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Why Do Malas Have 108 Beads?

Recent times have seen the mala —one of the most iconic elements of many Asian spiritual traditions— become something of a hipster New Age comodity.

Frequently used for ornamental purposes, malas (from the Sanskrit for `garland´) do posses strong spiritual and religious connotations in many traditions in the East, connotations that are the ground for them to generally present 108 beads or complementary variations of this number (54, 27 beads, etc.).

In today´s entry, we look at the origin and meaning of this spiritual symbol and tool to provide some light into its widespread use in Asia, as well as its overall importance across the traditions of Yoga, Ayurveda and Vedanta.

Harnessing the Mind, Focussing Attention

Researchers have found that the earliest depiction of a mala being used as a tool for meditation and not just as mere physical decoration dates back to 4th/6th century China —where the image of a bodhisattva (or enlightnened individual) is shown mala in hand as is customary to do for mantra japa recitation.

In some of our earlier entries, we’ve shared our thoughts on both the importance of Yogic mantras and the science of mantra japa or mantra repetition. Indeed, most devoted and serious practitioners of Yoga practice mantra japa daily, reciting a particular word or combination of words tens of times in one single sitting. When one repeats a mantra more than a handful of times or else does prostrations alongside this, keeping count of how many rounds have been chanted can become quite an ordeal. Malas can be said to have come to the rescue of devoted practitioners, conceived as an instrument for the practice of mantra repetition.

With a specific number of beads ( typically 108), malas were intended to harness the inherently dynamic qualities of the mind. Thanks to the use of a mala, yogis have a material anchor where to focus their attention during the recitation of mantra, so that, regardless of the number of times a given mantra is chanted, they will always know how many repetitions have been done.This allows yogis to become fully absorbed into the essence of the mantra itself and on its meaning knowing that, never mind how long one practices or chants for, the exact number of repetitions can easily be tracked.

Why 108 Beads? Numerology Meets Philosophy Meets Cosmology

If truth be told, most explanations as to the reason for 108 beads in most malas are merely conjectural. Still, the number 108 does have many connotations in a diversity of traditions around the globe, both past and present.

From the point of view of Ayurveda and Vedanta, for example, 108 is considered to represent the sum total of everything existing in creation: the metaphorical number for the principle of Absolute Oneness, unity and perfection. Therein the recurrence of this number and some of its multiples in a variety of symbols and forms. In this sense, 1 is said to stand for the solar energy, the masculine principle, or the principle embodied by Shiva; 0 for the lunar energy, the feminine principle, or the principle embodied by Shakti; and 8 for the principle of infinity, the eternal, the forever now —as echoed also by the mathematical symbol of a horizontal 8. Shiva and Shakti, 1 and 0, are the alpha and omega of everything in Yoga, beginning and end, fullness and emptiness. The ability to metaphorically ‘bring them together,’ for example, is the sole reason for most of the practices and methods of styles like Tantric Hatha yoga. 1 and 0, Sun and Moon, Shiva and Shakti… in between them everything can (and is) comprehended.

The principle of absoluteness or infinity is subsequently echoed not only by a number of relevant philosophical texts and scriptures of the Vedic tradition (amongst them we find the 108 chapters of the Rig Veda or the 108 Upanishads), but also by the very composition of the Sanskrit alphabet. The language used to transmit most of the teachings of the aforementioned scriptures, Sanskrit is comprised of 54 letters, each with a masculine and a feminine form. Hence, Sanskrit itself can be said to mirror the cosmic principle of Absolute Oneness by adding up to 108 possible characters or forms.

In a similar vein, we find that Ayurveda argues there are 107 +1 sacred places or marma points in the human body. For those unfamiliar with this concept, marma points are mystical points that, when manipulated, can activate certain ´spiritual doors´ to our other bodies so that different aspects of our personality, physicality and spirituality may be worked on.

The mirroring of the principle of Absolute Oneness or Absolute Unity goes far beyond these instances and can be found as well in other iconic representations of the Tantric tradition, such as, for example, the Sri Yantra. This pictorial and geometrical representation of Tantric Philosophy and thought presents a series of squares and circles, that conform 54 corners or meeting points. These points, however, are traversed by both masculine and feminine energies, which essentially multiplies these points by two (108).

Jyotish, or the Astrology and Cosmology of the Vedic tradition, also holds the number 108 in high esteem connecting it not just to zodiac sings and constellations, but also to also a number of variables relevant to the outline of a person´s spiritual and dharmic chart. And though more examples could be listed, let’s just summarize things by mentioning that some traditions go as far as to suggest that, once we are able to remain as calm as to only require 108 breaths in the course of a day, enlightenment will come to us!

Where Attention Goes, Energy Flows

Indeed, regardless of the principle whereby we choose to ascribe spiritual importance to the number 108, the point is precisely what malas are trying to represent or communicate. For they speak of a certain relation and connection to something beyond the material with which, through the practice of mantra japa, yogis try to relate.

Malas are thus a vehicle: a bridge between different ways of understanding and experiencing this (and other) world(s). And this is why word has it that malas acquire spiritual powers and become spiritually charged by force of practice. And so, many traditions imbue them with talismanic and protective powers, healing powers, and even the ability to help those who use and carry them overcome challenge in any form it may present itself.