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Mala (or Power) Bracelets and the Power of Stones

Mala is Hindi (from Sanskrit) for "a string of beads" or "a garland." It had not entered the English language (at least in the US) by 1971, but has now arrived. Alternate names for the fad: Power beads, Energy beads.

The prayer strandis a Hindu invention, from which it passed into Buddhism (an offshoot of Hinduism) and Islam, eventually reaching Christendom. A prayer strand is a mala to Hindus and some Buddhists.

The mala bead craze in the US is an eclectic mixture of bead lore and belief in the power of certain stones. Zoe Metro of New York created the concept. Usually, the beads are worn as bracelets. They are round except for one that is either teardrop or gourd in shape. This last bead represents the first (and last) bead used in counting a Buddhist prayer strand. But see this warning.

Left: Tiger-eye (actually glass) Mala bracelet.
21 + 2 beads
The starter bead is made in two plastic parts.

Right: "Good Fortune" bracelet of white-painted wood with Chinese characters. 24 + 1 beads,

Both made in China

According to an Associated Press report by Rachel Beck, "Millions of Americans... are buying into the latest New Age craze -- powerbead bracelets, which are supposed to do everything from boost intelligence to relieve PMS."

They are booming. Merlite Jewelry (in business for 53 years) reports that they are the biggest sales category for 1998-9.

Variation on the theme: a necklace (choker) made of the same wooden beads and by the same people as the bracelet above. Thirteen beads.

Caution: If you are buying them as genuine stones for a stone's price
 make sure they are genuine.

See here and here.

Do they work? Beck quotes 30-year old Sarah Lessen, wearing a bracelet of quartz beads, "I look down at my wrist and I remember I need to be strong. It's a great inspiration."

As an inspiration, certainly. But, do beads and stones have mystical powers? And if they work are they being reported correctly?

The list I am working with is the one of nine materials on the label of the "tiger eye" mala bracelet above. Four of the nine are mentioned in Beck's article, and they all correspond to the properties given them on my mala bracelet.

How do these properties match up with other ideas about the mystical value of stones? And how do different systems compare?

Turquoise The mala beads say it brings good health. There is some of the same idea in Western thought. Above all, it is considered an antidote to poison, but it also brings affection and wards against the Evil Eye, The Chinese never appreciated turquoise. However, in Tibet it was considered to bring wealth and used as a powerful medicine.

Amethyst To the mala beads it brings intelligence. In the West it is overwhelmingly associated with sobriety. Its name is Greek meaning "not drunk." I find no particular quality assigned to it in China.

Tiger Eye The mala beads associate it with creativity. I find no mention of it elsewhere. It may not have been known to the ancients. Pliny (1st century Roman) did not list it.

Mother-of-Pearl Wealth is associated with this according to the mala beads. It was not considered important to the ancients, West or East, except in India. The Arthavaveda (ca. 800 BC) discusses an amulet called sanhka that brings on long life and wards against disease, misery and arrows.1

Rose Quartz For mala bracelets fanciers it brings love. No mention of mystical powers that I could find.

Aventurine Brings success if you are wearing a mala bracelet. Recent Hindu thought says it takes away cares. A newly discovered stone, aventurine is named after the glass that was hard or risky (avventura in Italian) to produce.

Wood The mala bead say harmony. Chinese ideas are much more complex. It depends upon the wood. Boxwood is supposed to insure longevity and be medicinal. Birch is medicinal and considered the "spirit tree." Prunus, probably peach, warded off evil spirits. Camphor, aloes, rosewood and many others were all considered auspicious. "Harmony" is not mentioned.

Hematite An anti-depressant for the mala bead people. In the West associated with healing from wounds (alluding to the blood-red color).

Quartz (Rock) Crystal Mala bracelets say it brings strength. In the West and China it is considered a healer and a powerful amulet, symbolizing purity.

 1 Sankh is the word for the sacred conch (Xanthus pyrum) which only sometimes produces pearls. It has a wide and long use in India for bracelets. Shende (1949:357), however, identified this amulet with pearls and mother-of-pearl. The text says sankha is the mother of pearls, but this may be a misunderstanding on the part of the writer of the Arthavaveda or Shende.

AP article:

Beck, Rachel 1999 Variously titled: "Can You Find Happiness in a Bracelet?" (CNNi, 8 October 1999) "Consumers embrace the Bead: Demand swells for colorful bracelets linked to good karma" Charlotte Observer 13 October 1999, p. 2A (thanks, Carol).

Western traditions:
Budge, E.A. Wallis 1968 Amulets and Talismans New York: Collier Books.
Evans, Joan 1976 Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. New York: Dover.
Kunz, George F. 1971 The Curious Lore of Precious Stones, New York: Dover.
Pavitt, William T. and Kate 1970 The Book of Talismans, Amulets & Zodiacal Gems
N. Hollywood: Wilshire Book Co.

Chinese traditions:
Cammann, Schuyler 1962 Substance and Symbol in Chinese Toggles Philadelphia:
U. of Pennsylvania Press.

Ball, Sydney H. 1950 A Roman Book on Precious Stones. Los Angeles: Gemological Institute of America.
Eichholz, D.E. 1962 Pliny: Natural History. Loeb Classical Library Cambridge MA/London: Harvard U. Press/ W. Heinemann.

Shende, N.J. 1949 The Foundations of the Arthavanic Religion Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 9(3/4):197-414.


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