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Why the Mala Beads are Sacred for Hindus?
Veda Nath Mohabir
Indian forebears – the over one-half million Indian indentured labourers, pejoratively called “Bound Coolies” – between1838 to 1917, were carried across the oceans (Kala Pani or dark waters) holed up in ships in a journey of over three months from India with few earthly possessions. Yet, they took to the Caribbean –Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica, the Windward Islands, St. Croix (Danish) and Guadeloupe and Martinique (French) – Belize, Surinam, French Guiana and British Guiana traditions which preserved their ultra-rich ancient heritage. One such intriguing tradition is embedded in the unassuming mala (Sanskrit: maalaa, for garland) or loosely called, ‘Hindu beads’. Thus, the mala is widely known as a garland or necklace – of 108 beads.
This simple string of 108 beads has deep scientific, mathematical and spiritual significance. As an example of its spiritual significance and use, Hindu tradition requires that on certain auspicious occasions some mantras (sacred utterances) be recited 108 times. The beads are used as a means to concentrate the mind on the chosen mantra while the devotee turns each bead to and fro. As well, each bead is considered to provide a unique sacrament/blessing as will be made clearer below. Finally, the beads are used to keep the count as the devotee progresses through the 108 repetitions.
The Museum of Anthropology tells us that the use of prayer beads most likely began with Hinduism in the 8th century BCE. Buddhism, Islam and the Catholic Church copied the practice. https://anthromuseum.missouri.edu/minigalleries/prayerbeads/intro.shtml
A discussion on the importance of the number 108 follows. But, it is first necessary to turn to learned observers’ views on Indian traditions in order give the reader confidence that the findings on 108 are not a random accident.
How Scientists view Hindu concepts
Scientist, generally do not view religions as having a rational leg to stand on, so to speak. Yet, several western scholars including high profile quantum physicists, cosmologists and astrophysicists have expressed very positive views of Indian philosophical concepts.
The late comparative mythologist, Prof. Joseph Campbell’s collected works were named ‘Thou Art That’ – a popular translation of the Hindu Upanishadic ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ (each of us is a manifestation of the supreme universal ‘Spirit’, Brahman).
The also late astrophysicist Carl Sagan in his TV series, COSMOS argued that the Indian Yuga system (epochs of the universe) provides an age of the universe which is the closest to modern science of any other religious tradition. Several other theoretical physicists such as Prof. Brian Cox in his science series Human Universe – episode ‘Why Are We Here’ – commented on the most authoritative Hindu text, the Rig Veda’s Creation hymn 10:129 of the Universe, saying that it reflects “real intellectual rigour and honesty” while also noting that other significant ‘mathematical concepts such as Square Root, Pi (3.145) and the latterly named, ‘Pythagoras Theorem’ are all in the Vedas’.
Theoretical physicist, Fritjof Capra also speaks approvingly of Hindu philosophy and imagery. Capra writes in his bestseller, Tao of Physics – An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, that Lord “Shiva, the Cosmic Dancer [Nataraja], is perhaps the most perfect personification of the dynamic universe. Through his dance, Shiva sustains the manifold phenomena in the world, unifying all things by immersing them in his rhythm and making them participate in the dance – a magnificent image of the dynamic unity of the universe.”
Since 2004, Lord Shiva’s statue graces the foreground of (and casts a show at night on) the CERN, European Center for Research in Particle Physics, headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. See here: http://www.thepeoplesvoice.org/TPV3/Voices.php/2010/11/14/the-large-hadron-collider-and-the-statue-5
Another physicist, Lee Smolin, speaks of the universe as a ‘bouncing ball’ – contracting to virtual nothingness and expanding to what we know today, over billions of years in a never ending process. Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita 8:17-20 & 9:7-8 revealed to Arjuna the very same idea of a cyclic universe 5,000 years ago.
Sanskrit Alphabet & Sound Elements
The word ‘Sanskrit’ means perfected or refined (speech). Furthermore, Vedic Sanskrit is considered a divine language and for sound (pun intended) reasons. The alphabet (varnamala) comprises the set of the smallest units of unique and identifiable sound elements or phonemes, derived at five locations in the organ of speech.
Vedic phoneticians observed the physiology of sound articulation and classified the sounds of Sanskrit accordingly. The arrangement of sounds according to phonetic classes was called varnamala… ‘The varnamala is the inventory of sounds of Sanskrit, arranged in term of the five physiologic places of utterance – bilabial, dental, palatal, cerebral and guttural. – and manners of articulation – aspirated-unaspirated, voiced-voiceless)…’ Note that the Sanskrit alphabet string is called a ‘mala’, as with the beads.
Taking the theory of Vedic sounds further, the ardent advocate of Indian classical music, the late Prof. Alain Danielou, musicologist and director of the College of Indian Music wrote that the limitations of our human perception to discriminate sounds mean we can distinguish and utilize only 54 articulated sounds – the Sanskrit vowels and consonants; and that a similar limitation is encountered in music “since we can only discern fifty-four sounds in the octave which the Hindus call sruti – that which can be heard”. As such, he concluded that the totality of sound elements available to the human ear is 108 (54+54).
Astronomy & Cosmology
Danielou goes even further and asserts that “this figure  corresponds to certain numerical codes that we shall find in all aspects of creation”.
In this regard, Astronomy provides some remarkable evidence. Whether by coincidence or design, both the Sun and Moon are approximately108 times their diameters from the Earth (actual: 107.4 and 109.8 on average, respectively). Furthermore, the diameter of the Sun is virtually 108 times (actual: 109) the Earth’s. In other words, virtual malas of 108 Sun and Moon disks, respectively, can be laid out bridging from the Earth to these celestial bodies which the devotee can mentally walk on to reach these celestial deities, in Hindu philosophy. Thirdly, a virtual mala of 108 Earth disks – or spheres( as beads) – can be stretched out along the diameter of the Sun.
Furthermore, the speed of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is 108,000 km/h. Not be outdone, the average distance of Venus from the Sun is 108,208,930 km. Note the ‘108’ which the Hindus revere is repeated in these astronomical measurements – whether in speed or distance. The Hindus clearly knew this.
This might all seem like a random occurrence except that the oldest and most authoritative Hindu text, RigVeda, hymn III:62.10, states in the very auspicious Gayatri mantra that the Sun (Savitur) in our solar system is a proxy for the beneficent God-head.
In Vedic Physics, Prof. R. R. Mohan Roy cites computer engineering professor, Subhas Kak to explain that the number of hymns in the Rig Veda is 1,017. In Hindu cosmology, because the universe is said to be divided into three sectors – Heavens/Light space, Atmosphere/Intermediate space and Earth/Observer space – 339 hymns are allocated to each sectors. Dividing 339 by Pi (ratio of circle circumference to diameter = 3.145) gives the quotient108 – the number of times the auspicious Gayatri, Om Namah Shivaya and other sacred mantras are, on occasion, to be chanted.
As a consequence of the auspiciousness of the number 108 and its spiritual symbolism, it is applied in various ways, for example, in architecture – the laying and placement of stones and bricks especially in temples. At the huge astronomically designed 12th C. Ankgor Wat temple complex, in Cambodia, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, “each half of the [Western] bridge measured 216 [2×108] cubits in length. In addition, the architect had installed a total of 216 sandstone columns and balustrade supports as part of the bridge’s overall structure”. http://www.borobudur.tv/survey_1.htm
Similarly, at the Phnom Bakheng site, dedicated to Lord Shiva, there are 108 surrounding towers. http://sacredsites.com/asia/cambodia/angkor_wat.html
Danielou’s assertion that the number 108 can be found in all of creation is challenging to prove but this writer has come across the following two applications relating to human physiology, among others. (Such a number is called a fractal – recurring patterns – in Mathematics and the sciences).
- According to Bhaskaracarya’s Suryadiddhanta (Text of Indian tradition or tenets on Astronomy, Yugas/Time Cycles, Trigonometry, etc): one asu or prāņa (breath) takes 4 seconds. Therefore, in twelve hours (average day of sunlight) there will be 10800 breaths of a normal healthy adult. http://veda.wikidot.com/vedic-time-system
- The number of heartbeats of a healthy adult has a wide range. But according to the University of Maryland Medical Centre “on average, a healthy adult heart beats approximately 108,000 times every day” (using an average of 75 beats/min).http://www.umm.edu/resources/pdf/winter09.pdf . Oklahoma Medical Research Centre OMRF also uses this number. http://omrf.org/2011/07/26/exercise-heartbeats/ .
Clearly, the Hindu tradition has science on its side in its reverence of the number 108; and, to reiterate Prof. Brian Cox view of the Hindu Hymn of Creation, “intellectual rigour”. Thus the mala or ‘Hindu beads’ are sacred because of the 108 fractal attribute which Hindus have uniquely discovered in our magnificent and beneficent solar system and in nature.
Veda Nath Mohabir (firstname.lastname@example.org)