Here’s an article I wrote about beads and prayer.
A Brief Summary of the Devotional Use of Beads
To put devotional use of beads in context of the overall history of beads, Joan Erikson, in The Universal Bead, notes that archeologists tell us that beads have been used everywhere man has lived, dating back even to prehistoric times. “The earliest graves have yielded remains of ancient necklaces, and the oldest carved statuettes yet unearthed of ancient mother goddesses portray naked female figures wearing necklaces of beads.” As man has turned many desirable objects to his religious use, it is no surprise that beads also came to enhance religious practice.
The very word “bead” derives from the German “beten,” to pray, or in Anglo Saxon, “bidden,” to pray, and “bede,” prayer. Although we westerners may first associate devotional use of beads with the Roman Catholic rosary, Lois Sherr Dubin writes in The History of Beads, “The use of beads to count prayers appears to have originated with the Hindus in India. Sandstone sculptures of the Sunga and Kushan periods (185 B.C.-A.D. 320) portray Hindu sages holding rosaries. It is possible, however, they were used even earlier by the Hindu cult of Siva or, according to legend, by Sakyamuni (c.563-483 B.C.), the founder of Buddhism.” Muslims may have derived use of prayer beads from the Buddhists. Christianity, the last major religion to employ prayer beads, may have learned about the concept from the Arabs via the Crusaders or from Spain via eighth-century Muslim invaders, or evolved their usage independently.
Counting. Whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim, prayer beads usually developed as a means of counting prayers. Reciting prayers in cycles is an ancient tradition. Multiples of three are common, representing the Christian trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost), as well as the Buddhist Triad (Buddha, the doctrine and the community). Circles of beads, with markers denoting various subsets of the cycle, help the user to remember all the prayers and repeat them the expected number of times.
The number of beads varied from religion to religion and even from sect to sect within one religion. Buddhist malas usually consist of 108 beads, denoting the number of mental conditions or sinful desires that can be overcome by recitation with the beads, although Buddhist rosaries used by lay people may have only 30 to 40 beads. Korean malas usually have 110, Burmese Buddhist monks use 72, and in Japan numbers varied between sects. Tibetans often included 3 large beads where the strands came together, representing the Buddhist triad. They also added strands of smaller beads used to keep track of the number of repetitions. Muslim prayer strands, called subha, meaning “to exalt,” typically include 99 beads, used to recite the 99 attributes of God, as well as an additional elongated terminal one, reserved for the name of God, Allah.
According to Basil Pennington in Praying by Hand, the rosary began as a layperson’s psalter.
St. Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century prescribed that his disciples should pray the 150 psalms of the ancient psalter at least once a week. But among the laity, “... the psalms were too complicated for many of the more simple, so a ‘psalter’ of 150 ‘Paters’ (‘Our Fathers’) was conceived, along with a string of beads to count them.” The prayers and system changed repeatedly over the centuries, and many varied forms are in use today.
Materials. Buddhists especially prize wood from the bodhi tree. Wealthy Tibetans prefer amber and coral or human bon, especially the bones of a revered lama, or holy man. The Japanese use wood -- cherry, rose, plum, peach, ebony, mahogany, as well as walnut shells, cherry pits, and nuts of the bead tree (Melia azedarach). Hindu devotees of Siva use seeds of the rudraksha, a holy tree, while Vishnu rosaries are often from tulsi, holy basil. Muslims use a vast array of materials, including date pits from the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina and materials from all over the world found in Mecca, a huge bead emporium. Christians favor wood from the olive tree, especially the garden at Gethsemane, although materials of all types have been widely used. In fact, the elaborate quality of rosaries of the wealthy caused controversy and the laying down of laws controlling materials and manner of wearing. Healing powers have been attributed to rosaries as well as power to exorcise evil spirits and ward off lightning. Certain materials were considered talismans or amulets, and at times popular practice turned rosaries into pagan magic, adding to controversy.
Association with Flowers. Ms. Dubin writes of the symbolic associations frequently made between flowers (particularly the rose) and gardens and prayer beads. “The name for prayer beads in Tibet and India is the Sanskrit word ‘mala’; it means ‘garden,’ ‘garland of flowers,’ and ‘necklace of beads.’ The oldest name for Hindu prayer beads is ‘japamala,’ ‘muttering chaplet.’ But japamala also means ‘rose chaplet,’ presumably because the beads were made of rolled petals from the flower rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus). The Roman Catholic rosary has a rich historical relationship with rose garlands and rose gardens....” The word “rosarium,” meaning "a garden of roses," over time came to mean "a string of beads used to count prayers.” Basil Pennington suggests that Thomas of Contimpre, around 1250, first called this a rosary. Pope Pius V attributed the invention of the rosary to the Dominicans, and although there is little historical evidence, they have in time taken on a special relationship to the rosary.
Why are prayer beads effective? According to Ms. Dubin, “The appeal of spheres supersedes cultural differences.... In a perplexing world, this simple, familiar shape has visual and tactile completeness, which is reinforced when several beads are joined together to form a circlet.” Further, “The role of beads in Islamic cultures may well have been enhanced by the importance accorded to circles and spheres in medieval Islamic thought.... For the Muslim, ‘The circle is the primary cosmological symbol, one of wholeness and unity.’”
“The rosary's circular form has different levels of religious and psychological meanings. In meditation, the circle centers the mind in contemplation.... Meditation involves establishing a space, a circle, and focusing attention within it, thus concentrating energy. Writing about introspection, St. Augustine admonished the faithful: ‘God is a circle whose center is everywhere.’ The solitary, thoughtful manipulation of prayer beads enhances this contemplative state of mind, and the repetitious handling of the beads helps the worshiper concentrate on spiritual needs. As prayers are said, a closed circuit is created: words are spoken, fingers move, and ears listen.”
Basil Pennington stresses that Christianity is a religion of incarnation. “Our prayer is most properly ours when it is incarnate, made up of bodily actions and words as well as of thoughts and aspirations of the heart -- of faith, hope and love.” He suggests that fingering beads aids concentration, occupying and integrating our external senses into our prayer, leaving our mind freer to attend to its own level of reality. “Deliberately holding the beads can in itself be the prayer, especially when the mind seems unable to formulate any meaningful thoughts. The chain of beads can reach far beyond itself, bonding us with a higher power -- with heaven itself.”
With such a long and fascinating history, the use of beads for prayer seems here to stay and we may anticipate further diversity in their use as man’s relation to Spirit continues to evolve.
Dubin, Lois Sherr. The History of Beads from 30,000 B.C. to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1987.
Erikson, Joan Mowat. The Universal Bead. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1969. (Published simultaneously in Canada by George J. McLeod, Limited, Toronto.)
Pennington, M. Basil. Praying by Hand: Rediscovering the Rosary as a Way of Prayer. HarperSanFrancisco, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.