“Can you help me with these rosaries; which one should I buy?” A pretty woman with brunette hair asked me while I was contemplating what to buy. Visit any holy temple in India and you can find small shops outside the perimeter of the shrine with holy, religious and spiritual paraphernalia. She came from Brooklyn to visit Rajasthan. We were standing at colorful kiosks outside the Pushkar temple. We chatted for a bit and I gave her pointers to keep in mind while using Japa-maala–as they are called in India. Jap is a meditative repetition of prayers, maala is a string of beads.
What is a Jap-Maala?
A Japmaala is a string of beads made up of holy materials used for reciting mantras specified number of times. Various religious and spiritual traditions use it with their own specifications of the number of beads, different names and customs.
The origin of japmaala is not exactly known but there is a statue of a holy Hindu man with beads which was excavated dating back to the third century BC.
Purpose and significance of 108
To understand the purpose of prayer beads, we need to first understand why a mantra is chanted a specific number of times. Mantras are the sacred Sanskrit words and hymns created by the ancient wise sages. The sounds and vibrations of these mantras carry energies.
Different mantras are used for activating particular kind of energy in and around you. These mantras are repeated 108 times. Why 108? This number represents the universe. There are many calculations that arrive at this number. One, Vedas tells us our bodies have 108 major nadis (energy channels). Two, the diameter of the sun and the moon multiplied by 108 gives us their approximate distance from the Earth. Three, it is said that there are a total of 108 energy lines converging to form the heart chakra. There are many other astrological and spiritual connections to the number 108. The sound vibration chanted 108 times balance these energies channel within us.
To focus on the mantra being said without worrying about losing the count, Japmaala is used. It is a wonderful tool for meditation.
How to use it?
One should sit facing in the east direction in the morning (west after sunset) at the sacred sanctum designated in your house. The maala is taken in the right hand resting on the second or third finger. We begin from the top where the knot is tied and the beads are brought towards oneself using the thumb each time a mantra is repeated. Do not use the index finger as that represents one’s ego self.
There is one meru or guru bead in the mala – the 109th bead on the top where the mala is tied with a red tassel. The chants begin from the next bead and end at this meru bead. You do not count it. This is where you stop. One also doesn’t pass the meru bead. You flip the mala around and begin going reverse if you need to chant the mantra more times. The reason this bead exist is to concentrate the energies you created by chanting at this point. Else, the sensitive people can become dizzy through the cyclical energies created. These cyclical energies you create represents the birth and death cycles. The aim of life is to escape from this cycle and merge with the universal self. The meru bead represents that universal self which is transcendental -beyond the universe that is represented by 108 beads.
It is not necessary to use a maala to chant mantras. It’s commonly used as it aids in focusing on the mantras’ sound and not worry about the count. Although it does more than that. As the spiritual teacher, Ram Dass said, “It adds another dimension to the practice and it is a ‘kinesthetic cue device’. Without it, you could be doing the mantra and get lost in doing it mechanically. But if you suddenly feel the bead between your fingers, it wakes you up again. Bead by bead – it’s like the steps of a ladder, walking you straight into the Brahman.”
The material of the beads also holds significance. The popular prayer beads are made up of Tulsi (Basil) wood, Rudraksha, Sandalwood, Rosewood, Lotus, Crystal among others.
Each has its own healing power and energies. Lord Shiva deities use Rudraksha beads which are considered to be very powerful in warding off evils. However, one should be careful about buying authentic beads as the original and best ones come only from the Himalayan region. Deforestation led to a near-extinct state of Rudraksha trees.
Tulsi wood maala is used by Lord Vishnu devotees. Sandalwood is believed to promote peace of mind. Using a sandalwood bead mala while chanting is supposed to have restorative effects.
The lotus maala is used especially for the Lakshmi deity to stabilize and improve financial conditions.
However, one can chant any mantras choosing any japmaala.
Do’s and Don’ts
Do not place it on the ground. Keep it in a sacred place within a pouch, tassel on top. Touch it with clean hands. Do not wear the prayer maala as an accessory. The maalas are made up of natural materials, hence, keep away from perfumes, cosmetics, water or any other such damaging constituents. Do not use a broken or damaged mala.
Let the sanctity of holy materials stay high so as to aid you further in your spiritual journey.
May these holy beads aid you in your spiritual quest!