MALA ANATOMY - BREAKING DOWN THE MALA COMPONENTS
The Guru Bead
The Guru bead sits just above the tassel and is usually slightly larger or a different shape than the other 108 beads. Traditionally, the guru bead symbolized the teacher or guru who gave the student their mala or mantra. Out of respect for the teacher, in traditional japa mala practice the user does not cross over the guru bead but instead goes back around the strand in the other direction at the end of one round. Today, guru beads are often regarded as a symbol of the user's own intention. I like to also consider them to be a beacon of the wisdom that the user seeks to gain through their own practice.
There are a lot of explanations about why a tassel is used at the bottom of a mala and what it means. There are two that resonate most with me the most. One is that the strands of the tassel are representative of the roots of the lotus flower to remind the wearer of their starting point and their potential; "no mud, no lotus." The other interpretation that I especially like is that as the tassel is tied onto the mala, it connects the wearer to the divine. The individual strings of the tassel represent us as individuals but the tassel as a whole reminds us of our connectedness and oneness with each other and the divine.
The number 108 is recognized for its significance across number of religions, cultures, and traditions. Not surprisingly, the nature of that significance varies between those traditions, religions, and cultures. So, today if you asked ten people why THEIR mala as 108 beads on it, you would probably get ten different answers. This is honestly one of my favorite things about malas; their meaning, purpose, and symbolism can be different to every wearer.
The fact is there is no wrong interpretation about the number of beads and since your mala has been created especially for you, you should seek out the interpretation of 108 that resonates most for you. Here are a few examples of the explanations I have come across: 108 is said to refer to the number of Hindu deities; Chinese astrology says that there are 108 sacred stars; some say there are 108 Upanishads, texts of the wisdom of the ancient sages; and in yogic tradition, it is suggested that 108 is reflective of the number of energy lines that converge to form the heart chakra.