For those who have never heard of them, mala (a Sanskrit work meaning “meditation garland”) beads are used in Hindu and Buddhist prayer to count mantras. They are usually in strands of 108 beads although there are bracelet-length strands and rings that are used for shorter meditations.
Mala beads have been used for centuries by yogis to help them to stay focused during meditation. Some sites claim that the first malas were made in India 3000 years ago and were used in a special style of meditation called Japa which means “to recite.”
Some Catholics believe we can use these strands because they’re “just beads” like our Rosary, but this opinion gives credit to neither the Rosary nor the mala. Both have very specific meanings – and uses.
For example, this site explains the meaning behind the number of beads in the mala.
“The digits of 108 have the following meaning: ‘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 intuitional perception); ‘0’ represents the cosmos, the entire field of creation. To put it another way: ‘0’ is Shiva, ‘8’ is Shakti and ‘1’ is their union or yoga.”
Some scholars also believe the number 108 represents the number of skulls worn on the garland by Kali, the Hindu 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,” the site explains.
The construction of mala beads is also significant. For example, this site explains that the beads usually incorporate a tassel which has multiple meanings such as representing one’s connection to the divine and one another.
The tassel is connected to a guru bead, which is usually the 109th bead. This bead symbolizes the guru from whom the student received the mantra that they are using while meditating with the beads and represents the student-guru relationship.
The site also explains how overhand knotting is used in traditionally crafted mala beads because this not only makes the beads stronger but provides “the perfect space for Japa meditation” which is a form of meditation that uses a bead to count each mantra.
“Your mala beads are believed to protect, guide in daily life, and serve you as a constant reminder of the divinity that is with in you,” the site explains, and offers beads that have been “blessed” in Bali.
Some like to say that mala beads are “just beads” similar to our Rosary, which is reminiscent of those who like to say that yoga postures, so rich in religious meaning to the Hindu people, are “just exercise.” But these viewpoints are shortsighted.
For example, the only similarity between mala beads and rosaries is that they both use beads. Everything else about them, including their use, is designed for a specific religious purpose. This religious meaning is intrinsic and remains intact even when used within a Christian atmosphere.
Even more problematic is the “blessing” of these beads, which is common, and their use for “protection” which implies belief in occult powers (see Catechism No. 2117).
Catholics should not use mala beads for any purpose, including prayer. We have our own “prayer beads” – the Rosary – which history has proven to be one of the most powerful prayers for protection against dangers of all kinds. Why would anyone want mala beads when they already have this?
For more on the power of the Rosary, read The Rosary: Your Weapon for Spiritual Warfare by Johnnette Benkovic and Thomas K. Sullivan.