforations.

A female Shiva sadhu (sadhvi) in Haridwar, India. (Photo: Brett Davies, 2010)
A female Shiva sadhu (sadhvi) in Haridwar, India, holding a Japa mala. (Photo: Brett Davies, 2010)

The Sanskrit term “Japa mala” for the strand of Hindu prayer beads means ‘muttering chaplet’ because of the prayer beads’ function to record the number of prayers uttered.

Japa mala is used as an aid to meditation, each bead counted is an individual prayer or mantra, that keeps the mind from wandering and make it concentrate, without distractions, on the meaning of the prayer being recited. Recitation is usually murmured, or silent. The repetition of a mantra or divine names through the devotional act known as japa yoga

This practice of praying using prayer beads to keep count while reciting, chanting, or mentally repeating a mantra or the name or names of a self-selected deity (ishtadevata) became widespread by the eighth century BC in India.

108-bead mala of  jasper with turquoise howlite and red bamboo coral marker beads.
108-beads Japa mala of jasper with turquoise howlite and red bamboo coral marker beads.

The 108 beads of the Japa mala represents the cosmos derived by multiplying the twelve astrological signs by the nine planets. Hence the Japa malas are usually made from 108 beads, though other numbers, usually divisible by nine, are also used. The total number of beads may vary among different Hindu sects. A common Vaishnavite Japa mala has 108 beads. Shaivites often use 32, or 64. There are many other variants.

27- beads Japa Mala made of Rudraksha seed
27- beads Japa Mala made of Rudraksha seeds.

When worn visibly by a Hindu, the material used for the Japa mala bead can indicate the Hindu deity or sect to whom the Japa mala and its wearer are dedicated.

According to Hindu tradition the correct way to use a mala is to hold it with the right hand, with the thumb flicking one bead to the next, and with the mala draped over the middle finger. Since the index finger represents the ego, the greatest impediment to self-realization, it is considered best to avoid using it when chanting on a mala.

A widely used Hindu Japa mala prayer is the Gāyatrī Japam also called Gāyatrī Mantra, repeated twice a day in the morning and in the evening. It is addressed to Savitr, the Sun before sunrise, the supreme generative force and ruler of the planets, to propitiate hostile planets or angry gods. The greater the number of repetitions, the greater the blessing. The favored number of repetitions are 27, 54, or 108 times, without any break. Through repetition, the reciter strives to accumulate an inner force originating from the Sun, to illuminate his mind, to gain knowledge, energy, and blessings in one’s undertakings.

Materials used in Hindu Japa malas are the most varied of those used among all religions. Most of them are of vegetable origin that include seeds, berries, fruit, nuts, drupes, dried plant stems, and wood. From mineral sources come glass, semiprecious or precious stones, and metals. Materials of animal origin such as bone, ivory, horn, coral, shells and pearls are also used. A Japa mala made of gold or gemstones is considered one hundred times more auspicious and efficacious than any other material. Glass, especially coloured ones simulating precious stones, has also been used for centuries. Today plastic beads that simulate natural minerals are universally used because of their low-cost.

The Hindus believe that each material embodies its own particular properties: Silver and gold fulfill wishes; coral brings wealth; crystal, good luck; pearls, glory; and shell helps one to achieve fame.

Many Hindus fear falling prey to evil eyes that could fall on them and their Japa Mala. To avoid this some members belonging to certain Hindu sects place the Japa mala and the hand holding it into a small cloth bag called gaumukhi, meaning “cow’s mouth” while reciting the prayers.

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