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

Grace Lower | Mar 28, 2022

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 what does it actually signify and why does it have 108 beads? 

Why Are Mala Beads Used?

There has been a rise in people in western culture, especially among today’s spiritual-seeking nomads, wearing mala necklaces. With the rise of wellness travel, so too follows an increased popularity of this cultural necklace as a fashion accessory. However, most people who wear them are likely unaware of what it fully signifies let alone have used it for its traditional purpose: counting mantras in meditation. 

The trend of wearing malas might be “new” to western travelers, but it actually dates back thousands of years. The history of prayer beads is believed to have originated in India around the eighth century B.C.E. Many of today’s religions also use beaded necklaces — mala, rosary, subha — to help meditate and recite prayers. The English word bead even comes from the Anglo-Saxon words bede and bidden which mean “prayer" and “to pray.” 

Is It Okay to Wear Mala Beads?

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, reciting mantras in meditation.

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.

Why Does a Mala Necklace Have 108 Beads?

So why 108 repetitions? This is a question with hundreds of answers. The number 108 has seemingly 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 multiplied by 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 believed 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 nine planets. Twelve multiplied by nine equals 108.
  • Powers of 1, 2, and 3: In math, 1 to the 1st power equals 1, and 2 to the 2nd power (or 2 x 2) equals 4, and 3 to the 3rd power (3 x 3 x 3) equals 27. Therefore, 1 x 4 x 27 = 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 nine degrees (22° to 31°). Again, if you follow the math, 12 multiplied by nine equals 108.
  • 1, 0, and 8: Some say that one stands for God or higher Truth, zero stands for emptiness or completeness in spiritual practice, and eight 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.

There is a 109th bead that hangs at the bottom of a mala, called either the sumeru, bindu, stupa, or guru bead. This often symbolizes the guru from whom 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 a start and end of a cycle.

What’s Next?

Now that you know your basic Mala 101 (er, Mala 108?), hopefully you can find the time with your necklace to practice its formal use and have a deeper respect and understanding of why they’re worn, especially if you’re wearing one while traveling through countries where they’re traditionally used. 

Clearly, the mala necklace is so much more than a new-age fashion statement or proof of your nomadic worldliness. As you explore, whether for wellness travel, to learn about other cultures, or simply to enjoy the variety of fashions you find in other regions, protect your trip and health with travel insurance. Learn more about Seven Corners’ plans before your next adventure.

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