Beads: Significance in Spiritual and Religious Practices
The significance of religious and spiritual practices in the world is enormous. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist practitioners make up the overwhelming majority of the world’s population. The CIA estimates are that Christians (33%), Muslims (23%), Hindus (14%) and Buddhist (7%) make up the majority of religious followers. Atheists and non-religious believers make up only 12% of the world’s population. About 11% of the world’s population practices other spiritual and religious traditions. ALL of the major spiritual and religious traditions have used beads in their practices. Below I have listed some details about the nature of spiritual/religious beads used by major groups. As you will see the use of beads in spiritual and religious practices is very common.
- Roman Catholics use rosary beads (from rose petal “beads” in the rose garden or rosarium) – usually 54 + 5 beads. When beads are used to recite 150 psalms, they are 150 beads long and called patermasters.
- Muslims use their misbaha/masbaha, tasbih, subha beads – usually 99 or 33 beads.
- Hindus (from 500 BCE) use mala beads – usually 108 (the cosmos) or 27 beads.
- Buddhists (mala) for 108 worldly desires, and Sikhs have generally maintained the Hindu “counts.”
- Baha’i uses beads – usually 19 or 99 + 5 beads.
- Orthodox Jews, use tassels tallit or tzitzits (Moses – to remember the commandments of god).
- Ortodox Greek and Russian Christians use knots as beads – Greek prayer ropes are called kombologian, and Russian prayer ropes are called chotki – Greek knots are 33, 50 and 100 while Russian knots are 33, 100, and 500.
- African Masai, Native American, and Greek and Russian Orthodoxy also use beads.
So why use beads in spiritual and religious prayer practices? There are many, many reasons why beads are used in these spiritual traditions. However, I will note just a few. Here are some reasons. Beads are used:
- To maintain your counting in prayers practices – in praising the object of your beliefs;
- To confirm your level of dedicated practice by repetitions;
- To deepen your personal belief by mantra-like or out loud speaking;
- To enhance your level of faith by deeper and deeper contemplations about your beliefs; and,
- To deepen practice by repeated, deeper contemplations (called lectio divina ) in Catholicism.
Here are some other reasons why beads are used. These reasons deal more with contemporary neuroscience research than with ancient and current religious practices. These are:
- Enhanced learning in frontal and prefrontal areas by verbal/cognitive repetitions;
- Temporal area strengthening by hearing the words you are saying either to yourself or out loud;
- Multi-sensory applications to bead mantra work – using fingertips (huge representation in the brain) to touch beads as you repeat verbal statements over and over again;
- Multi-sensory applications open up pathways for brain plasticity, so your brain changes over time to make your religious practices and beliefs stronger and stronger over time;
- Possible multi-sensory brain coherence – lighting up neurons across various brain regions in your practices, which allows even more powerful plasticity to occur about your practices and beliefs; and,
- Ritualize the spiritual or religious practices, thus making the objects of practice more sacred.
So, now you have some information about why beads are so, so common in spiritual and religious practices. This same information is the basis for use of beads in contemporary spiritual practices without religious connections.
For more information refer to Dorff, V. (2014). The Little Book About Big Things: World Religion. New York, NY: Fall River Press. See also www.dharmabeads.net for more information. Retrieved May 2, 2016.
Anthony R. Quintiliani, PhD., LADC
From the Eleanor R. Liebman Center for Secular Meditation in Monkton, Vermont
Author of Mindful Happiness