Prayer beads date back to sometime around 500BC and according to most historians the point of origin was somewhere in India. Prayer beads spread out from there to the Middle East, China and Japan. Prayer beads have various names, originally known in India as Mala, [Sanskrit, meaning garland], Misbah by the Muslims and Sufi’s, and Worry beads in Greece. In the Catholic tradition, the beads were carved into roses, from which the word rosary evolved.

Prayer beads in India came from the ancient Hindu Vedic tradition which had great reverence for sound. The Sanskrit language and its alphabet were both considered to have divine origin, and are therefore considered sacred. It is said that all creation manifested from these cosmic vibrations, which are represented by the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet and their corresponding sounds. OM represents the universal sound and the origin of all other sound vibration and therefore the manifest universe. Chanting the sounds of the Sanskrit letters and various words used as sacred mantras [sounds that take one beyond the mind] are used to realize yoga (union) with God, Absolute Being.

Malas appeared in the Buddhist tradition in Asia some time after the development of the Mahayana [The Great Vehicle Path].  There is a sutra [thread of knowledge] in which a King prays to the Buddha for a simple practice to help ease his suffering from various difficulties and the Buddha responded by telling him to string 108 seeds and recite the three part refuge prayer upon them.

Hindus who converted to the Buddhist faith brought their malas with them from India to China, Japan, and eventually Tibet. The mala was one of the main tools used to focus one’s mind and devotional aspirations. These “garlands” of sacred sound vibration were recited over and over. The mala itself becomes empowered with spiritual energy as a result of these mantric recitations and further aids ones practice. This devotional practice became part of Buddhism.  

Buddhist mala beads are commonly made from seeds of the Bodhi tree. In Tibet,  malas often include semi-precious stones. Turquoise, amethyst, lapis lazuli, and coral are often used with copper, nickel, silver and brass together with yak bone for their healing properties. (link to traditional properties of gemstone article)

In general the purpose of all mala beads is to help create peace and harmony for the individual, the community and the environment, all of which are manifestations of Absolute Being through the original OM vibration.

The semi-precious gemstones often used in malas and jewelry have significance for many people worldwide. It is believed that turquoise brings prosperity, good fortune, strength and helps overcome illness. Native Americans have praised the qualities of turquoise since the time of the Aztecs. The Navajos believed it could help appease the “Wind Spirits” and the Tibetans use turquoise in their ritual religious objects as well as jewelry, also to temper the “Winds”.  Turquoise was esteemed by Tibetan Shamans for both its spiritual and physical healing and protective qualities. Ancient manuscripts from India, Afghanistan and the Middle East also refer to the healing effects of wearing turquoise and other gemstones.

Malas and Prayer Beads
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