Prayer beads in different cultures

During my crafts market weekend at the Salzachgalerien river market this summer I had the chance to chat with a lovely couple from the United Arab Emirates who were traveling through Austria during the summer. As they were browsing my creations they asked me if I had versions with 99 instead of 108 beads, as that was the number of beads that prayer strings commonly have in their culture. They told me about the role misbahas, as they call them, play in their religious practice and in daily life, and we found several aspects that my malas have in common with their prayer beads.

Inspired by this conversation, I did some research and found that prayer necklaces have had a big significance in various religious and spiritual traditions. While it is unknown which culture they originated from, they appear to have been used by worshippers and spiritual practitioners across all big world religions, from Hinduism and Buddhism to Christianity and Islam, as well as in many tribal cultures and shamanic traditions.

While the shape and size of the different versions of prayer beads may be different, they all have one thing in common: they are used as a tool and counting aid for repetitive prayers, blessings or affirmations. Depending on the culture, the number of beads varies and has a special meaning and symbolism. The earliest ones ever found date back to 10000 BC in Africa and were made of ostrich shell fragments. Over the millennia many different versions have been documented, with materials ranging from stone and clay to pearls and wood. Even the term “bead” itself has an intrinsically spiritual connotation: it is originally derived from the old Anglo-Saxon term bede, which means prayer.

So let’s take a closer look at the prayer beads in different religions and cultures and how they are traditionally used.

The people in my home country are predominantly of Christian faith. While most younger people do not actively practice their faith outwardly, it is still strongly rooted in the daily lives of most senior people. Rosaries are a valuable prayer aid for many of them, and are often used in religious ceremonies, traditional customs or in privacy, to ask god for the forgiveness of sins.

The term rosary is derived from the Latin word rosarium which means rose garden. Roses were the symbolic flowers of the Virgin Mary, who is revered in many devotional verses repeated when praying on a rosary. Some of the earliest documented rosaries were even made out of rose petals threaded on a string.

A traditional rosary has 59 beads attached to a Christian crucifix pendant. Three smaller and two larger beads hold the pendant and are followed by 5 segments of 10 beads each, with 4 larger ones as markers in between. A classical rosary prayer starts with the sign of the cross and the profession of faith while holding the crucifix in the hand, and a praise to the Father to begin the circle of prayer. As the sequence goes from bead to bead a Hail Mary verse is spoken for each of the smaller beads , followed by a Lord’s Prayer for every larger marker bead.

The Vatican has recently taken rosaries to the next level by launching an app called “Click To Pray” that can be connected to a wearable smart device and serves as a tool for praying the rosary for peace in the world. How cool is that?

In Islamic cultures, prayer beads are called Misbaha or Subha. The most common forms have 99 beads divided into 3 segments of 33. Some worshippers recite the 99 canonical names of Allah, others repeat the three verses of Allah’s glorification and praise (Tasbih, Tahmid and Takbir) 33 times each. Typical materials used as misbaha beads are wood, pearls and even plastic, but also semi-precious gemstones like onyx, carnelian and agate, or amber.

Apart from their religious use, misbahas are also an indicator of the societal status of a person, and some Muslims like to carry theirs in their right hand outside of prayer times and move them through their fingers during the day to express their faith. Misbahas are a common gift for spiritual pilgrimages such as the Hadj to Mecca.

Buddhism & Hinduism
The practice of meditating and praying with japa malas can be found in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The Sanskrit term japa means the repetitive recitation of a mantra or a deity name, and mala means “circle” or “wreath”.

Japa malas traditionally have 108 beads based on the sacred number that symbolizes the wholeness of existence and the universe and is integrated in many aspects of the spiritual practice. They are usually made of seeds or wood and are worn wrapped around the wrist rather than as a necklace to preserve the energy generated during the yoga and meditation practice and express one’s intention throughout the day. It is believed that when a string of mala beads breaks its purpose has been fulfilled and “karma has been broken”.

I’ve written about the significance of the number 108 before as it is central for my own creative work as a mala maker. With the increasing popularity of yoga in the Western world, mala beads have seen a rise in popularity both as a spiritual tool and also as an accessory worn in daily life.

While the use of prayer beads in Pagan and Wiccan traditions has not been documented as well as for other religions, many practitioners do like to integrate them into their ritualistic practice.

The beads usually symbolize the four elements and are made with natural materials in the colors associated with earth, air, fire and water. Distinct marker beads for the 8 sabbaths and the 13 lunar cycles of the year may also be included. Some versions contain triple sets of beads that variably symbolize the Goddess as maiden, mother and crone, the body, mind and spirit trinity, or the land, the sea and the sky.

Pagan prayer beads often have a pendant instead of a tassel, for example a pentacle, a triquetra or a moon symbol. Wiccan practitioners use the beads as counting aids to facilitate meditation and visualization or for ritual magic and spellwork.

The concept of prayer beads used in Jewish traditions is furthest from the other versions of beads described above in that they are no classical beads. What comes closest to them is the Jewish prayer shawl (tallit). It has a certain defined number of knots and tassels called tzitzit that, according to the Talmud, should remind the wearer of god’s commandments.
Unlike prayer beads in other cultures, it is not customary for women to wear a tallit, but also not forbidden except in Orthodox Judaism.

Diving deeper into the history of prayer beads in the world’s spiritual and religious traditions has been immensely fascinating and valuable for my own creative work. The most important learning for me was that prayer beads don’t “belong” to one single culture. They are instead spiritual tools that have been used across almost all religions and encompass all belief systems. As such, you don’t have to worry if it’s appropriate or if you’re “allowed” to use prayer beads if you’re not a member or practitioner of a certain religion. You don’t have to be; as long as your prayer beads help you in your spiritual practice you are perfectly fine to use them. Whether you call your beads malas, rosaries or something else doesn’t matter – the benefits are still the same. The beauty lies in their capacity to unite people across religions and faiths. So next time you touch bead after bead as you say your prayers or affirmations, know that millions of others around the world are doing just the same thing in just the same moment.

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