(picture from http://www.japamalabeads.com/)
Mala beads - those strings of beads you see in the little basket at your studio, or wrapped around peoples wrists or subtly tucked under their collars. You've seen them in other Eastern practices such as on Buddhist monks, or Indian renuciates, even clicking through peoples fingers as you watch an episode of PBS. But what are they? What do they really represent?
I found this beautiful article in Tricycle, Winter 06 that offered a lovely explanation of mala beads as it relates to the Buddhist tradition. Yogic philosophy is not that far removed from the Buddhist traditions and my research into both have found more similarities than differences.
From Tricycle, Winter 2006 (Clark Strand): "'All beads are worry beads - from the Pope's rosary all the way down to those little wrist malas...' worn by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. People of every religious tradition will claim that their beads are for praying - for appealing to a higher power, for collecting the spirit or concentrating the mind - and while this is indisputably true, that is not their primary purpose. Beads are for worry. They answer a human need so basic it actually precedes a religious consciousness - and that is to fret over things...The difference between the Buddhist mala and the various Western-style rosaries is simply that it makes this explicit in the symbolism of its beads."
"The message of the Buddhist mala is 'Don't worry about things; worry about the fact that you are so worried all the time, and address the foot of that."
This is from Wikipedia:
Mantras are often repeated hundreds or even thousands of times. The mala is used so that one can think about the meaning of the mantra as it is chanted rather than thinking about counting the repetitions. One mantra is usually said for every bead, turning the thumb clockwise around each bead, though some traditions or practices may call for counterclockwise or specific finger usage. When arriving at the head bead [the largest bead with the tassel], one turns the mala around and then goes back in the same direction. This makes using the mala easier as the beads will not be so tight on the string when you use them.
The 109th bead on a mala is called the sumeru, bindu, stupa, or guru bead. Counting should always begin with a bead next to the sumeru. In the Hindu, Vedic tradition, if more than one mala of repetitions is to be done, one changes directions when reaching the sumeru rather than crossing it. The sumeru thus becomes the static point on the mala.
"The larger...bead at the end of the mala is the equivalent of the crucifix on a Catholic rosary. It is the teacher - and the teaching - we keep coming back to with every cycle we pray." (Tricycle, Clark Strand; Winter 2006, pg 40):
There are numerous explanations why there are 108 beads, with the number 108 bearing special religious significance in a number of Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
Hindu tradition holds that the correct way to use a mala is with the right hand, with the thumb flicking one bead to the next, and with the mala draped over the middle finger. The index finger represents ego, the greatest impediment to Self-Realization, so it is considered best avoided (as with the ego) when chanting on a mala.
Malas are also used in many forms of Mahayana Buddhism, often with a lesser number of beads (usually a divisor of 108). In Pure Land Buddhism, for instance, 27 bead malas are common. In China such malas are named "Shu-Zhu". These shorter malas are sometimes called 'prostration rosaries', because they are easier to hold when enumerating repeated prostrations. In Tibetan Buddhism malas are also 108 beads: one mala counts as 100 mantras, and the 8 extra are meant to be dedicated to all sentient beings (the practice as a whole is dedicated at its end as well).
A wide variety of materials are used to make mala beads. In Hinduism, Vaishnavas generally use the Japamaala of Tulsi beads. Some Tibetan Buddhist traditions call for the use of bone (animal, most commonly yak) or sometimes human, the bones of past Lamas being the most valuable. Others use wood or seeds from the Bodhi tree or seeds of the Lotus plant. Semi-precious stones such as carnelian and amethyst may be used, as well. The most common and least expensive material is sandalwood. In Buddhist Tantra or Vajrayana, materials and colors of the beads can relate to a specific practice.
Care of the beads
"Every Buddhist tradition stresses that the beads must be cared for as if they were a precious sutra or a Buddhist robe...considering we use them to recite mantras. Then there is the fact...the mala is meant to be worn when not is use. Thus to use a mala is both to take up a spiritual text and to clothe onself in the truth of the Buddhist way. (Tricycle, Clark Strand; Winter 2006, pg 40.)
This was another interesting article on the meaning and use of malas in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions: Mala Beads
If you are interested in what different types of beads mean or would like to obtain your own worry beads, Japa Mala Beads has some great descriptions. A Google search will turn up other sites as well.