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What is a Mala and Why Does it Have 108 Beads?

Grace Lower | Aug 28, 2018

Different mala beads from buddhism culture.

The mala necklace. That extra-long beaded accessory has the look and feel of exotic beach vibes, yogi-surfer style and mindful spirituality. But wait, what does it actually signify and why does it have 108 beads?

There has been a rise in people wearing mala necklaces in western culture and especially among today’s spiritual-seeking nomads. With the rise of yoga-infused travel and retreat tourism, so too follows an increased prominence of this cultural necklace as a fashion accessory. The funny thing is, most people that wear them are likely unaware to what it fully signifies let alone have used it for it’s traditional use: counting mantras in meditation.

The trend of wearing malas might be ‘new’ to western travelers but actually date back thousands of years. The history of prayer beads is believed to have originated in India around the 8th century B.C.E. The majority of today’s religions also use beaded necklaces to help meditate and recite prayers (mala, rosary, subha, etc). The English word bead even comes from the Anglo-Saxon words bede and bidden which mean ‘prayer’ and ‘to pray’. So there’s definitely nothing new about malas in the global world of fashion!

It’s good to note that you don’t have to be religious to wear or use a mala. It is important though to understand its use and respect its significance. The beads in a traditional mala are rudraksha seeds, produced by several species of large evergreen trees associated with the Hindu deity Shiva. In the yogic tradition the beads are used in japamala practice to recite mantras in meditation (hence the name). A full cycle of 108 repetitions is counted on the mala so the practitioner can focus on the sounds, vibration and meaning of what is being said. A simple and common example of a Sanskrit mantra often chanted at the end of a yoga class would be: om shanti shanti shanti which is a calling out to connect us with inner peace.

The 109th bead that hangs at the bottom of a mala is called either the sumeru, bindu, stupa or guru bead (which often symbolizes the guru from who the student received the mala or mantra, paying homage to the student-guru relationship). It is never counted among the repetitions but used as a marker for as a start and end for a cycle.

So why 108 repetitions? This is a question with hundreds of answers. The number 108 has limitless meanings across various philosophical, scientific and religious beliefs. Some of the most interesting are:

Sanskrit alphabet: There are 54 letters in the Sanskrit alphabet. Each has masculine and feminine, Shiva and Shakti. So, 54 times 2 is 108.

Heart Chakra: The chakras are the intersections of energy lines, and there are said to be a total of 108 energy lines converging to form the heart chakra. One of them, sushumna leads to the crown chakra, and is said to be the path to Self-realization.

Sun and Earth: The diameter of the Sun is 108 times the diameter of the Earth. The distance from the Sun to the Earth is 108 times the diameter of the Sun.

Moon and Earth: The average distance of the Moon from the Earth is 108 times the diameter of the Moon.

Planets and Houses: In astrology, there are 12 houses and 9 planets. 12 times 9 equals 108.

Powers of 1, 2, and 3 in math: 1 to 1st power=1; 2 to 2nd power=4 (2x2); 3 to 3rd power=27 (3x3x3). 1x4x27=108

Harshad number: 108 is a Harshad number, which is an integer divisible by the sum of its digits (Harshad is from Sanskrit, and means "great joy")

River Ganga: The sacred River Ganga spans a longitude of 12 degrees (79 to 91), and a latitude of 9 degrees (22 to 31). 12 times 9 equals 108.

1, 0, and 8: Some say that 1 stands for God or higher Truth, 0 stands for emptiness or completeness in spiritual practice, and 8 stands for infinity or eternity.

Pranayama: If one is able to be so calm in meditation as to have only 108 breaths in a day, enlightenment will come.

Now that you know your basic Mala 101 (er, Mala 108?), hopefully you can find the time with your necklace to practice it’s formal use and have a deeper respect and understanding into why they’re worn – especially if you’re wearing one while traveling through countries where they’re traditionally used. The mala necklace, so much more than a new-age fashion statement or proof of your nomadic worldliness.


    Guest contributor: Grace Lower

About the Author

Grace Lower has a love for all things writing and travel. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.

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