A Brief History of Prayer Beads

The pitter-patter of supplicants fingering prayer beads has echoed throughout the halls of history. On nearly every continent, men and women of diverse religious beliefs have fingered prayer beads to keep track of their prayers, meditations, or mantras. These sacred beads have hung from the belts of Hindu monks and medieval priests, graced the necks of kings and noblemen, and draped through the fingers of children and noble ladies.

Hinduism is often cited as the origin of prayer beads, though this is by no means a definitive assessment. Typically made from natural materials, Hindumalas(garlands) consist of 108 beads. Different sects use different types of wood. The Shaivites fashion their beads from rudraksha (a large evergreen tree which grows in the foothills of the Himalayas), while the Vaisnavites use wood from the tulsi plant (ocimum sanctum, orholy basil). These sacred garlands are used to count repetitions of the names of favored deities.

Rudraksha Japa Mala 108 by Japa Malas on Etsy

(mantra garlands), which are also made with 108 beads.The number 108 is significant in Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which originate in India. Hindus use the japa mala to render 108 repetitions of a mantra. Buddhists regard the number as the statements made by the Buddha or it could represent the number of earthly temptations to overcome before Nirvana can be achieved.

There are as many materials used for japa malas as there are Buddhist countries, though the most traditional are made out of seeds or wood from the Bodhi tree, the most sacred tree under which Buddha achieved his enlightenment.

The counting of prayers by Christians dates back as far as the fourth century, AD, where Paul of Thebes (Egypt, c. 234-347 AD) moved 300 pebbles from one pile to another while reciting his daily prayers. Later, pebbles in bags were replaced by 150 beads on a string. Thesepaternosterswere used to count the recitation of Our Fathers, the laymans prayer for communion with God for the remission of sins. Over time, crosses and crucifixes were added, and the string of beads was enclosed into a loop for easier wear. By the 15thcentury pilgrims, monks, knights, and even kings made a practice of carrying or wearing rosaries made from dried berries, amber, coral, crystal, or aromatic woods.

Today, rosaries and malas are still in use and can be purchased or handmade. Beads for Catholic rosaries are fashioned out of colored plastic, olive wood, colored glass, rose quartz, amethyst, black onyx, and/or pearls. Buddhists continue to favor animal bone, seeds from the Bodhi tree or lotus plant, carnelian, amethyst, or sandalwood. Hindu malas are most often made from seeds.

Whether you make a rosary, a mala, or your own customized set of prayer beads, you too can enter into the sacred practice of using beads on your path toward enlightenment.

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Very Informative article and a lovely comparison between prayer beads of different cultures. Though Prayer beads are supposed to aid in keeping a count of the number of chants recited, it is also used to promote blood circulation and aid in the body organs being in harmony with one another as chanting Gods name was supposed to be a therapy by itself.Practitioners of Accupressure and Sujok often press portions of finger tips with rounded objects to relieve pressure and promote circulation

Thanks Divya for your invaluable and additional info on what prayer beads also mean to Hindus.

Divya, thank you so much for adding your knowledge here. I have done extensive research on prayer beads and know that you are absolutely right! So many of the ancient rituals have lost their full value, lost in translation. Peace to you on this day. Thank you for reading and commenting!

I learned so much about prayer beads from this informative article, Angela. I have always wondered about the origin of prayer beads but have never delved into their history myself. Thanks for doing this homework for me!

Thank you, Naomi! Im so glad you learned some new things! It really is such a fascinating subject!

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