Prayer Beads, Mindfulness and Meditation
Updated: Sep 26, 2019
Prayer Beads have been around for centuries. They have been used in most major religious practices including Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Bahai, Bon and Buddhism, and even the ancient Egyptians gave them a go. They come in a variety of forms and their significance varies across different faiths, but their usage and role as powerful instruments for mindfulness, meditation and spiritual practice remain pretty much constant. Yet, plenty of people don't seem to know a lot about prayer beads, and I get asked a ton of questions about mine, which I usually wear around my neck or wrist. Here's what you need to know about them, and if you can relate to the info here, then perhaps it's time you bring home your own set of prayer beads, and incorporate them in your practice.
Why do people use prayer beads?
Prayer beads assist people in reciting and counting specific prayers, mantras or chants. By using them, one can keep track of breath counts, affirmations, or focused messaging while meditating or practicing mindfulness. They provide structure to the practise, as they are easy to roll down with two fingers, without causing much distraction or conscious effort. It's a very useful and practical instrument for people who are uneducated and therefore unable to count.
Prayer beads also symbolise ones commitment to spiritual life, and the string that runs through them epitomises the interconnectedness of all sentient beings and the Universe. Other than that, prayer beads provide comfort to practitioners in tough times by being a tangible reminder of Divine presence, or a higher consciousness.
What does a bead mean anyway?
Beads are one of the oldest form of ornamentation, after bone, feathers and shells, and they have been found in some of the most ancient excavation sites. Adornment apart, beads are also one of the oldest accompaniments in prayer. In fact, the very genesis of the word “bead” lies in the Anglo-Saxon word bede, which means "prayer".
When did people start using prayer beads?
It's hard to pinpoint the exact time when humans started using beads in their prayer rituals. But there is evidence as way back as the 3rd to 8th Century BC that points to beads being first used in India, for Hindu religious practices. Later, Buddhism that was born from the womb of Hinduism, carried the tradition of prayer beads with it. As Buddhism spread across Asia, to Tibet, Japan, China, Thailand and Korea, so did the tradition of using prayer beads for religious practice. It is not ascertained weather newer religions like Islam and Christianity borrowed the use of prayer beads for meditation, contemplation and prayer from these religions, or if they autonomously incorporated them in their fold.
How many beads are there in a string?
The beads in a string vary according to the faith and practice. Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs use what is known as the Japa Mala that usually has 108 beads. Shorter strings can have 27 beads that need to be counted four times.
Muslims call their prayer beads are called Misbaha or Subha which means “to exalt” and each string can vary from 33 to 99 beads. These are used to recite the attributes of God. In the centre is one elongated terminal bead that is used to recite “Allah”. The secular Greek Komboloi has beads in multiples of 4. And one extra bead is added to that. The Rosary of the Catholics has 54 beads with an additional 5 hanging below, and a crucifix in the centre. The Bahai prayer strings usually have 95 beads, also with an additional 5 beads below.
What are prayer beads made of?
In modern times, prayer beads are made of almost any material that suits the whims and budget of a person. One can find a range that varies from plastic to precious stones. However, traditionally there were certain materials that different faiths adhered to, and many people still try to follow tradition.
In Hinduism, the followers of Shiva made their prayer beads using Rudraksha, which is the seed of the Eliocarpus tree, and said to provide protection to devotees. These seeds are very rough and therefore symbolic of the tough practice required of them. On the other hand, the followers of Vishnu make their prayer beads using the sacred Tulsi or Basil shrub. Buddhists traditionally used wooden beads or seeds of the sacred Bodhi tree. Later, as Buddhism spread to different parts of Asia, people started using a variety of new materials including bone, amber, clay, ceramic and semi-precious stones.
The prayer beads used by Muslims range from glass, wood, ceramic to gemstones. Christians seemed to prefer more translucent materials for their beads. Crystal, black onyx, glass, amethyst, rose quartz, and the opaque pearl were the most commonly used. In Buddhism, the string that runs through the prayer beads is made of 3,5 or 9 threads. These are symbolic of the Three Jewels that are Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.
How can prayer beads be used for meditation or mindfulness practice?
Start by choosing a specific mantra, or make up one of your own, while meditating or practicing mindfulness. Your mantra can be an affirmation, something you would like to focus on, a sound, or words that bring you peace. Or you can go mantra-free and focus just on your breath. Now this is where the prayer beads come in. Many people find their minds easily wandering off during their practice, so holding the prayer beads and rolling them with each recitation or breath, gives you tactile support to keep your mind on track. It makes you mindful of the moment. Often you may find that with practice, the mantra or the breath counts may drift into the background. That's perfectly fine. Just carry on. Start by holding holding the prayer beads in either hand, and place them on you middle or ring finger, as the index finger is symbolic of the ego. Then start touching the first bead with your thumb, which will also help move from bead to bead. On reaching the large "guru" bead, you can switch directions. And repeat as many times as you like.
Are there specific prayer beads for different issues?
As prayer beads are often used to recite mantras that focus of a certain issues, and these can vary from person to person, the choice of beads is often based on the purpose of the mantra. Beads made from wood or Bodhi seeds, or Rudhraksha are considered multi purpose and can be used by everyone, irrespective of their issue. Rattan seeds, also known as ‘Moon & Stars’ by the Tibetans, were also popular but are a bit more scarce now due to overexploitation of the plant.
Prayer beads for specific issues include white beads made of pearl, mother of pearl, shell and crystals that are usually to pacify, reduce anger or induce peace. These are especially recommended to clear obstacles, purify the mind, combat mental turmoil, illness and bad karma. Similarly, amber, gold, silver and copper beads are used to recite mantras for longevity, knowledge and wisdom. While the mantras to tame negative energies are recited using Rudraksha or beads made from bone.
What is the use of the single large bead in the prayer beads or mala?
The single large bead is commonly called the Guru bead. This symbolises the Guru, from whom one has received the mantra one is reciting. Some sects have 3 vertical beads in decreasing size at this point. These are white, red and blue, each standing for enlightened body, speech and mind respectively. Although commonly, one finds the one large bead.
How do I choose my prayer beads?
I feel that you should have a look at a few different types of prayer beads. Feel them with your fingers, with your eyes closed and see which ones you are most drawn to. Prayer is a very personal thing, and so are your prayer beads. So spend a little time picking them. Do bear in mind that these should be beads that are sturdy and you should be comfortable carrying around with you. This will be important if you plan to genuinely integrate them into your practice, and buying beads that are flimsy but not long lasting, or super expensive but keep you on tender hooks, may not be the best idea. Finally, the important thing to remember is that the material of the beads is of little consequence. What’s important is that one uses them with faith and devotion towards ones practice. Personally, I have personalised my beads but adding a few stones like an amber and two turquoise, as each one has played a role in my spiritual growth and serves as a reminder of my journey so far.
Who can use prayer beads?
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "The rosary is conferred upon the Greek Orthodox monk as a part of his investiture with the mandyas or full monastic habit, as the second step in monastic life, and is called his spiritual sword." True as that may be to its time, prayer beads have long been an egalitarian and freely available tool for prayer and meditation. The common man and the “Keepers of God” have used it for centuries. In fact, in the Buddhist culture of the Himalayas, one rarely sees anyone without their prayer beads. And they use them to recite their prayers even in the midst of their daily chores and activities.
What do the number of beads signify?
The 108 beads in Hinduism and Buddhism reflect the impurities, worldly attachments, vices and temptations that must overcome in order to attain enlightenment. There are some people who feel that numerology of the decimal numeric system may have been the reason for the number 108. Serious spiritual practitioners like monks and holy men, wear the full 108 beads as a reminder of their path and their challenges they must overcome. Other people can wear only 30 or 40 beads.
How do I use my prayer beads?
Prayer means different things to different people, except that for almost everyone, it is a time to reflect, purge, cleanse, and connect with the Divine. Prayer beads can help you tune out from distractions and give you focus. You can begin by keeping a pure thought in your mind and repeating it, as you feel each bead with your fingers. Or you could devote a prayer to someone, meditate for loving kindness, chant or recite a mantra, a Hail Mary or any other thing you hold high in your faith. Repeat the same with every bead.
Are there any other ways to use my prayer beads?
You can also use your prayer beads to relax and deep breathe to the count of each bead. I find these extremely useful in times of stress, as using your beads even during a few minutes of break time between exams, meetings etc. helps you calm down, feel protected and connected. You could even use them while traveling or sipping your coffee!
Prayer beads can be used to control ones anger or set positive intentions. They can be used as “gratitude beads,” for you to express all that you are grateful for, to the Universe. In fact, when you are surrounded by doubt, regret and negative thoughts, pick your beads, feel their texture, weight and gently observe how they look, absorb their beauty. Let them bring your awareness back to the present moment. Being in the moment will ease you from the burden of the past and the fear of the future.
How do I take care of my beads?
Once you pick your prayer beads, let them be your constant companions on the path to mindfulness, meditation, prayer or spirituality. Please remember that although some people carry prayer beads just to look fashionable, in a new-age type of way, if you are serious about your beads, start by treating them with some reverence. Keep them on you, or
in a clean place. Ideally have a soft pouch for them, something that can slip into your bag easily. Handle them gently, don’t let other people play around with them. Most importantly, let them be a reminder of the divinity within and around you.
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