A mala (or) rosary is a string of small beads which are separated from each other by a special kind of knot called a brahmagranti or knot of creation. The beads are strung on strong cotton thread and although usually 108 in number, malas with 54 of 27 beads are also commonly used.
Each mala has an extra bead offset from the continuity of the main loop. It is called a sumeru (junction or summit) and it acts as a reference point so the practitioner can know when he has completed a rotation of the mala. The mala is an essential part of most of the techniques of japa. It is mainly a tool to maintain awareness.
Malas are most commonly made from tulsiwood, sandalwood, rudraksha or crystal pieces. It is the tulsi mala which is used most commonly for japa. Tulsi is a highly venerated and sacred plant and many psychic and healing properties. It has a strong and purifying effect on the emotion and is soothing to the mind. The devotees of Lord Vishnu use this type of mala as tulsi is regarded as an incarnation of Lakshmi, wife of Lord Visnu. Sandalwood malas are sweetly scented and contain pacifying and protective vibrations. It is said that sandalwood malas are cooling and are beneficial to those who have any type of skin disease. Rudraksha is the inner seed of a jungle fruit. It is supposed to be the most powerful mala for japa meditation and is used by those who worship Lord Shiva. Rudraksha magnetically influences the blood circulation, strengthens the heart and is recommended for those who have high blood pressure. Crystal malas have psychic properties and are used by those who worship Devi.
Malas are not only used by tantra and yoga practitioners. The Buddhist path of Mahayana widely uses japa with a mala of 108 beads plus 3 extra representing the refuge in Buddha, dharma and sangha. The Roman Catholics make use of a rosary which has 54 main beads. In Greece and other Balkan countries where the Greek Orthodox Church is prevalent, all men carry a rosary with them wherever they go and rotate the beads whenever possible. Without these ‘worry beads’, many of these people would feel improperly dressed. Whether they realize the reason for the rosary is uncertain, but nevertheless the tradition still continues today.
Purpose of mala
Many people wonder why a mala is used for the practice of japa and if they happen to use one, they place very little importance on the way it is handled. So let us first explain the purpose of mala. Because of its very nature, the mind does not remain steady for any length of time. Therefore, it is necessary for us to choose a medium or a basis by which we can know when we are aware and we are not. We use a mala as a means for checking those moments when we have become unaware and forgetful of what we are doing. It is also used to indicate how much practice has been done.
The practitioner starts the japa practice from the sumeru bead and proceeds to rhythmically rotate the mala, bead by bead. There is a smooth flow and rotation of the mala until the obstruction of the sumeru.
At a certain stage in japa, when the mind becomes calm and serene, it is possible for the fingers to become inert. They become momentarily paralyzed and you become completely unaware. Sometimes the mala may fall to the ground. When these things occur you should know that you have strayed from the aim of japa, that is, you have failed to maintain awareness. If you don’t have a mala in your hand when you practice japa, how will you know what you are experiencing? It is continuity of a mala that will tell you of your state of consciousness. If you are conscious of the mala and the fingers moving each bead, then you are aware. When japa is done correctly and concentration takes place, the mala will continue to move almost automatically.
A mala may not be something your intellect can accept, but for the successful practice of japa it is necessary tool for the mind.
The fact that a mala has 108 beads needs some explanation. There are many different theories recorded in the scriptures so we will give a few. ‘1’ represents the supreme consciousness; ‘8’ represents the eight aspects of nature consisting of the five fundamental elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether, plus ahamkara (individuality), manas (mind) and buddhi (sense of intuitive perception); ‘0’ represents the cosmos, the entire field of creation. To put it another way ‘0’ is Shiva, ‘8’ is Shakthi and ‘1’ is their union of yoga.
There are some scholars who believe that 108 represents the number of skulls on the garland worn by Kali, the goddess of destruction. It is said to symbolize the 108 reincarnations of the jiva (the individual consciousness) after which an individual will become self-realized.
There are similar explanations for the numbers 27, 54, 57, 1001 and so on, which are also used for malas. But actually, the meaning of those numbers has significance at a deeper psychic level. They are numbers chosen to help bring about auspicious conditions while doing japa. They are numbers that have been found suitable by the practical experience of ancient rishis. The explanations of these numbers are merely for those who want intellectual answers.
Besides the 108 beads of the mala, there is also an extra bead, the sumeru, which we have already mentioned. This bead can be considered to represent the top of the psychic passage called the sushmna. And for this reason, the sumeru (or meru) bead is also called the bindu. The 108 beads symbolize the 108 centres, stations or camps through which your awareness travels up to the bindu and then back again. These centres are really chakras though mostly minors ones, and they represent the progressive awakening of the mind. The bindu is the limit of this expansion of mind.
How to use the mala
There is a special method of holding the mala. It should be held in the right hand, supported by joining the tip of the thumb with the ring finger. The thumb should not be used to rotate the mala and the second and little fingers should not touch the mala. The middle finger moves the beads.
When you use a mala you should never cross the bindu. You begin your practice at this point and when you complete one round of mala rotation and find yourself back at the bindu, you simply reverse the mala and continue your practice. You should always rotate the mala towards the palm.
Traditionally, japa is practiced while holding the right hand in front of the heart. This way you can chant your mantra in time with the heartbeat. Also, holding the hand in front of the heart seems to intensify the feeling with which one chants the mantra. The left hand is cupped and placed in the lap facing upwards. It can be used to catch the lower end of the mala to prevent it from swinging about and become tangled. If you prefer, your right hand can be placed on the right knee and the mala can rest on the floor.
You may count the number of times you rotate the mala mentally or by using the left hand as follows. After one mala rotation, place the left thumb on the first joint line at the base of the left little finger. After the second rotation, raise the thumb on the upper line of the little finger. Then on the fourth rotation, transfer the left thumb to the first line of the ring finger and so on. In this manner you can count twelve mala rotations.
The mala which is used for japa should not be worn around the neck. When it is not being used it should be kept in a small bag of its own. This will prevent any negative change in the vibrations associated with the mala. Never lend your japa mala to other people. It is also said that other people should not ever see the mala you practice with. Malas that are used for decoration are not really considered suitable for japa practice.
A mala that is used daily will, in time, become impregnated with very positive vibrations. After a few months, the moment you touch the mala, you will become tranquillized, quiet and still, and the whole feeling in the body will be transformed.
If you practice many mala rotations a day, your arm will get very tired if it is held in front of the heart. Something must be used to support the arm. You can use a piece of cloth made into a sling and let it support your right arm.
Use of a gomukhi
If you do long periods of japa practice every day, the use of a gomukhi is highly recommended. The word gomukhi means in the shape of a cow’s mouth. It is a small bag which resembles the shape of a cow’s mouth. The mala and your right hand are both placed inside the gomukhi so that they are obscured from view. A gomukhi can be used when you walk along a street or whenever you leave your home. It is particularly useful for those who do anusthana (sustained practice for long fixed periods of time). In fact for those people it is a must.
A mala may not be something that western people can easily accept on an intellectual level, but without being aware of it they have accepted malas intuitively. Have you ever wondered where the idea of wearing a string of pearls or decorative beads originated? In all the ancient cultures beads (malas), rings and amulets were used for spiritual purposes and since those times people have been attaracted to these items. In modern times, in the name of fashion, women in particular choose to wear them for aesthetic purposes.
Source: Excerpt from the book on “Sure Ways to Self-Realization” by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India.