Japa Mala beads are the Hindu rosary. I say that so those not familiar with them can get a basic idea of what they are and what they are used for. The Hindu mala beads were certainly in existence long before Christianity was a thing, so there is some evidence that Christianity may have gotten the idea for the rosary from Hinduism. Many cultures do have prayer beads, ways of counting repetitions of mantras or prayers, and they probably all began with Hindu malas.
The word “Mala” you may remember from my post on Hindu wedding garlands. Those garlands are called jai mala or var mala. Mala means garland in Sanskrit. Japa means repetitions and has the connotation of using repeating sounds over and over to build up energy and inner fire. So the japa mala is a garland of repetitions.
The circular nature of the beads connects to the Hindu belief that all life is cyclical and the world exists in cycles.
How to Use
First of all, you’ll need a mantra. You can use a simple Om or Om Namah Shivaya or Om Ganapati Namah (I bow to Shiva, I bow to Ganesha, respectively). You also may hear specific mantras for particular attainments, like mantras for fertility, for prosperity, for love, or for peace. ISKCONs use the beads to count out their repetitions of the Hare Krishna mantra. If you find mantras for specific attainments, they will usually give instructions on how many times to repeat the mantra and how often. It is common to see instructions to repeat the mantra 108 times (one for each bead) once a day for 40 or 41 days.
Before you begin the practice, you will make a vow as to how long you’ll be chanting this mantra, so if you decide on 40 days, you promise that to the Gods and must complete it.
I’ve heard it said that while Hindus hold the beads in their right hands, Buddhists use the left. I don’t know how true that is, as my Buddhist husband has never heard that.
Hold the beads over your middle finger, avoiding them touching the tip of your index finger (as the index finger represents ego, a detriment to spiritual development) and move the beads one by one with your thumb.
“In northeast India, particularly those in the Shakta traditions in West Bengal and Assam, the mala is often draped on the ring finger of the right hand, with beads moved by the middle finger with aid of the thumb and avoiding the use of the index finger. However, draping the mala over the middle finger and using the thumb to move the beads is also acceptable in these regions.” –http://www.digplanet.com/wiki/Hindu_prayer_beads
You need to start at the bead next to the larger “bindu” or “guru” bead and go all the way around until you reach that bead again. If you are doing more than 108 recitations of your mantra, you turn and go back around again, not crossing over that larger center bead. Also, if you’re using a smaller “wrist mala” that has 27 beads, you’ll go back and forth 4 times to get to 108.
When not in use, it’s good to store the beads within a box or a bag in your puja room. Many malas will come with storage bags.
Some believe that a mala becomes energized with the mantra that you infuse it with, and so you can wear the mala or touch it to someone and have the effects of the mantra you meditated on felt. For this reason, some people keep a different mala for each different purpose or mantra that they wish to use.
Types of Materials
Rudraksha Beads: Common for prayers to Shiva.
Tulsi Root: Common material for Vaishnava malas and prayers to Krishna, Vishnu, or Rama.
Rosewood: Said to be good for prayers to Ganesha. Also popular among Tibetan Buddhists.
Sandalwood Beads: Said to be good for prosperity.
Gemstone Beads: Different stones and colors can have different meanings and effects. Crystal beads of clear or white are supposed to be best for healing mantras. Some people, such as my husband, believe that different stones and metals and other natural materials have a particular energy to them that makes them good for helping people with particular problems. Each gemstone has properties that it is known for.
Ehow’s list of mala bead materials: http://www.ehow.com/list_6750699_types-mala-beads.html
Tell me, do you mala beads for your meditations?