The Multi-Cultural History of Prayer Beads

A FS sourced collection on the history of prayer beads used in different cultures around the world:

Over two-thirds of the world’s population employ prayer beads as part of their religious practices. Prayer beads have a variety of forms and meanings, but the basic purpose is the same: to assist the worshiper in reciting and counting specific prayers or incantations. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism are the major religions that use prayer beads in important ritualistic roles.

Beads have long been linked with the act of prayer. The English word bead is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words bidden (“to pray”) and bede (“prayer”). The use of beads in prayer appears to have originated with Hindu religious practices in India , possibly around the 8th century B.C.E. Buddhism, which developed from a sect of Hinduism, retained the use of prayer beads as it became established in China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet. It is thought that Islam adopted prayer beads through contact with Buddhism and Hinduism. Prayer beads, in the form of the Catholic rosary, were common throughout Europe by the late Middle Ages. via Museum of Anthropology, College of Arts and Science, University of Missouri.

Hindu and Buddhist Mala

Hinduism, one of the oldest living religions, is the major religion of the Indian subcontinent. The two main branches of modern Hinduism—Shaivism and Vishnuism—employ different types of prayer beads, or mala. Shaivists, who are devotees of the god Siva, carry strings of 32 to 108 Rudraksha beads made from the seeds of a tree unique to the island of Java in Indonesia. These rough seeds represent the difficult and rigid life required of the worshipers of Siva. Each seed is segmented into five sections, which represent the five faces and personalities of Siva. Vishnu mala consist of carved wooden beads from the sacred basil shrub, or Tulsi, and are usually found in strands of 108.

Moss Agate Mala.

Buddhist Mala also typically consist of strands of 108 beads, reflecting the religion’s historical connection to Hinduism. In Buddhism, the 108 beads represent the impurities or lies that one must overcome in order to reach Nirvana. Most monks wear 108 beads for use in counteracting their 108 impurities, whereas lay people tend to wear only 30 or 40 beads. The difference in the number of beads used is a result of the spiritual differences in what different people must overcome or how far they have come on the path to enlightenment. Buddhist prayer beads have traditionally been made from the wood or seeds of the sacred Bodhi tree. As Buddhism spread throughout China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet, it was influenced by the various cultures of those areas and a number of new materials such as bone, amber, and semi-precious stones began to be used for prayer beads. via Museum of Anthropology, College of Arts and Science, University of Missouri.

islamic prayer beads - Masbaha
islamic prayer beads – Masbaha (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Muslim Subha or Misbaha

At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims did not use prayer beads as a tool during personal prayer, but may have used date pits or small pebbles. Reports indicate that Caliph Abu Bakr  used a subha similar to modern ones. The widespread manufacture and use of subha began about 600 years ago.The subha is used by Muslims to help count recitations and concentrate during personal prayers. The worshiper touches one bead at a time while reciting words of dhikr.  These recitations are often of the 99 “names” of Allah, or of phrases that glorify and praise Allah. This form of recitation stems from an account in which the Prophet Muhammad instructed his daughter, Fatima, to remember Allah using these words. He also said that believers who recite these words after every prayer “will have all sins pardoned, even if they may be as large as the foam on the surface of the sea.” Muslims may also use prayer beads to count multiple recitations of other phrases while in personal prayer. Some Muslims also carry the beads as a source of comfort, fingering them when stressed or anxious. Prayer beads are a common gift item, especially for those returning from Hajj (pilgrimage). via Islamic Prayer Beads – Subha – What Are Subha Islamic Prayer Beads.

Catholic Rosaries

In the beginnings of Christianity, the repetition of a short verse from the Psalms or of the Our Father prayer came into vogue, especially among the monastics of the Thebaid in Egypt. The Gospel ban against “vain repetitions” did not extend to liturgical prayer and repeated personal prayers that were said slowly and meaningfully within a meditative devotional context. Christ Himself, especially during His Agony in the Garden prior to His Passion, prayed for long hours repeating a short phrase. Here is an example: “…Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me, yet, not what I want, but what You want . . . And again He went away and prayed, saying the same words.” (Mark 14: 36-39). In the time of St Basil the Great in the fourth century AD, the practice of reciting the Jesus Prayer was predominant among Eastern monastics.

As far as beaded prayer ropes go, we do know that in the early centuries of the church, some monastics kept track of their daily prayers by dropping small pebbles into a sack as each prayer was said. Later, pebbles were strung on a rope. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “In many monastic rules, it was enjoined that the lay brothers, who knew no Latin, instead of the Divine office should say the Lord’s Prayer a certain number of times (often amounting to more than a hundred) per diem. To count these repetitions they made use of pebbles or beads strung upon a cord, and this apparatus was commonly known as a “pater-noster”, a name which it retained even when such a string of beads was used to count, not Our Fathers, but Hail Marys in reciting Our Lady’s Psalter, or in other words in saying the rosary.” In other words, the Pater Noster is the ‘original’ Christian prayer rope! A Pater Noster is a straight rope of beads, NOT brought into a loop like a rosary or chotki. It has a cross at one end and a tassel at the other. Original Pater Nosters did not have larger beads spaced throughout like the “Pater beads” on modern rosaries or the “spacer beads” on modern chotki. It was the Eastern monastics that introduced the prayer rope to St. Dominic, who altered it to the ubiquitous Dominican Rosary used by Roman Catholics today.via The History of Prayer Beads, Rosaries, Paternosters, Chotkis.

Although they were commonplace by the late Middle Ages, prayer beads were not officially accepted by the Catholic church until Pope Leo X gave the rosary approbation in 1520.

The term rosary is derived from the Latin word rosarium, or rose garden, and refers both to the religious exercise of reciting prayers and to the string of prayer beads used to assist in this practice. In Catholicism, the rose is a symbol of perfection; thus the rosary expresses the idea of a permanent garden of prayer. It is used to count the prayers recited in honor of the Virgin Mary while one meditates on scenes of the life of Christ and his mother. This exercise is traditionally repeated three times a day. The “typical” rosary contains 59 beads—six large and 53 small. They are arranged into five decades of 10 small beads and one large bead each plus a pendant of one large and three small beads that terminates in a cross. via Museum of Anthropology, College of Arts and Science, University of Missouri.

Tradition does hold that St. Dominic, moved by a vision of our Blessed Mother, preached the use of the rosary in his missionary work among the Albigensians, who had denied the mystery of Christ. Some scholars take exception to St. Dominic’s role in forming the rosary. The earliest accounts of his life do not mention it, the Dominican constitutions do not link him with it and contemporaneous portraits do not include it as a symbol to identify the saint.  Fr. William Saunders.

Various forms of prayer beads are used in Eastern Orthodoxy, but these are almost exclusive to monastic practices. Eastern Orthodox more commonly use knotted prayer ropes, which serve the same purpose as prayer beads; prayer ropes were common in other religions as well before the introduction of prayer beads. In the 1980s, a group of Episcopalians melded the Catholic rosary and the Eastern Orthodox prayer rope to create Anglican prayer beads that have seen some popularity. However, Catholicism remains the only branch of Christianity to see widespread adoption of prayer beads in religious practices. via Museum of Anthropology, College of Arts and Science, University of Missouri.

9 thoughts on “The Multi-Cultural History of Prayer Beads

  1. I’m surprised by some of the history. I had heard that the knotted cords were used in monasteries to help the monks say or sing the 150 psalms (50 beads or knots 3 times a day). I also had heard that in order to be admitted as a religious to these monasteries that it was mandatory that the entering member be tested to see if they knew all of the psalms since psalmody (the singing of psalms) was part of their daily life: the beginning of the present day breviary. Maybe that was just folklore but it was what I had heard previously.

    1. From what I read the early history of the catholic rosary is sketchy at best. If you run across information I can add to this please let me know. What you heard might be true! there is def. room for more info.

  2. @ServusFidelis I read the same information. Knowledge of the Psalms was expected so as to participate. The knotted cords were also used to say The Jesus Prayer up to 500 times.

  3. Thanks. This is really interesting. The first time I saw a Muslim using prayer beads, I was confused. I knew the family was Muslim but the wife was using prayer beads to pray for her husband who was sick. From where I was standing, it looked just like a wooden rosary. After that, I realized that Catholics are not the only people who use prayer beads of some sort.

  4. I love your rosary article! There are dozens of excellent books about the rosary laying around. Good one by Pope John Paul II, with great illustrations, too. I must have six or more. Takes time, but with regular use, especially the meditations, become a part of your life!

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