The mala beads represent the ecliptic, the path of the sun and moon across the sky. Yogis divide the ecliptic into 27 equal sections called nakshatras. The nakshatras are one of the oldest references we have to astrology from the Rig Veda, dating back about 5,000 years ago written by the great seers and sages of India. The nakshatras are like the zodiacal signs but more specific. Their meanings are derived from the constellations, fixed stars and the mythology behind these portions in the sky.
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They are rich in meaning and have ruling deities that reveal the stories that bring to life the symbology referred to in our own lives.
Each nakshatra is divided into four equal sectors called padas, marking the 108 steps that the sun and moon take through heaven. Each is associated with a particular blessing force, with which you align yourself as you turn the mala beads.
Each time we chant another mantra as our mala beads slip through our fingers, we are taking another step toward our own inner sun. As you use the mala and do your Japa meditation you are chanting each mantra 108 times, this is to represent your material self-moving towards higher self-realisation and eventually enlightenment. This means our soul has to make a journey through 108 stages to achieve moksha, this happens by chanting. By chanting you start a symbolic journey from the physical body to the esoteric body.
When you use mala beads there are normally 108 beads on the chain. Occasionally you might use a bracelet which might have 27 or 54 beads on it; the important thing here is that whichever you use, they must all add up to the number 9 as the number 108 itself does.
The number 9 is seen as a mystic number and is said to represent wholeness. The number 108 is a multiple of 9. All multiples of 9 added together ultimately become number 9 which is what make the number 9 so unique and what makes any multiple of 9, especially the number 108 so special.
There are 18 books in the Mahabharata, one of the two most important texts of ancient India, the other being the Ramayana. If you add up all the words in the 18 books, there are 1.8 million words in total. The 18 parvas or books, define in detail the career of man on earth. The 18 chapters in the Bhagavad Gita make yoga philosophy complete. The 18-day war makes the warrior's exploits complete. There are 18 divisions of the armies of the contending parties; Pandavas and Kauravas with one having 7 and the other 11 divisions. Thus in total there were 18 armies. The Mahabharata can therefore be seen to be an exposition of the human possibilities and achievements graded into 18, the first multiple of 9. This makes it even more pertinent to study these great texts, if you are to gain a better understanding of yoga and through this the importance and meaning of the symbolism of numbers.
The mystical number 9 came to be so called due to following. The universe is constituted of the three factors: time, space and causation. The universe is constituted of the three Gunas, sattva, rajas and tamas. The universe is constituted of the three functions: creation, preservation and destruction. This 3 x 3 making 9, has made 9 the mystical number that is now so revered in yoga. The number 9 exhausts the definition of the phenomenal universe.
From this, one can say that the number 9 is just like water; it can take any shape as any number added to it always gives us the same number. Just as water can take any shape or form and adapt and change, so can the number 9, which is the ultimate end number. This is Moksha; it can take any shape or form and is the ultimate goal of all yogis. As the Bhagavad Gita tells us: “I am the taste in the water, the rays of the sun and moon. I am the sweet fragrance of the earth, the brilliance of fire. 1 am the life in all beings.
Next time you do your 108 Sun Salutations or use your mala beads, be conscious of the reasons for doing them and strive to realise that all is one, that all is connected and that we are all one.