What is the significance of chanting on 108 beads?
Sometimes it's easy to find scriptural quotes supporting various points of Vaishnava philosophy and practice. Some practices are simply passed down throughout the ages through the system of parampara.
Chanting the Hare Krishna mantra on a string of 108 beads—japa-mala—is one such practice. Below are some indications from various books as to why this number of beads:
Krishna book 35, the Gopis' feelings of separation:
"As Vaishnavas count 108 beads, which represent the 108 individual gopis, so Krishna would also count on 108 beads to count the different groups of cows."
Apparently, Krishna Himself also uses 108 beads.
From a lecture given on Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi-lila 7.108 in San Francisco, California on February 18, 1967:
". . . chanting of Hare Krishna with 108 beads means that we are surpassing the study of 108 Upanishads."
Teachings of Lord Chaitanya 24
"According to Muktika Upanishad, there are 108 Upanishads. . . . These 108 Upanishads contain all knowledge about the Absolute Truth. Sometimes people inquire about the meaning of these 108 prayer beads, but because we think there are 108 Upanishads which contain full knowledge of the Absolute Truth, therefore 108 beads are accepted. Sometimes on the other hand, the Vaishnava transcendentalists think that the 108 beads represent the 108 companions of Lord Krishna in His rasa dance, and therefore 108 beads are accepted."
Srimad-Bhagavatam, 10.35.18-19, Purport:" Srila Jiva Goswami explains that in the afternoon Sri Krishna dressed Himself in new clothing and then went out to call the cows home. Srila Vishvanatha Cakravarti gives the following information about the transcendental cows of Vrindavan: "For each of the four colors of cows—white, red, black and yellow—there are twenty-five subdivisions, making a total of one hundred colors. And such qualities as being colored like sandalwood-pulp tilaka [speckled] or having a head shaped like a mridanga drum create eight further groups. To count these 108 groups of cows, distinguished by color and form, Krishna is using a string of 108 jewel-beads...."