Hindu Malas

Sculpture of Lords Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu (Hoysaleswara Temple at Halebidu in Karnataka, India)
Enlarge Sculpture of the Hindu trinity (left to right)—Lords Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu—in the Hoysaleswara Temple at Halebidu in Karnataka, India. (Photo: Calvin Krishy, 2005)

In Hinduism, the world's oldest faith, prayer beads, or malas, are used for the repetition of a mantra or divine names through the devotional act known as japa yoga. Sculptures illustrating this type of practice have been found dating back to the Mauryan Shunga dynasty (185-73 BCE) in northern India. These works of art are a testament to humanity's long-standing preoccupation with overcoming temporal attachments: through the repetition of sacred names on malas, transgressions are canceled out and worldly distractions are minimized. By constantly invoking holy names and syllables thus, the devotee is brought closer to the presence of God, and in so doing, discovers the true nature of humankind, which is pure, eternal and free.

Liberating the Soul

Life's aim for a Hindu is liberation and self-realization, or moksha, final union with the Supreme; it is reached by service, devotion and total self-surrender. On the Hindu mala, devotees recite sacred formulae mantras or the names of deities.

Mantra recitations are considered to erase sin from within and sanctify the worshipper. Chanting the holy names of Divine incarnations, such as Rama or Krishna, is believed to transform the physical body into a spiritual body, thereby enabling the believer to reach ananda, a state of transcendental bliss, in which the ego merges with God.

Aims of Prayer

Through sadhana—devotional meditation or prayer—the exterior world of duplicity and separateness is left behind. While mind and body are respectively occupied with the movement of beads and the repetition of a single word or phrase, one withdraws into a place of stillness and completeness. Dualities, such as inside and outside, male and female, presence and absence, body and soul, begin to dissolve. An attempt is made to achieve the realization—samadhi—of the interconnectedness of all things, which are part of the same Divine Essence. Such knowledge helps the faithful comprehend how Brahman, all-pervading God, is actually also manifest in Atman, the self, and in every other thing, as expounded in the Upanishads (800-400 BCE), religious treatises composed by Indian Vedic sages.

Role of the Mala

Using malas creates a devotional focus and a concentration of attention—of the body with finger movements, of the mind with invocations. The object and its accompanying rituals, such as washing before use and the lighting of candles and incense, prepare the soul to leave the everyday and enter a sacred dimension. In counting beads, you measure out the immeasurable, where dualities and a sense of the horizontal dimension cease.

Sacred Associations of the Hindu Mala

The Hindu mala is composed of 108 separate beads, with an extra meru bead and a tassel marking the beginning of the cycle. The word meru recalls the mythological holy mountain at the center of the Hindu cosmic universe and Lord Vishnu's heavenly seat. A sacred number in Hinduism, 108 marks the 12 astrological houses and nine planets of the Solar System.

Like Christian and Muslim terms for prayer beads, mala signifies a rose, a garden or a heavenly garland. Such meanings attest to its ability to transport the believer into the heart's garden and offer blossoms to its deities. The mala's circular form operates as a microcosmic reminder of the universe's endless and fluid continuity. In marking off beads with the fingers, one gets a sense of Lila, the rhythmic play of the universe, and in so doing, start to merge with the Divine presence. The Hindu universe is thought of as orderly and cyclical: using the mala allows the worshipper to experience this cosmic order in its immense complexity.

Sacred Materials

No material is regarded as too lowly or precious to form mala beads; a stone daubed with paint on an Indian wayside shrine is revered as highly as the most finely carved and richly adorned temple deity. Certain materials, however, have inevitably become associated with the worship of specific deities.

  • Wood is the first choice for malas, as it is for temple buildings, with sandalwood from Mysore ever popular. Vishnu worshippers use malas of small beads carved from the stem of the tulsi (holy basil) shrub. Thought to be the source of life's elixir, tulsi ("incomparable one") is honored in household shrines. Its sacred associations predate Hinduism, but the history of the plant is so entwined with the mythology of Vishnu that each year, it is ceremonially married to the deity. A Krishna bead caps the 108-bead strand, exalting Vishnu's eighth reincarnation. The dairymaids, or gopis, who surrendered devotion to Krishna, also amount to 108.

  • Rudraksha, the dried berries of the Elaeocarpus ganitrus roxburghii tree, have been associated with Hindu worship for at least 7,000 years, especially with Lord Shiva, and rudraksha mala beads are still used by devotees today. Each costly bead has several natural facets, or "mouths," most often five, all representing separate Divine qualities. Held to be the tears of Shiva, rudraksha beads have a rough texture analogous to the ascetic's austere lifestyle of sannyasi, whereby all worldly possessions are renounced for an itinerant existence.

  • Semi-precious stones, too, are considered suitable for malas, linking as they do deities with planets in jyotish, the Indian system of astrology. Ruby, for example, is the stone of the Sun and of Brahma.

Power of Devotion

A holy text, the Rosary Upanishad (800-400 BCE), prescribes a consecratory rite to spiritually endow the mala, which is thought to grow in spiritual potency with use by drawing energy from the reverence it is accorded. All malas, especially old ones or those used by holy men, are treated with special respect. If they touch the floor or another person, they are ritually cleansed. Care should be taken to never let malas be handled as objects of idle curiosity.

Mantra Yoga

The Sakskrit word mantra derives from manas (mind) and trai, "to free from," "deliver" or "protect." A mantra literally protects the mind and frees it from the world. It is not an end in itself, but a way to approach the ultimate truth. "Mantra is a combination of words that stand for the Supreme Reality," states Swami Ramdas (1884–1963 CE), who had such absolute faith that when a monkey ran off with his glasses, he exclaimed, "God must be about to restore my sight!"

In Indian Vedic tradition, mantras have such a unique blend of sounds that the vibrational energy released through their repetition, or japa, out loud or soundlessly, sets up a pattern of reactions in the mind and body that may assist spiritual transformation, bringing man more in tune with God.

There are three types of mantras: abstract sounds such as Om, which refer to or identify with the Absolute, invocations of specific deities and seed mantras derived from Sanskrit sounds. A mantra should originally be chosen and bestowed by a guru or mantrakara (mantra-maker), handed down from the guru to his disciple through the generations intact from the original ancient rishi (seer) who first received it. The strict rules which govern the sound's pronunciation and duration, pitch and intonation ensure that a mantra is preserved in its vibrant, original form.

Chanting OM

Considered the primordial sound from which the universe itself flows, Om (pronounced "Aah-ooo-mmm") is considered to be the original source of all language, the one eternal syllable in which past, present and future simultaneously exist. No mantra is more powerful than this; all other sounds stem from it, just as the pantheon of Hindu gods represents aspects of a single Supreme Being.

On a physical level, chanting Om clears the mind, opens energy channels and increases awareness. Spiritually, it can offer a direct pathway to a state of profound understanding liberated from human failings, such as ignorance, desire and delusion. Om includes the three aspects of God in its three audible syllables: "A" stands for Brahma, the Creator; "U" is Vishnu, the Preserver; "M" is Shiva, the Destroyer. Each repetition brings the practitioner into the presence of these Divine principles and into union with the three energies, or gunas, which underlie everything in the universe. These syllables also represent the three states of time—past, present and future—and the three states of consciousness—waking, dreaming and sleeping—from which humankind seeks liberation. There is so much meaning bound up in Om that it can be meditated on permanently.

Seed Mantras

These subtle sounds derive from the 50 basic sounds of the sacred Sanskrit language. Although they have no literal meaning, bija (seed sounds), form the essence of a mantra and are the source of its power. Moreover, seed mantras serve as building-blocks for longer mantras. Each of the five words set out below—a tiny selection from the numerous seed sounds—is very powerful. It centers the person chanting within one of five elements while awakening the particular chakra to which each element corresponds and also engaging with one of the five sense.

  • Ham
    Corresponds to the energy of the ether and the sense of hearing. Activates and stimulates the throat chakra.

  • Yam
    Corresponds to the energy of the air and the sense of touch. Opens the heart chakra, guiding energy up toward the crown, the gateway to bliss.

  • Ram
    Corresponds to the energy of fire and the sense of sight. Stimulates the navel chakra. Chanting this mantra engenders Divine light. Those who die with it on their lips are thought to have achieved moksha, or liberation.

  • Vam
    Corresponds to the energy of water and the sense of taste. Energizes the pelvic chakra.

  • Lam
    Corresponds to the energy of the earth and the sense of smell. Encourages prana, or life force, in the root chakra to rise up through the subtle body.

Illumination by Invocation

"A mantra is Divinity encased within a sound structure," states Sri Swami Sivananda (1887–1963 CE) and every deity has a unique mantra. Repeating the name of a Divine incarnation, such as Rama or Krishna, or singing devotional phrases about a particular god, mahamantra, concentrates a person in bhakti (personal devotion) to this aspect of the Divine, and is a key to transcendence. Because the name and the thing it signifies are essentially the same, the vibrational energy inherent in a Divine name contains something of its essence. Its constant repetition eventually brings the devotee into union with these Divine qualities and the self begins the necessary process of dissolution.

A female Shiva swami (sadhvi) gives blessings to passers by and devotees in Haridwar, India.

Hindu Trinity: Lords Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu

Sculpture of the Hindu trinity (left to right)—Lords Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu—in the Hoysaleswara Temple at Halebidu located in the Hassan District, Karnataka, India. (Photo: Calvin Krishy, 2005)

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality Using Rosaries, Prayer Beads and Sacred Words
Gray Henry and Susannah Marriott (2008) Fons Vitae Publishing

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality Using Rosaries, Prayer Beads and Sacred Words

Gray Henry and Susannah Marriott (2008) Fons Vitae Publishing

The practice of the rosary in various faiths is thoroughly covered in this stunning book and its accompanying DVD. For background, the commentary explains that the word "bead" has an interfaith origin: it comes from both the Sanskrit "Buddh," which refers to self-realization (the Buddha is the "Enlightened One"); and it also derives from the Saxon verb "bidden," meaning to pray. The rosaries pictured are made from such materials as rose petals, chunks of Tibetan amber, exquisitely carved Italian coral, and silken Turkish tassels. One simple mantra or prayer for each faith is also presented, as is a prize-winning DVD that takes the viewer into various world cultures where the recitation and method can be heard and seen.