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Common thread

Many religious faiths connected by a simple string of beads

They were one of the first sources of human artistic expression, emotional comfort and spiritual mystery.

From a lone Buddhist monk rubbing his beads in contemplation of the flaws of man to a Catholic woman holding her rosary in prayer, these tiny objects, bound together by cord, provide tactile comfort and company to those seeking spiritual guidance.

Deseret Morning News graphicDNews graphicPrayer beadsRequires Adobe Acrobat.

Carved from seashells, wood, precious stone or other materials, beads were cherished by stone-age societies as talismans of good fortune.

Tens of thousands of years later, beads are still found in many major religions, including Islam, Buddhism and Christianity.

Anthropologists believe the use of beads in prayers stemmed from the use of beads to keep count. The same ancient technology that gave rise to the abacus was also used by the religious to keep count of their prayers. But they have also become a symbol of humanity, being given at birthdays, weddings and handed down to the next generation in families.

The prayer bead has its own story and journey, having first been used in India, then traveling the spice and silk roads to areas of China, Tibet and west to Arabia and Rome.

The earliest recorded use of prayer beads comes from the Hindu faiths in India as far back as the eighth century B.C. Called Mala, the beads are still used in prayer in India. Those who worship Siva, one of the major Hindu deities, use the rough, brown seeds of the rudrashka tree, which grows in Java. The seeds are segmented into five or more sections, which are said to represent the five personalities, or faces, of Siva.

Hindus who worship the major deity Vishnu make their beads from the wood of the tulsi, or "holy basil tree." Mala beads remain cherished among modern Hindus.

As Buddhism spread in India, around 500 B.C., the tradition of using strings of beads to keep count of prayers followed. Buddhist monks carry strands of 108 beads while lay persons carry smaller strands of 30 to 40. Among Tibetan monks, the most cherished of such beads are made from the bones of revered deceased lamas, or holy men.

The Rev. Jerry Hirano with the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple said the 108 beads are divided into six sections to represent the senses that "afflict the passions of man." Those senses are the eyes, ears, tongue, nose, body and mind. Those senses can be desirable, undesirable, pleasurable, painful or neutral. "Six possibilities for each of the six sense objects give 36 possibilities," Hirano said. "Each of these possibilities exist in the past, present or future, so that is a total of 108."

The use of prayer beads spread to China, Tibet and eventually Japan. They took on additional significance as status symbols and items used for weddings and funerals.

It is believed that Muslim traders brought prayer beads west, eventually adopting them into Islamic tradition. The Subha consists of 33 beads with usually two leader beads. The Muslim prays around the Subha three times, using the leader beads to keep track of rotations. In all there are 99 counts, representing the 99 names, or attributions, of Allah. Legend holds that the 100th name of Allah is known only by the Camels.

Muslims are encouraged to use the beads to keep track of their prayers. There are two main prayers, the Tahmid ("God be praised") or the Tahlit ("There is no god but Allah"), which faithful are expected to say 100 times morning and night. There is a tradition among some Muslims that the tassel at the end of the Subha wards off evil spirits.

In modern times, many Muslim men carry prayer beads in their hands not only for prayer but as a source of security as well as to display their faith.

Because Islam grew alongside Christianity in the Middle East, the tradition was eventually taken up by Christians as well. Among the Greek Orthodox faithful, the use of the Komboskini, or knotted rope, is common.

"The Komboskini goes way back to the monasteries," said Father Michael Kouremetis with the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church. "It's a tool for us. It is a discipline. It helps us concentrate in prayer," Kouremetis said. Although they are knots on a small rope, rather than beads, the purpose is similar. A Komboskini can range from 50 to 100 knots and is commonly worn around the wrist.

"We pray the Jesus Prayer on each one, saying 'Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' We are asking for God's mercy," Kouremetis said, adding the use of the Komboskini began among his church's monks as early as A.D. 1054.

Back then, the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church had not parted ways. Catholic historians have made note that in the early second century some monks would place a pile of pebbles in their lap as a way to keep count and eventually used beads in what would give rise to the Catholic rosary.

According to the Catholic Church, by the 12th century, Christians who could not read memorized the 150 psalms of the Divine Office by using prayer beads. In the 15th century, the Carthusain Henry Kalkar divided the beads into sets of 10, or decades. With the addition of the "Hail Mary" prayer in the 16th century, a crucifix and five beads were added at the end of the rosary.

"This is a tool for prayer, reflecting on the mysteries of Christ's life," said Maxine Kaiser, director of the office of liturgy for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

For 500 years Catholics have used the rosary to reflect on the "Mysteries" of Jesus' life. The Joyful Mysteries focus on the beginning of his life: the Annunciation, visitation, birth, presentation in the temple and finding in the temple. The Sorrowful Mysteries include the agony of Jesus in the garden, scourging at the pillar, crowning with thorns, carrying of the cross and Crucifixion. The Glorious Mysteries are the Resurrection, ascension, coming of the Holy Spirit, assumption of Mary and crowning of Mary. The prayers associated with the rosary are: "Our Father," "Glory Be," "Apostles' Creed," and "Hail Mary."

Then in 2003, Pope John Paul II stunned Catholics with the addition of a fourth set of Mysteries.

"That really came as a big surprise to everybody," Kaiser said. "It's been that way for five centuries."

Noting that the rosary dwells only on the birth, death and Resurrection, the Pope added the Mysteries of Light, which add events from Jesus' life as a man. Those mysteries are the baptism, wedding feast at Cana, proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God, God's command to the apostles to listen to Jesus, and the institution of the Eucharist.

But Kaiser said prayer beads are more than about keeping count. "In turn, it's reflecting on the mysteries of our own life," she said.

Father Kouremetis said it is also about thinking about others and praying for them. All agreed that there has been much spiritual strength drawn from a simple string of tiny beads — a string that has connected many religious faiths over thousands of years.

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com