Is Sri Rudram the greatest of Hindu hymns?

Arguably, yes. If only for the reason Sri Rudram is part of Krishna Yajur Veda. In one of the Upanishads, sage Yagyavalkya is asked the way to achieve immortality: his answer - by reciting Sri Rudram.

As a hymn in praise of, and, as a prayer to, the Lord, according to Swamy Dayananda Saraswathi, it is probably the model for many other hymns, including the various sahasranamams. As Kanchi Mahaswamigal points out, for Hindus, the ultimate source of Dharma is Vedas – Vedokhilo dharma moolam. Smrities and Puranas, profound in themselves, nevertheless come behind the Vedas. Sri Rudram is the only long hymn, consisting of hundreds of namas, that occur in the Vedas. Other common major hymns are from Itihasas, eg., Vishnu Sahasranamam from Mahabaratha, or, from Puranas, e.g., Lalitha Sahasranamam from Brahmanda Puranam. In content and format, there are lot of similarities between Sri Rudram and the other hymns like Vishnu Sahasranamam.

Besides being a prayer, Sri Rudram is like an Upanishad that reveals the truth about Jiva - the Individual, jagat – the world, and Iswara - the Lord. With the help of the different names of the Lord, one can understand the nature of the Lord – hence, verily, Rudropanishad.

Sri Rudram has 11 sections, or anuvakas. In the 1st anuvaka, the angry Rudra is pacified and we seek his kindness. 2nd to 9th anuvakas consist of eulogies and obeisance to the Lord. In the last two anuvakas, prayers are offered to Sri Rudra and Rudraganas.

Anuvaka 1

Like with any great work, the first line is simple, direct and profound: ‘Om namo Bhagavate Rudraaya'. Om is a shorthand for the Lord. By saying namo, we pay our obeisance. Obeisance is to Bhagavan, or, the One who has bhaga. Bhaga consists of six ultimate attributes: overlordship, strength, glory, richness, knowledge and freedom from being wanting. Only Bhagavan has all these and in absolute measure.

Next we say, Rudraya. One meaning of Rudra is one who is angry and makes everyone cry. Why is the Lord angry? It is to punish those who transgress His commands on dharma and bring them to the path of righteousness. By saying rudraya, we also remind ourselves that the cause of our wrong actions and miseries is anger and that anger is something we need to control. Rudra also means, one who drives away grief – rudram dravayatheethi. So, upfront, we do two things: seek to pacify the anger of the Lord and pray to the Lord that we be relieved of our grief.

Anuvakas 2 to 9

In these anuvakas, we salute the Lord as sarveswara - the Lord of everything, sarvatma – every form that constitutes the world, and sarva antaryami – the One who sustains everything.

  • He is visveswara and jagatam pathaye – the Lord of the Universe; pasunam pathaye – Lord of all beings; patheenam pathaye – the Lord of the Vedas; vananam pathaye – Lord of the forests; vrikshanam pathaye – Lord of the trees; aushadeenam pathaye – Lord of the herbs; sthenanam pathaye – Lord of the thieves; etc., etc., Truly, the Lord of everything.
  • Every form that constitutes the world is the Lord: svapadbhyo and jaagradyabhya – those who are sleeping and those who are awake; asvebhyo and asvapathibhya – the horses and the horse riders; ganebhyo and ganapathy – attendants of deities and the Lord of them all; mahadbhaya and kshullakebhya – the brilliant ones and the not so brilliant ones; etc., etc., The Lord is Sarva atma.
  • The Lord is also sarva antaryami, the One who sustains everything. The 5th anuvaka is one of the most important ones: Namo bhavaya cha rudraya cha; namah sarvaya cha pasupathye cha… He is bhavaya – the one from whom the universe is born; Rudraya – one who removes all misery; sarvaya – the destroyer; agriyaya – the cause of everything.

Anuvaka 8

This anuvaka is considered the most important one: it contains the famous five syllabic mantra – om ‘namasivaya’ and called sadhana anuvakam. We pay obeisance to the Somaya, one seated with Uma (or Sakthi), and to the Rudra, one who can relieve us of miseries; to sangaya, one who will give us happiness. He is agrevadaya, protecting us from the front, and, durevadaya, protecting us from a distance. (Lord Krishna did this: he protected Arjuna, sitting in front of him, and, protected Draupathi, although he was at a distance.) What we seek from Him are: sambhave, happiness here; and, mayobhave, happiness hereafter. He is sankara, source of happiness and mayaskara, source of freedom.

Then we say: namah sivaya cha sivatharaya cha: to that Siva, we pray for sivathara, absolute happiness. There is a deeper meaning. Ultimate happiness and relief from all miseries come from the Ultimate Knowledge, which for a follower of Advaita, is recognition that the Jivatman is the same as Paramatman. Namasivaya is therefore considered mantra raja, the king of all mantras.

Anuvakas 10 and 11

Having, up to anuvaka 9, offered our namaskaras and indirectly praying, in the 10th and 11th we pray directly. There are no namahas in these two anuvakas. We ask for the Lord’s raksha, protection. We seek that His destructive weapons are not used against us. Instead, we ask for happiness born of objects and the ultimate happiness.

We end with mrityunja mantram:

Trayambakam yajamahe suganthim pushtivardham I
Urvarukamiva bhandanath mrithyormuksheeya mamrithath II

To the Lord who has three eyes, who has fragrance, and who nourishes health, we pray, that we get released from death, like a cucumber getting released from the creeper, and achieve immortality.