The Sanskrit word jaзa means ‘to rotate’. The practice is so called because it involves continuous rotation of a mala, synchronized with a mantra. Generally the practice is done for a fixed number of mantra repetitions, or for a set period of time. The chanting can be aloud or silent. Japa can be further defined as rhythmical mantra chanting with mala rotation and with awareness. For maximum benefits it must be practised regularly.
The universal system
Japa is probably the most widespread and universal meditative system. It is an integral part of yoga and tantra as well as Hinduism in general. Many traditional scriptures describe the practices and merits of japa, especially tantric texts. Many of the ancient yogis are pictured practisingjapa. According to tradition, Brahma, the creator of the universe caused everything to be created by continual japa of the mantra Aum. Such is the importance of japa in the spiritual life.
Japa is not only confined to India. The Buddhist path of Mahayana widely uses japa with a mala of 108 beads plus 3 extra beads, which represent the refuge in the Dharma, Buddha and Sangha respectively. The more orthodox systems of Christianity also widely use japa. Anyone who has been to a Roman Catholic monastery, nunnery or school will have seen the monks or nuns rotating their rosaries. Anyone who has been to Greece or other Balkan countries, where the Greek Orthodox Church is prevalent, will know that nearly all men carry a rosary with them. Whatever they do, whether walking, talking, sitting or working they continually rotate their beads wherever it is possible. Whether most of these people realize the reason for the rosary is uncertain, but nevertheless the tradition continues. It seems more than a possibility that this system was introduced so that each individual could practise japa throughout the whole day.