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The History and Meaning of Prayer Beads
Over two-thirds of the world's population employ prayer beads as part of their religious practices. Prayer beads have a variety of forms and meanings, but the basic purpose is the same: to assist the worshiper in reciting and counting specific prayers or incantations. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are the major religions that use prayer beads in important ritualistic roles.
Beads have long been linked with the act of prayer. The English word bead is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words bidden ("to pray") and bede ("prayer"). The use of beads in prayer appears to have originated with Hindu religious practices in India , possibly around the 8th century B.C.E. Buddhism, which developed from a sect of Hinduism, retained the use of prayer beads as it became established in China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet. It is thought that Islam adopted prayer beads through contact with Buddhism and Hinduism. Prayer beads, in the form of the Catholic rosary, were common throughout Europe by the late Middle Ages.
This exhibit presents examples of prayer beads that are used by various cultures around the world. These items, which date to the early 20th century, are part of the Museum's F. Pearle Mitchell [opens new window] and School of Religion [opens new window] collections.
Hindu and Buddhist Mala
Hinduism, one of the oldest living religions, is the major religion of the Indian subcontinent. The two main branches of modern Hinduism—Shaivism and Vishnuism—employ different types of prayer beads, or mala. Shaivists, who are devotees of the god Siva, carry strings of 32 to 108 rudraksha beads made from the seeds of a tree unique to the island of Java in Indonesia. These rough seeds represent the difficult and rigid life required of the worshippers of Siva. Each seed is segmented into five sections, which represent the five faces and personalities of Siva. Vishnu mala consist of carved wooden beads from the sacred basil shrub, or tulsi, and are usually found in strands of 108.
Buddhist mala also typically consist of strands of 108 beads, reflecting the religion's historical connection to Hinduism. In Buddhism, the 108 beads represent the impurities or lies that one must overcome in order to reach Nirvana. Most monks wear 108 beads for use in counteracting their 108 impurities, whereas lay people tend to wear only 30 or 40 beads. The difference in the number of beads used is a result of the spiritual differences in what different people must overcome or how far they have come on the path to enlightenment. Buddhist prayer beads have traditionally been made from the wood or seeds of the sacred Bodhi tree. As Buddhism spread throughout China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet, it was influenced by the various cultures of those areas and a number of new materials such as bone, amber, and semi-precious stones began to be used for prayer beads.
It is not clear exactly when Muslims adopted the use of prayer beads. Known as subha ("to exalt"), Muslim prayer beads usually occur in sets of 99 counting beads and an elongated terminal bead. The counting beads are used to recite the 99 attributes of God, with the terminal bead reserved for reciting the name of Allah. Though the number of beads is important, the type of beads used does not hold the importance it does in Hinduism and Buddhism.
Christian use of beads for reciting prayers began in medieval European monasteries and came into more widespread use as a way to assist the often illiterate worshippers in keeping track of their prayers. Although they were commonplace by the late Middle Ages, prayer beads were not officially accepted by the Catholic church until Pope Leo X gave the rosary approbation in 1520.
The term rosary is derived from the Latin word rosarium, or rose garden, and refers both to the religious exercise of reciting prayers and to the string of prayer beads used to assist in this practice. In Catholicism, the rose is a symbol of perfection; thus the rosary expresses the idea of a permanent garden of prayer. It is used to count the prayers recited in honor of the Virgin Mary while one meditates on scenes of the life of Christ and his mother. This exercise is traditionally repeated three times a day. The "typical" rosary contains 59 beads—six large and 53 small. They are arranged into five decades of 10 small beads and one large bead each plus a pendant of one large and three small beads that terminates in a cross.
Various forms of prayer beads are used in Eastern Orthodoxy, but these are almost exclusive to monastic practices. Eastern Orthodox more commonly use knotted prayer ropes, which serve the same purpose as prayer beads; prayer ropes were common in other religions as well before the introduction of prayer beads. In the 1980s, a group of Episcopalians melded the Catholic rosary and the Eastern Orthodox prayer rope to create Anglican prayer beads that have seen some popularity. However, Catholicism remains the only branch of Christianity to see widespread adoption of prayer beads in religious practices.
References and Related Links
Burns, Karima. "The Healing Power of Prayer Beads." Islam Online, 11/04/2002.
Dubin, Lois S. The History of Beads, from 30,000 B.C. to the present. (New York: Abrams, 1987).
Miller, John D. Beads and Prayers: The Rosary in History and Devotion. (London: Burnes and Oates, 2001).
"Rosary." Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Premium Service, 12/30/3003.
Prayers Beads: a cultural experience exhibit text prepared by Hillary Katch and Mary French
photos by Daniel S. Glover
Hindu and Buddhist Mala
Museum of Anthropology, 100 Swallow Hall, Columbia, MO 65211-1440
Hours: Monday - Friday: 9:00 am - 4:00 pm