A mala (Sanskrit for “garland”) is a counting device.
It is used to count the number of mantra recitations completed during a period of meditation—one repetition per bead. A mala can also serve as a physical cue for reciting a mantra.
Walking down the street with one hand in a pocket, fingers sliding from bead to bead, the mind quietly sustains the mantra as a background to other activities occurring closer to the surface of attention.
A mala usually contains 108 beads (although some malas are made with half or even a quarter of this number). An additional bead, the tasseled bead called the meru bead, indicates the beginning and end of each cycle. Despite the fact that the mala has 108 beads, only 100 repetitions are credited for a trip around. Thus, “8 malas” equals 800 repetitions of the mantra. Giving credit for only 100 repetitions per mala makes counting easier, and it also acknowledges the unfortunate fact that the mind is wandering for part of the meditation anyway.
Good malas have knots between each bead. This prevents the beads from sliding into one another, from abrading the string (the sutra), and from separating as the string stretches with wear. If the knots are tied too tightly the mala will be stiff and won’t hang easily in the hand. Conversely, if the knots are too far apart, the beads will slide and wear down the string. So you’ll find that a well-tied mala is a source of both comfort and convenience.
Mala beads can be made of many materials. Some are specially suited for particular meditative practices or are thought to have unique properties. For example, malas made of the rudraksha (“eye of rudra”) seed, a seed found in just a few locations in the world, are said to be particularly appropriate for the practice of mantras connected to Shiva. Crystal or zirconium malas can be used for the practice of a mantra called the Gayatri mantra, a purifying mantra. Lapis is said to help remove illnesses.