In each of the world’s major religions, people use their tactile sense to engage in prayer — they use a tangible device, often beads, sometimes referred to as a rosary, to get closer to God.
According to Gray Henry and Susannah Marriott, in their informative book Beads of Faith (Carroll & Brown Publishers, 2002), it was the Catholics who originally referred to this device as the rosary, although, write Henry and Marriott, the term has now taken on generic dimensions. Still, whether one calls it a mala (Buddhism, Hinduism), rosary (Christianity), tefillin (Judaism), tasbih (Islam), or what have you, the function is always the same: it’s a ritual aid for enumerating and focusing on one’s prayers.
Thus, in every corner of the globe, practitioners finger rosary beads or knots or use other methods to count God’s names, so that they can keep track of the number of times they chant daily. The idea is to make a vow, to keep the holy name on one’s lips in regulated fashion, until it is always uttered, whether out loud or in one’s heart.
The etymology of the word “bead” reinforces its originally intended use for spiritual purposes: It comes from the Saxon verb bidden, which means, “to pray.”
In the West, chanting on beads goes back to at least the time of St. Dominic (1170–1221 CE), who was taught the practice, it is said, by the Virgin Mary. Much earlier, in the fourth century, the Desert Fathers used “prayer rope” to count repetitions of the Jesus Prayer, which is similar to mantra meditation as performed in the East. In India, tulasi, Krishna’s favorite plant, is often carved into mala beads for chanting. Similarly, dzi — “Buddha-eye” beads — are found in the tilled fields of Tibet, and are faithfully chanted on by believing Buddhists. Native Americans believe that “the Great Spirit” sends them beads — crystal, amber. rosewood, olive pits, and so on — which they consider auspicious, using it for prayer and for the beadwork for which they are famous. In this way, japa, or the principle of chanting on “rosary” beads, is an almost universal practice.
Throughout history, rosary beads have been associated with rose gardens. This stems from the origin of the word “rose” itself. Although there are several theories about the word’s actual derivation, Henry and Marriott trace it to the Indo-European and Persian root gul. Invariably, they say, the word gul is related to gulistan, or “rose garden.” The same verbal root blossoms into the Latin rosarium, and this is where we get the word “rosary.” In this way, from early on, the chanting of rosary was associated with rose gardens in general and, more specifically, with the Garden of Eden, or Paradise.
The idea was that a secluded rose garden, like an isolated monastery, would provide facility for contemplation and spiritual growth, a venue for self-realization, prayer, and communion with God. In traditional literature, particularly Western religious literature, the earthly garden was often viewed, metaphorically, as a counterpart to the divine Garden of Eden. So, too, was the human heart viewed as a garden, to be nurtured by prayer and contemplation, so that the Kingdom of God may take root there. This inner spiritual development was chiefly facilitated through chanting in all its forms, particularly with the help of the rosary.
Interestingly, religions of the East also invoke the flower/garden imagery when referring to sacred chanting on beads. A mala, as prayer beads in the East are properly called, quite literally means, “a garland of flowers.”
Whatever its semantic derivation, the use of malas has long been considered efficacious in quiet, contemplative chanting, for it creates a devotional focus for concentrated attention — the body is calmed by the finger movements, allowing the mind to center on the mantras or divine sounds. In counting beads, one, in a sense, measures the unmeasurable, quantifying one’s spiritual practice and making it easier to gauge spiritual progress: “Am I more focused today than I was yesterday? Am I developing a taste for repeating the name of God?”
Traditionally, in India, japa is practiced in three different ways: silent focus on the mantra or chanting in one’s mind (manasika), whispered chanting, using only a soft voice (upamshu), and chanting out loud (vachicka). In actual practice, however, the first form of japa fits more into the practice of remembering Krishna internally (lila-smaranam) and the third form is actually part of kirtan, or congregational chanting in call-and-response fashion. Therefore, it is the second form of japa — whispered chanting, in low tones so that only the chanter himself hears it — that is properly considered japa by practitioners.
According to the first and sixteenth verses of Srila Prabhodananda Sarasvati’s Caitanya-candramrita, Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu Himself chanted japa (using the Hare Krishna maha-mantra) a regulated number of times each day. This is also confirmed in the second verse of Rupa Gosvami’s Prathama-caitanyastaka. The Lord would tie knots (granthin kati-dorakaih) on a small rope and keep track of His chanting by counting off the knots. Sometimes He would count the mantras on His fingers. This is the same principle described earlier, even if beads are not specifically referred to here. That being said, the tradition soon incorporated chanting on beads even in Mahaprabhu’s own time. He specifically instructed the Six Goswamis in this regard, and these instructions are preserved in Sanatana Goswami’s Hari-Bhakti-Vilasa, which mentions that the devotees should chant on beads made of various seeds, wood, and so on, giving explicit directions how to chant, which fingers are most effective for chanting, and how to meditate while engaging in japa.
Sri Chaitanya was Krishna Himself in the guise of His own devotee, and so His example is especially important: the Lord showed how critical it is to chant japa through doing so in His own manifest pastimes. Consequently, in the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition, it has become a mainstay, practiced by all devotees from the time of Lord Caitanya to the present day. Srila Prabhupada, coming in direct preceptorial line from Lord Chaitanya, thus emphasized the chanting of japa, too: “Chanting a mantra or hymn softly and slowly is called japa, and chanting the same mantra loudly is called kirtan. For example, uttering the maha-mantra (Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare. Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare) very softly, only for one’s own hearing, is called japa. Chanting the same mantra loudly for being heard by all others is called kirtan. The maha-mantra can be used for japa and kirtan also. When japa is practiced it is for the personal benefit of the chanter, but when kirtan is performed it is for the benefit of all others who may hear. In the Padma Purana there is a statement: ‘For any person who is chanting the holy name either softly or loudly, the paths to liberation and even heavenly happiness are at once open.'”
Such chanting is a pillar in the practice of Krishna Consciousness today. In every Krishna temple, and in the homes of devotees who do not live in an ashram, practitioners take time for chanting japa as part of their daily morning regimen — and throughout the day. All members of the Hare Krishna movement are asked to chant a minimum of sixteen rounds daily. This is done by procuring a mala of 108 beads, and a “head bead” that represents Krishna. The practice takes from an hour-and-a-half to two hours to complete. But that’s for initiates and other serious students.
A person usually begins by chanting one or two rounds on the beads. If you want to try this at home, here’s how it’s done: Make sure your hands are carefully washed before beginning japa. Chant on the 108 beads by gently rolling them between the middle finger and the thumb. When chanting, begin with a bead next to the large “head” bead. Chant around the beads, one full mantra for each bead (“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”), but never cross the “head” bead. Rather, change direction on the beads, turning back the other way after each round. It’s easy, and you’ll find that it increases your ability to focus on the mantra.
Japa is a form of meditation that doesn’t require you to sit in one place. If you want, you can walk and chant instead. Whatever is most comfortable. The main thing is to focus on the sound and to let it in — to really let it in. If you do, you’ll find that japa is a means by which to control the mind. If the mind is wandering, one has to make a concerted effort to bring it back. And japa facilitates this. Thus, the practice leads to the perfection of yoga, for one learns to control the mind’s fluctuations, which is one of yoga’s primary goals. In addition, chanting brings one into direct contact with God, since chanting His names allows one mystical proximity — as the sages say, God is nondifferent from His holy names and by chanting them one gets His intimate association, which is purifying, uplifting, and satisfying.
This latter point, about associating with God through His holy name, is the real secret of japa. As one becomes expert through regular recitation of the japa mantra — by engaging the same number of rounds every day, or increasing as time and inclination permit — one perceives God’s presence on one’s lips. Japa becomes holy ground. It becomes a thrilling adventure, in which God’s presence is perceived as a tangible reality. This comes, of course, after much practice. At first, naturally, japa is difficult, a commitment and an obligation. But it quickly becomes one of the most precious parts of one’s practice, especially if guided by those who are accomplished. Indeed, the science of japa, when learned through the good graces of those who know, and when perfected through diligent practice over many months or years, is a blessing, like putting the rose back in rosary.