Making, using, and wearing prayer beads creates a tactile communication, linking our senses to universal prayer energy. The first beads were grooved pebbles, bones, and teeth -- made over 40,000 years ago -- and had talismanic and symbolic connotations from the beginning. For instance, wearing an animal bone or tooth affirmed success in the hunt for food. Beads at this time also served as status symbols. Later in the evolution of human civilization, beads were used as currency. A fossilized shell and bone necklace that is thirty thousand years old, on display at a museum in the Czech Republic, demonstrates that earliest humankind used beads for some of the same reasons people still use them today -- for personal adornment, which distinguished oneself from others through unique ornamentation.
Spiritual associations began with the ancient Egyptians, whose use of beads goes back to 3200 B.C. Calling beads sha sha strongly implies the beads' talismanic significance, since "sha" is the Egyptian word for luck. Beads officially sanctioned as instruments of prayer have been an important fixture of most spiritual traditions for centuries. And most of the world's inhabitants -- nearly two-thirds of the planet's population -- pray with beads. Some scholars have theorized that counting prayers naturally evolved from the abacus, the Chinese counting instrument that also used beads. Other have noted that records of the third century Desert Mothers and Fathers indicate that they carried in their pockets a specified number of pebbles, which they dropped one by one on the ground as they said each of their prayers.
Traditionally, prayer beads have consisted of strings of similarly sized beads, seeds, knots, or even rose petals and beads made from crushed roses, from which we get the word "rosary." The Sanskrit term japa-mala means "muttering chaplet," which refers to prayer beads' function as a means of recording the number of prayers muttered. Since counting prayers was initially so important, each religion embracing the use of prayer beads developed its own symbolic structure to follow.
In addition to helping keep one's place in structured prayers, prayer beads also symbolize the commitment to spiritual life. With their circular form, a string represents the interconnectedness of all who pray. Each bead counted is an individual prayer or mantra, and the rote repetition of prayers and mantras is meant to facilitate a sole focus on the prayer or mantra itself.
Most scholars believe that the use of prayer beads originated in ancient India with the Hindus. In India, sandstone representations dating from 185 B.C. show people holding prayer beads, and this practice apparently became widespread by the eighth century B.C. The strand of Hindu prayer beads, called a mala, was designed for wear around the neck, and consisted of 108 beads for repeating mantras or counting one's breath, a practice later adopted by Buddhists. (The word mala means "rose" or "garland" in Sanskrit.) The earliest known mala -- strung from seeds that still exist -- is around two thousand years old.
The 108 beads represented the cosmos, in which people multiplied the sum of the twelve astrological signs by the nine planets. Hindu malas are usually made of natural materials. Beads made from rudraksha (called "Shiva's eyes") are used by those in the Hindu cult of Shiva, while devotees of Vishnu usually use beads made from the tulsi (sacred basil) plant.
Around 500 B.C., India saw the birth of Buddhism, which adopted the Hindu practice of using a mala for repeating mantras or counting breaths. As Buddhism spread to Tibet, China, and Japan, so did mala use. Like the Hindu mala, Buddhist malas are usually composed of 108 beads -- or divisions of that number, 54 or 27 beads. While Burmese Buddhist monks prefer strings of black lacquered beads, malas are also made of sandalwood, seeds, stones, or inlaid animal bone. Twenty-seven-bead smaller wrist malas were created to prevent the prayer beads from touching the ground during prostrations.
In Tibet, malas of inlaid bone originally included the skeleton parts of holy men, to remind their users to live lives worthy of the next level of enlightenment. Today's bone malas are made of yak bone, which is sometimes inlaid with turquoise and coral. Buddhists also used their prayer beads as divination tools as well as for prayer.
The 108 beads represent the number of worldly desires or negative emotions that must be overcome before attaining nirvana. Buddhists believe that saying a prayer for each fleshly failing will purify the supplicant.