In photos of sadhus (Hindu ascetics) and other holy men, you may have noticed that many of them wear a garland of rough seeds around their necks, sometimes also on their heads and around their arms. These seeds are called rudraksha. They come from a tree by the same name, and are credited with enormous spiritual and healing powers. As one Hindu scripture explains:
Shiva bhaktya shantaya dadyadrudrakshashuttaman, Tasya Punyaphal syantam nacha ha vaktumats the, Dhritrudraksha kanthaya yastvanna sam pryachchhatitri, Saptakula mudadhritya Rudraalokam sa gachchhati.
“The limitlessness of the result of [Rudraksha's] virtues cannot be described. A man, who gives food to the wearer of Rudraksha, reaches the heaven of Lord Rudra after providing salvation to seven orders of his ancestors. If the wearer of the Rudraksha dies, he does not take another birth, he reaches the heaven of Rudra. If a man who is wearing Rudraksha around the neck or an arm dies, he lives in the heaven of Rudra after providing salvation to 21 orders of his ancestors. A man who wears Rudraksha with Pearls, Coral, Crystal, Silver, Gold or other precious stone, takes the form of Lord Shiva. The devotee who worships Lord Shiva in the form of Rudraksha devotedly, becomes a king inspite of being poor.”
One of the main reasons I wear and recommend rudraksha to tantric practitioners is for its power to multiply the effect of mantra recitations. It's said that wearing rudraksha while reciting a mantra increases the effect of that recitation by a hundred thousand times – meaning that each repetition has the power of 100,000 repetitions without rudraksha. This seems like reason enough to purchase and use a string of rudraksha, let alone the endless health benefits (it's said to be especially helpful for heart conditions).
There are a wide range of beads available of varying qualities and features. The seed has a number of “ridges” (called mukhi) and these are said to give the seed different kinds of powers. People pay outrageous amounts of money for rare rudraksha beads with particular numbers of ridges – often two, three, even ten thousand dollars for a single bead. This unfortunately has fostered a thriving counterfit industry. Most of us, who are not looking to spend that kind of money, don't really have to worry about this. The most common number of ridges on a rudraksha bead is five, and genuine five-mukhi rudraksha malas of 108 beads can be purchased online (e.g. ebay) for as little as $10 a strand. These will be small beads and are great for getting started. For dedicated practitioners, who engage in regular mantra practice and will wear their beads often, if not daily, I recommend investing in one of the beautiful rudraksha malas from Kauai Ashram. They run about $75 with domestic shipping, and consist of 36 large, five-mukhi rudraksha beads alternated with small crystal beads.
In the next post, we'll describe a short ritual anyone can do to consecrate your rudraksha beads once you have them.