Prayer Beads

Indian Sadhu (holy man) with rudraksha beads
An Indian sadhu (holy man) sits within his personal altar wrapped in layers of rudraksha beads during the festival of Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India. A devotee stands to the right.

Prayer beads are commonly associated with the Middle Ages (A.D. 600–1400) and Roman Catholicism. Their use, however, is universal and predates the Christian Era. Christianity, in fact, was the last of the major religions to employ prayer beads in an important ritualistic role. Even today, the religions of nearly two-thirds of the world's population utilize some form of prayer beads.

The word bead is derived from the Anglo-Saxon bidden ("to pray") and bede ("prayer"). During the medieval period, when jewelry was discouraged by the church, rosaries were acceptable as convenient portable devices for counting prayers. Their purpose was to assist the worshiper in accurately repeating from memory the correct number of prayers and incantations required by his faith.

The rosary is only one of several ancient ways used to count prayers. The earliest means involved counting on fingers or shifting pebbles from one pile to another as the prayers were recited. These unwieldy methods were replaced by tying knots on a cord: the strings of prayer beads probably evolved from strings of knots. The Greek Orthodox church still employs a knotted rosary, the kombologion. One of the oldest forms of the rosary in Europe is a thong of leather sewn into a circlet, with bone rings attached like scales to the spine of a fish. The rings were turned over as prayers were counted. This form of rosary, known from eighth-century graves, was still in use in southern Germany in the nineteenth century.

The use of beads to count prayers appears to have originated with the Hindus in India. Sandstone sculptures of the Sunga and Kushan periods (185 B.C.–A.D. 320) portray Hindu sages holding rosaries. It is possible, however, they were used even earlier by the Hindu cult of Siva, or, according to legend, by Sakyamuni (c. 563–483 B.C.), the founder of Buddhism. One account places the rosary's origin in the sixth century B.C. when Sakyamuni paid a visit to King Vaidurya, a recent Buddhist convert. Assisting the king in his new faith, "Sakya directed him to thread 108 seeds of the Bodhi tree [Ficus religiosa] on a string, and while passing seed by seed between his fingers to repeat a certain formula meaning 'Hail to the Buddha, the Law, and the Congregation' at least two thousand times a day." Later, Buddhists in Tibet, China, and Japan used rosaries, as did Muslim Persians and Arabs.

Christians may have first learned about the concept of the rosary from the Arabs, either as a result of the Crusaders' experiences in the Holy Land or through its introduction into Spain by eighth-century Muslim invaders. More likely, the Christian rosary evolved independently in western Europe (first, possibly in Ireland) as the church developed more sophisticated rituals and its practitioners and its practitioners had an increasing number of prayers to count. Many church members were illiterate; using beads as a counting device insured that each prayer was repeated the prescribed number of times.

Although the number, arrangement, and materials of prayer beads are different with each religion, there are shared concepts that link the beads of the major faiths. Symbolic associations are frequently made between flowers (particularly the rose) and gardens and prayer beads. The name for prayer beads in Tibet and India is the Sanskrit word mala: it means "garden," "garland of flowers," and "necklace of beads." The oldest name for Hindu prayer beads is japamala: "muttering chaplet." But japamala also means "rose chaplet," presumably because the beads were made of rolled petals from the flower rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus). The Roman Catholic rosary has a rich historical relationship with rose garlands and rose gardens. In contemporary Italy, a coronario makes both flower wreaths for funerals and prayer beads.

While the quantities of beads used in rosaries differ from religion to religion (and even between various sects of a single faith), multiples of three predominate the numerology of rosaries, reflecting the significance of the number in prayers and even fundamental doctrines—the Buddhist triad (Buddha, the doctrine, and the community), for example, or the Roman Catholic Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). The Buddhist rosary, and the Hindu rosary from which it was derived, have 108 beads; the Muslim, 99; and the Roman Catholic, 150. In addition to their practical purpose, rosaries have intellectual, social, psychological, and aesthetic significance. Highly sensual, inviting continual handling, they were sometimes an ascetic's only material possession. Healing powers have been attributed to rosaries, as well as the power to exorcise evil spirits and ward off lightning. Certain materials, such as agate, were almost universally amuletic; their use as religious beads provided double protection. Coral beads were associated with the prevention of ailments of the blood. In many medieval paintings, the Christ Child is shown wearing or holding a coral rosary, while the child-god Eros (Cupid) sometimes wears a necklace of red coral beads.

Beginning in ancient times, prayers have been recited in cycles. Countless ceremonies exist in which a circle is used to join people together, to create a sense of place, and to "protect what is within; to keep out what is dangerous or to concentrate force." There are also ageless associations with the cycles of life, as well as annual, seasonal, and daily cycles. Symbolizing cycles of prayer, rosaries form closed circlets or chaplets. Whether the circle is large or small, it usually has either a terminal bead or tassel marking the beginning and end of the prayer cycle. Markers of a different shape or size occur at intervals among the counting beads, providing the user with a place to pause and rest.

The rosary's circular form has different levels of religious and psychological meaning. In meditation, the circle centers the mind in contemplation: "One uses prayer beads, ringing oneself in." Meditation involves establishing a space, a circle, and focusing attention within it, thus concentrating energy. Writing about introspection, Saint Augustine admonished the faithful: "God is a circle whose center is everywhere." He prescribed "[returning] within yourself, for it is in the inward man that truth dwells." The solitary, thoughtful manipulation of prayer beads enhances this contemplative state of mind, and the repetitious handling of the beads helps the worshipper concentrate on spiritual needs. As prayers are said, a closed circuit is created: words are spoken, fingers move, and ears listen.

The meditative state induced by repeating prayers while holding beads plays a great role in Eastern religions. The Eastern worshiper suspends thinking during meditation in contrast to the Westerner, who is encouraged to think while reciting prayers. Another difference between the beads' role in Eastern and Western religions is in the handling of the actual rosaries. In the East, prayers are counted by moving the string in one hand; in the West, rosaries are usually held in both hands. This has an interesting parallel with the frequent use of asymmetry in the aesthetics of the East, while the West so often stresses symmetrical balance.

Throughout the centuries, the elaborate craftsmanship of prayer beads often stands in stark contrast to the concepts of simplicity they were meant to enhance. Attempting to make the beads' appearance conform with spiritual values has led to interesting interpretations. A bead authority notes: "One may feel, as Lady Godiva did in the eleventh century, that it is fitting to count one's prayers on jewels for they are being offered to God. Or one may feel that a wretched sinner like oneself should not presume to offer prayers on any but the plainest beads." It has been difficult to keep luxury out of religion. The custom of prominently displaying prayer beads led to their elevation as objects of social status as well as piety. Rarely does the village priest carry the same beads as an archbishop, or a poor devotee the same as a wealthy one. The most common materials for rosaries throughout the world are wood, glass, and plastic. But museums display examples made of every known precious material, including gold, silver, emeralds, rubies, diamonds, coral, jet, crystal, alabaster, pearls, and lapis lazuli. There are also rosaries of amber, ebony, marble, ivory, jade, mother-of-pearl, enamel, and porcelain. French royal inventories in 1380 listed rosaries of enameled gold encrusted with jewels, and medieval Cordoba was famous for its prayer beads made of gold.

Primarily in reaction to these excesses, Protestants do not use prayer beads. The leaders of the Reformation protested the self-indulgence and blatant materialism of the medieval church. As a result, Protestant doctrines stress moderation, minimize ritual, and tend to reject what are considered displays of material extravagance, including prayer beads. The founders of Protestantism stressed literacy and encouraged individual interpretation of the Scriptures. John Calvin, the great Reformation theologian, said that each person in the reformed church should be able to read the creed for himself. This meant that prayers were not to be memorized in set circular formulas, and therefore aids, such as beads, were not needed.

Judaism also excludes prayer beads. Its history emphasizes the rejection of paganism. Beads were considered magical and therefore pagan. Amuletic beads are generally considered a device to win the beneficence of the gods, and traditionally Jews do not speak to God through intermediaries. Furthermore, since counting prayers on beads served no ethical purpose, Judaism never accorded the custom any significance.

Prayer Beads » The History of Beads: From 100,000 B.C. to the Present
Lois Sherr Dubin (2009) Abrams Publishers, Inc.