Beads are among mankind’s oldest cultural artifacts and seemed to have had magical or spiritual associations rather than being purely items of adornment. Prayer beads are universal, dating back to the pre-Christian era and found throughout the world’s religious faiths. Most sources agree that the first appearance of prayer beads was in India as early as 500 B.C. From that nexus, prayer beads spread along trade routes, such as the Silk Road, to the Middle East, China and Japan. Prayer beads are variously named: prayer malas in the Hindu and many Asian traditions, Misbah in Muslim and Sufi traditions, Tazbi in Persia and Worry Beads in Turkey and Greece. In the Catholic faith, the beads were carved to resemble roses, hence the word rosary.
The first prayer beads (Sanskrit: mala, meaning “garland”) grew out of the Vedic tradition in India and were the prototype for prayer beads in later world cultures. The Vedic tradition had a great reverence for sound in which both the language and the Sanskrit alphabet were regarded as sacred. Sound (Vak) generates the forces of creation through its cosmic vibrations, which came to be represented by the varnamala, the garland of the fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet. Out of sound, therefore, comes being. Thus sound, in the Vedic tradition, is associated with the goddess or feminine principle, which later evolved into the anthropomorphic form of Sarasvati, so named for the river by which the Vedic practitioners sang their hymns. Among her attributes is a mala, representing the mantric sounds of the Sanskrit letters and the wisdom and power inherent in them. Chanting sacred sounds is the means to achieve union with absolute being.
Malas did not appear in the Buddhist tradition until sometime after the rise of the Mahayana (The Great Vehicle) in Asia. The first citation of the use of prayer beads occurs in the Soapberry Tree Sutra (Chinese: Mahuanzi; Japanese: Mokugenji). In this sutra, King Vaidurya of the kingdom of Nanda is beset with great conflicts: enemy attacks, diseases, etc. He begs the Buddha to give him a simple practice to help bring ease to his mind and to pacify the external discord. The Buddha tells him to string 108 seeds from the Soapberry tree (Sapindus saponaria) and recite the threefold refuge prayer: taking refuge in the Buddha as example, in the Dharma, the body of truth, and in the Sangha, the community of practitioners.
The Mahayana tradition initiated the concept of the bodhisattva, embodied forms of compassionate energy that alleviates the suffering of all sentient beings. With the development of the Mahayana tradition came a proliferation of meditational deities and an emphasis on devotional practices not found in the earlier monastic Theravadin tradition. The mala was the main tool to focus ones devotional energy and aspirations, as garlands of sacred sounds were offered again and again. The mala was seen to become imbued with spiritual energy as a result of these recitations.