Prayer beads are found in most cultures and religions across the world. They are an almost universal prayer item in all the mainstream religions including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Baha’i Faith. The beads are used to recite chants, prayers, or devotions.
Examples of popular prayer beads include the rosary in Catholicism and the dhikr or Misbah in Islam. They are also used traditionally in countries such as Greece and Turkey as a men’s accessory for relieving stress and passing time.
Prayer beads are basically made of a string, and beads, to create a smooth beaded necklace. It is used in a typically same style in all traditions and religions. The beads are normally fingered one at a time in an automatic manner to help the user keep track of the number of prayers said with the least amount of conscious effort. This allows the devotee to pay maximum attention to the prayers without conscious distraction.
History of Prayer Beads
The exact origin of these universal prayer items is unknown but the earliest historical use of prayer beads can be traced back to Hindu prayers around 500BC in India. It is believed the prayer bead concept was probably invented by Buddhist followers and later borrowed by Hinduism before it made its way across the world. There is even a statue of a Hindu man holding beads that date back to the 3rd century BC.
From India, the prayer beads concept spread to Middle East, Japan, and China. They were originally known in Hinduism religion and tradition as Japa Mala. Japa is basically the name of a deity or mantra while Mala means a wreath or garland. Muslims call them Misbah, Tasbih, or Sufi.
In Greece, they are simply known as Worry beads due to their comforting and stress-relieving usage.
Recent evidence shows that prayer beads existed well before the times of Christ. There is a fresco picture discovered in Akrotiri of Santorini or ancient Thira which dates back to 1600 BC that depicts women holding a rope of prayer beads.
Prayer beads have been used by practitioners of Judaic religions, especially Catholics, for ages. In the early Catholic tradition, the beads were carved in the shape of roses, which gave rise to the name rosary.
Styles and Structure of Prayer Beads among Popular Religions
The style and number of beads found in a string of prayer beads vary depending on the religion and usage. For instance, in Islam, the Misbaha has either 99 or 33 beads while the Japa Mala of the Hindus and Buddhists has a total of 108 beads or 27 beads which are normally counted 4 times. The Sikh version also has 108 beads. Bahai beads are made of 95 or 19 beads strung with an additional 5 beads below.
The Roman Catholic rosary has 59 beads. The Eastern Orthodox Christians do not use prayer beads but have a knotted prayer rope with 100 knots. The rope is known as chotki or komboskini. There are some versions of chotki with 50 or 33 knots. A rosary for Anglicans was introduced in the 1980s by Rev. Lynn Bauman of the Episcopal Church in the USA. The Anglican rosary has 33 beads.
There is also the Greek komboloi, also known as Worry Beads, which have no religious function and come with one extra bead after a multiple of four, for example (5×4)+1 bead. It is used for stress relief and relaxation purposes.
The Use of Prayer Beads in Religion
Prayer beads are traditionally made of strings with similarly sized beads, knots, or seeds. Some were made of crushed rose petals in ancient times, from which we got the name rosary.
In all religion, prayer beads are used as a way of recording and keeping track of the number of prayers a faithful has uttered. It was, and still is, important within many religions to keep count of the number of prayers uttered which is why every religion has its own symbolic structure in the use of prayer beads.
Besides helping faithful maintain their place in structured prayers, prayer beads are a symbol of one’s commitment to spiritual life. The circular form of the beaded string is a symbolic representation of the interconnectedness that exists among all people who pray consistently. They serve a common function in all religions but each religion has its own unique style and usage of the stringed beads.
Prayer Beads Among Muslims
Prayer beads have been at the core of Islamic religion and traditions for ages. It is not known exactly how and when prayer beads entered Islam but most scholars agree that the concept was borrowed from Buddhism.
Muslim prayer beads have 99 or 33 beads with a single lead bead. The beads represent each of the 99 names of Allah as written in the Koran and one overall name. The string of prayer beads is known as masbaha or misbaha which means “to praise” in Arabic. The masbaha is often made of wood or date pits from Mecca, the holy Islamic city.
Islamic prayer beads are also crafted using stones, olive seeds, pearl, ivory, amber, or plastic. In the days of Prophet Muhammad, prayer beads were made stones and pebbles while in the Ottoman times, rock crystals and silver tassels were the most preferred materials. Handmade prayer beads are a bit rare today due to the shortage of craftsmen specializing in the trade.
A common Islamic prayer would be the recitation of the following: 33 times Subhhan Allah (glory be to god), followed by 33 times Al-hamdu lilah (praise be to god) and then followed by 33 times Allahu Akbar. (God is the greatest) When added together, these 3 recitations equate to the number 99, corresponding to the number of beads adorned on their misbaha.
Prayer Beads Among the Hindus
The origin of prayer beads in Hinduism can be traced back to 500BC.
Among the Hindus, prayer beads are known as Japa Mala and consist of 108 beads. It is also acceptable among Hindus to have any number of beads that’s divisible by 9. Prayer beads here are mainly used for counting while chanting, reciting, or repeating the name of a specific deity or mantra. This practice is known as “japa” in Sanskrit. They are also used for spiritual exercise in meditation.
Hindu iterations are usually made from Rudraksha seeds and Tulsi stem but plastic, pearl, and other materials are quite common as well.
There are some older Vedic scriptures which state different quantities of beads being used at different points in time. For example, during the Treta Yung period, 103 beads were used, during the Dvapara Yuga period 108 beads were used, as well as 111 beads in the Kali Yuga period.
Buddhist Prayer Beads
Also known as Japa Malas, similar to Hindu traditions, Buddhist prayer, or mala beads, are used in counting mantras or Sanskrit prayers, and for meditation. They have 108 beads each or any number that is a divisor of 108.
Malas used in Pure Land Buddhism have 27 beads. This is probably because shorter malas are easier to carry along and use in counting prayers.
Tibetan Buddhists typically have malas with 108 beads. One mala represents 100 mantras and the extra 8 are dedicated to sentient beings. Tibetan Buddhists are also known to carry larger malas with up to 111 beads.
In conventional Buddhism, the number 108 is attributed to the Mokugenji Sutta in which Shakyamuni Buddha instructed King Virudhaka to make these beads and recite the Three Jewels of Buddhism.
Among the Buddhists, malas are usually made of animal bone, rudraksha tree, tulasi plant, and Bodhi or lotus plant seeds. The beads are also crafted from semi-precious stones such as amethyst and carnelian but there are also less expensive varieties made of sandalwood.
Buddhist Prayer Beads in Japan
In Japanese Buddhism, prayer beads are known as either ojuzu (数珠, counting beads) or onenju (念珠, thought beads). The shape of such prayer beads in Japanese Buddhism varies from sect to sect and different groups often have distinctly shaped juzus, and sometimes use them differently.
Accordingly, Shingon and Nichiren Buddhism usually use a longer styled prayer beads, more similar to ones in mainland Asia. Another practice that sets these groups apart is when they rub the beads together to create a sort of grinding sound. It is thought that this practice induces a purifying effect.
However, other sects, such as Jōdo Shinshū typically use shorter beads and are not known to grind them together.
Christian Prayer Beads
Among Christians, prayer beads are used by Roman Catholics and several Anglican churches. The Catholics call their prayer beads rosary, which is derived from the Latin word rosarium or rose garden. It is believed the name came about after the early Catholics began using roses to make prayer beads.
The Roman Catholic Church’s traditional devotion combines prayer and meditation through the recitation of Our Father prayer, Glory Be to the Father prayer, and ten Hail Marys as well as any other prayer such as the Apostle’s Creed. Catholics use the rosary prayer beads to count the prayers in a specific sequence. The rosary has 59 beads.
The Episcopal Church’s rosary, also known as Christian prayer beads, was developed in the mid-1980s by Rev. Lynn Bauman. The rosary has 33 beads representing the years Jesus Christ lived on Earth. There are other Protestant churches today that have adopted the use of the rosary in their prayers. Non-liturgical churches often do not use prayer beads.
Another notable mention would include ‘The Wreath of Christ’, a set of non-denominational prayer beads created by Martin Lönnebo, who was a bishop of the Swedish Lutheran Church. It consists of 18 beads, with a very specific shape and pattern. Each bead included in the design is intended to have it’s own significance. These beads are used in a similar fashion to other Christian prayer beads.
Prayer Beads in Judaism
Judaism generally considers the use of prayer beads as a Pagan tradition. However, the Jewish prayer shawl known as the “Tallit” has a specific number of knots that act as prayer beads in other religions. The blue and white silk of the Tallit has 5 knots and 4 knots representing the command Moses makes in Numbers 15:37-41 where he tells people to look at the Tallit and remember God’s commandments.
Sikh devotees are known to use prayer beads when reciting verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, a Sikh guru from the early 16th century. Some are known to adorn their attire with them. They are also known to wear them around their wrists.
The Bahá’í Faith
Among the baihai faith, the recitation of Allah-u-Abha (god the all-glorious) is required to be recited 95 times a day after ablution ceremonies. Prayer beads are often used to aid in this requirement, although they are not necessarily required. Their iteration typically consists of 95 beads. These are no traditions which dictate specific material be used within the Bahai faith.
Although pagan faiths are quite diverse in nature, many of them do decide to use prayer beads. Their uses vary as well, as they may be used for anything from worship, practice, or spell-casting. Their perceived attributes are also subject to interpretation. Possible representations could be elements, such as air-water-fire, or other combinations such as mother-father-child, body-mind-spirit, and so forth.
A popular pagan mantra:
By knot of one, the work’s begun,
By knot of two, the aim is true,
By knot of three, my words shall be,
By knot of four, the power’s stored,
By knot of five, the work’s alive,
By knot of six, the work is fixed,
By knot of seven, the truth is given,
By knot of eight, my will is fate,
By knot of nine, the work is mine.
(So mote it be, or other closing for the tenth bead if needed)
Relaxation Prayer Beads
In Greece and Turkey, you’ll find prayer beads that have no religious significance but used by men to relieve stress, relax, and pass idle time. The stones used in them are believed to have psychological and metaphysical effect on the users.
For instance, amethyst is believed to improve cognition and mental power since it absorbs excess electrical burden in one’s body. The stone is thought to cure headaches, allergies, and heart diseases. It is also thought to eliminate negative energy and be helpful to people with insomnia problems.
Plant Seeds used as Prayer Beads
Modern beads were not available in olden times and natural materials had to be used.
Some notable plant seeds used as prayer beads include: Abrus precatorius, afzelia species, choerospondias axillaris, dracontomelon dao, rudraksha, and vyjanti.
Prayer beads are an integral part of all the major religions of the world including Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Often used in a similar setting as incense, the beads help to keep the religious practitioner focused on the prayers as he or she fingers each bead in succession while reciting the prayer or mantra. This is why devout practitioners always carry them wherever they go. It serves to remind them of their devotion to religion while protecting them against harm and corruption of the soul at the same time.