The use of rudraksha berries as a memory device for religious purposes is as much in vogue among Indians (especially Shaivites) as the use of Phreng-ba among Tibetans, Shozuku-dzu among Japanese, Tasbih among Iranians and Subah among Egyptians. Like other holy trees such as sal, bael and pipal, rudraksha (elacocar-pus ganitrus) is believed to symbolise a link between 'the chthonian world and earth and between earth and heaven'.
No single tree is as rich with legend as the rudraksha. Some believe that it refers to the urethral passage through which Lord Shiva usually ejects the 'seed' amassed during the period of his long and severe austerities. According to the Shiva Purana, the berries of the rudraksha represent the tears of Rudra which he shed in a mood of despondency soon after he awoke from his meditative state. Amazed by the beauty of his own tears he crystallised them into the shape of seeds and distributed them among the four castes. Later, the trees of the rudraksha were raised by him in Gaur, Mathura, Ayodhya, Lanka, Malyachal, Kashi and other places.
It was as dear to Lord Shiva as the holy basil to Lord Vishnu, the lotus to the goddess Lakshmi and the marigold to Ganesha. Its importance is seen from the number of faces or sides it has. As many as 38 varieties of rudraksha are mentioned in the Hindu scriptures, but of them, 21 are most conspicuous.
A one-faced rudraksha is considered to be the incarnation of Lord Shiva. It is rarely found and only. 'Chakravarti' kings or siddha purushas (realised souls) are said to possess it. According to a legend, every year Lord Shiva endows three such seeds to the world - one passes on to his most celebrated devotee, the second to some political ruler and the third is kept by the Lord himself. Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune and prosperity confers her choicest blessings on the person who possesses it. Such beads are usually encased in gold and carefully preserved as a family relic. Prominent among those who wear this rudraksha are Yehudi Menuhin, B. K. S. lyengar, Ananda Mayee Ma and Indira Gandhi.
The two-faced rudraksha stands for Ardhanarishwara (hermaphrodite lord) fused halfway into the form of Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva, thus reflecting the tantric view that the Almighty has the elements of both sexes in him. According to the Shiva Purana, the beads symbolise Isa - the lord of devas. Their possession ensures the fulfilment of all desires, confers tantric powers and frees a man from the sin of cow slaughter.
The three-faced rudraksha represents the triloka or the three worlds, consisting of paradise, hell and tala (abode of chthonian beings). It also represents Agni (god of fire) in its three aspects: Dakshinagni, Garha patya and Ahavaniya. Such beads are particularly useful for the unlucky and lugubrious.
The four-faced rudraksha is said to embody the spirit of Brahma and represents the four Vedas. The tantrics believe that one can fascinate any member of the opposite sex by wearing a rosary of 21 beads charged by the following mantras:
Om chamunde hulu chulu chula vash manya mukim svaha.
Om chamunde jay jambhe mohay vash manya mukhim svaha.
The five-faced rudraksha stands for the five faces of Shiva - Sadhyojat, Vamdev, Aghor, Tatpurush and Ishan. Says the Shiva Purana, 'It is lordly. It bestows all sorts of salvation and achievement of all desired objects.' Such beads are sacred to Anjaneya (Hanuman) of the epical work, Ramayana, and make powerful amulets for humbling the enemy. They are also used as a charm against scorpion bites.
The six faces represent Kartikeya, who, according to Hindu mythology, is god of war and ruler of the planet Mars. Its use can ensure amazing success in business. A Hindu religious text says, 'He who wears it on the right arm is even absolved from the sin of killing a Brahmin.'
The seven-faced bead is known as 'anang' or 'anang swaroop'. It represents the seven worlds. One who attaches it to his gaiters becomes immune to any attack by weapon. By wearing it, even 'a poor man becomes a great lord'.
The eight faces represent Shakti in her Bhairav or terror aspect. It is extremely useful for success in love, trade and gambling. Its wearer can subject the spirits to himself and goad them to serve him. 'Holding this', says Devi Bhagavatam, 'frees one from the sin of holding an illicit contact with the woman of a bad family and with the wife of one's guru etc., and other sins as well. It enables one to acquire heaps of food, cotton and gold; and in the end the Highest Place is attained.'
The nine faces refer to the yogic cult of nine Nathas or adepts. They are used for achieving honour in the world, for subduing the enemy and for success in litigation. If worn on the left hand, the beads are said to ensure both bhukti (pleasure) and mukti (liberation).
The ten faces represent the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu on the earth - as Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parasurama, Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Kalki. One who holds it, it is said, remains free from the evil influence of planets, ogres, fiends, hoofed spirits and the like. The women use it for the security and well-being of their husbands.
So it goes, each particular bead having its own special properties.
Colour-wise, the rudraksha is of four kinds - white, red, yellow and black. Each Hindu caste has been prescribed a different colour - the white berries for Brahmins, the yellow for Vaishyas, the red for Kshatriyas and the black for Shudras.
The tantrics argue that the Indrakshi rosary which consists of all types of rudraksha, is one hundred times more powerful than the 'Baijanti mala' which contains five gems produced from the five elements of nature: sapphire from the earth, pearl from water, ruby from fire, topaz from air and diamond from space. In the scriptures it is said: 'Vishnu is the best of all Purushas, Ganga of all rivers, Kashyapa of munis, Uchchhaihsravas of horses, Maha Deva of devas, Bhagavad of devis, so the rosary of rudraksha is the best of all rosaries. All the fruits that occur by reading the stotras (liturgical hymns), and holding all the vratas (fasts) are obtained by wearing rudraksha.
The auspicious time for wearing the rudraksha rosary is said to be during the lunar and solar eclipses and the full moon or the new moon day. Those who wear the rudraksha should avoid alcoholic beverages, garlic, onions, meat or eggs, horse radish or any other tamasic (exciting) food.
Rudraksha is to Shaivites what the Solomon's seal is to Arabs and Jews - a prophylactic agent against evil spirits and enemies. Its amulets form a Kavacha - 'a cuirass, breastplate or body armor', and protect the wearer from ill luck, accidents and diseases. The rosaries of rudraksha are used for the repetition of mystical formulae, charms, spells and incantations.
Besides all this, the plant occupies a unique place in the Hindu Materia Medica. It is said to possess supernatural ingredients which can prevent ageing, prolong life and rejuvenate the human organism. The beads are antipyretic, antihelminthic and antiparalysant, and can help a person attain a perfect balance between the three vital fluxes in his body, namely bile, wind and phlegm.
The Puranas, Upanishads, Atharva Veda and other Hindu scriptures delineate the curative and healing properties of each type of bead. But today, it is mainly used for the treatment of all types and grades of hypertension and for heart diseases.
The tree grows mainly in Indonesia and Nepal, from where it is exported to other countries. In India, its trees can be seen in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Bengal, Bihar, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, but the rosaries of its beads are available in almost every city. Some ashrams and temples in the periphery of Hardwar, Rishikesh and Dehradun grow the trees for religious purposes. The bead, in its original form, is usually one inch in diameter and covered by bluish-purple pulp which is removed by boiling it in hot water mixed with soda bicarbonate. The trees of the rudraksha start bearing fruit in about five years. But there are exceptions too. Some trees don't bear fruit for even twenty years.
Taking advantage of the increasing demand for rudraksha beads, some businessmen are manufacturing artificial beads made from wood. Some others fleece their customers by selling the seeds of one Bhadraksh shrub which appear similar to the rudraksha. There is no foolproof test for distinguishing the original beads from the fake ones; nevertheless, one should keep the following facts in mind before buying a rudraksha. An original bead does not float on the surface of water or milk. If it is placed in boiling oil or ghee (clarified butter), it shows no fissures and remains whole and without stain. If a bead is pressed between two copper coins it immediately revolves with a jerk.
The rudraksha with protuberant mouths, clear slits and a natural hole is considered to be of the best quality, while the one which is not hard or roundish, or which is defiled by insects or damaged and does not feel greasy is regarded as fruitless. The bead of the size of an Amalki fruit (emblic myroblans) is the best, of the size of a plum is average quality, and of the size of a gram is the worst.