The rosary is those rows of pearls on a thread, mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita (7: 7), their string being atman on which all things are threaded, that is, all worlds and states of manifestation. Atman, the universal spirit, links these worlds together and is also the breath which gives them life. In this context, Guenon emphasizes that, in principle, the prayer spoken to each rosary bead should be linked to the rhythm of respiration.
In Hindu iconography, the rosary is an attribute of several deities, but especial of Brahma and of the goddess Sarasvatl, herself the alphabet, potent creator of language. Her rosary (aksha-mala) comprises fifty beads (aksha) which correspond to the fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet from a to kasha. As ever in the case of the ‘Wreath of Letters’, the Hindu rosary is linked to its creator (shabda) and to the sense of hearing.
However, in India again and especially in the Buddhist world, the rosary has 108 beads (12 x 9), which is a cyclical number and therefore normally used to express the development of manifestation. Ninety-nine, the number of beads in the Muslim rosary, is also cyclical and linked to the Names of God. The hundredth bead is ‘latent’ and expresses the return of the manifold to the One, of manifestation to the First Cause. Similar observations might be made of the Christian rosary, which comprises sixty beads (10 x 5 + 5 + 1+ 3 + 1) even though their arrangement seems to have been the result of quite diffferent concerns.
In all traditions, repeated prayer has its own particular qualities, independent of whatever symbolism is possessed by the object used as a mnemonic aid.
As in India, the Tibetan Buddhist rosary comprises 108 beads and its decades are sometimes separated by silver rings. The materials of which they are made and their colours vary with their user. ‘Yellow beads are for Buddhas; beads of white shells for Bodhisattvas; coral beads for the man who converted Tibet; for the terrifying Yamantaka, Lord of Death, the cranial bones of different hermits; for the deities of Yoga, the bark of a shrub called tulosi... and for ordinary mortals, ordinary wood’. To the extent to which prayers, all much the same, are recited over each bead of the rosary, its symbolism may be compared with that of the prayer-wheel. In Africa rosaries made from human teeth are known.