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108 Steps to the End of Time

red mala
February 13 2017

When you ask a question about numbers and their significance in Indian spiritual traditions, you are likely to encounter a pyramid scheme of ever-proliferating, arcane explanations.

What is the significance of the three prongs on Shiva’s trident? Turns out there are way more than three contenders for the best answer. Why do scriptures say that the human body contains 64,000 subtle channels? Why are female deities so often described as being fifteen or sixteen years old? How long is the Kali Yuga? Careers spent proposing answers to this last one just might account for a significant percentage of India’s economy.

But the question I get most often is:  Why does a mala have 108 beads?

Usually I crack a joke in order to evade answering. But recently, I got a “download” about the 108 thing. In order to understand, we have to start with Jyotish, or Indian astrology.

Western astrologers use the 12 constellations: Aires, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, etc. Indian astrology is based in a different set of 27 constellations called nakshatras.  

Around the 4th century BCE,  Indian and Greek astrologers started sharing their knowledge. Greek astrologers did not adopt the Indian constellations. But the Jyotishis stepped right up and assimilated the 12 constellations of Western astrology. The more the merrier.

Today, many people practicing Jyotish rely heavily on the Western constellations. They also use the nakshatras, but often to a lesser extent. In my Jyotish lineage, the emphasis is on the nakshatras.

The nakshatras reside in an area of the sky encircling the earth called the zodiac belt. Each nakshatra governs an equal portion of this band of sky, or 13 degrees 20 minutes. This is the distance that the moon appears to travel against the backdrop of the constellations in one day. In one lunar month, the moon passes through the “lunar mansion” of each of the 27 nakshatras. In fact, the nakshatras are said to be the wives of the moon.

As do the Western constellations, the nakshatras communicate to us about our unique ways of showing up as human beings. Each of the nakshatras hosts a large number of associations that speak to the potential qualities of a human life.

But 27 nakshatras are not enough for India, the country in love with the infinite. Each nakshatra is further divided into 4 segments, or padas. Significantly, the word pada means foot. The padas give astrologers access to yet more heaps of associations.

So here’s the only equation you will find in this post. Ready?

27 x 4 = 108.

The sky above us is divided into 108 segments, each representing a particular pada of a nakshatra.  The moon progresses through all of them every month.

Now here comes the good part.

Jyotish speaks to us about karma—about the unfolding patterns in time that make up our experiences in duality. All of the significances of the nakshatras indicate the “flavors” of our karmic conditioning. When we are trying to wake up, we are trying to resolve or unwind karma, to be free of condiioning.

In the teachings of many streams of Tantra, both Indian and Tibetan, and in Daoism, the process of unwinding karma is one of walking backward from the conditioned to the less conditioned state.The journey toward realization does not involve the creation of something new,  but is rather an experience of a return.

Returning is written into our bodies. For instance, in our sadhana or spiritual practice, we travel backward from more gross to more subtle awareness. That journey is symbolized in our bodies by the journey  we take with the inhaling breath from the base of the central channel and the root chakra back to the heart and the crown.

The chakras along the central channel are our subtle, internal mala, or garland of beads. When we do mantra practice with an external mala, or string of 108 beads, we also walk backward. 

We literally walk backward because as we chant mantra, the beads are always rolled backward with the fingers, toward the body rather than forward and away from the body.

As we roll the beads, we enact the motion of walking backward through all 108 padas of the 27 nakshatras, unwinding or reversing the karmic conditioning they represent.

In one lifetime, we may take this walk with our malas thousands and thousands of times. In doing so, we slowly regain our freedom.

But a 108 bead mala actually has 109 beads. The 109th bead is called the “Guru bead” or “Mt. Meru.” It is not counted when doing mantra practice because the 109th bead represents the unconditioned.

Mt. Meru is a subtle mountain of five peaks situated at the center of Reality. It is a living symbol of the source of the creation. All of the heavenly bodies circle Mt. Meru, as do we until we are free of karma.  Mt. Meru is outside of linear time and is a fountain of infinite potential for Self-expression.

When we walk backward, chanting with our mala, we are walking toward Mt. Meru. Every time we reach the 109th bead, we flip the mala and walk backward once again. This continues until we divest ourselves of conditioning and come to rest in the center. Then, all ideas of a journey or a path end.

So the next time you turn the beads, see if you can infuse your practice with the feeling of the return. See if this understanding of the journey you are embodying brings you to a deeper, more subtle and connected experience.

Lots of love,
Shambhavi