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Sri Rudram


It is by the Grace of Swami, that the UK Sathya Sai Organization will be conducting the Rudra Ekadashini Homa in Birmingham Balaji Temple. Who would have foreseen that such a Vedic ritual would have been consistently possible, year after year, in the UK? We are grateful to Swami for making this happen. The best way to express our gratitude to Him is to utilise this opportunity by participating in the homa, assisting organizers in conducting it and by understanding its significance and thereby reaping the full benefit of its performance. Swami has frequently recommended that we understand the meaning of the prayers so that we can feel the presence of God as we pray. Towards that end, we present below our humble effort in understanding the significance of Sri Rudram so that we can ruminate on it during our participation in the homa.

Vedic prayers use many symbolisms in their expression. Therefore it is important that the Vedas be learnt from a Guru who is well versed in them and whose mind is well established in God. Only such a Guru can unravel the profound meaning behind the symbolism. We admit that our attempt here is only a modest effort. We seek Swami’s blessings for a deeper understanding.

Let us remind ourselves, before we proceed, that the only thing to be known through Vedas is God. This will help us to keep our minds focussed on God throughout our entire study of the Vedas and the practice of its teachings.

Lord Sri Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita (15.15): “I alone am to be known through all the Vedas”.

Om Namo Bhagavate Rudraaya
(Salutations to Lord Rudra)

The meaning of Sri Rudram is vast and profound. We cannot fathom its full significance, much less restrict it to a few pages. We can at best explore a few facets of its significance. The entire chant or text has eleven chapters (anuvakas). The opening lines of this hymn is “Om Namo Bhagavate Rudraaya”. In many ways, this opening line is the summary of the content of Sri Rudram. So, we can take the approach of understanding the meaning of the entire text, by understanding the significance of the first line. Just as a sip of seawater can give us a taste of the entire sea, so also understanding the opening line will reveal to us the magnificence of the entire hymn.

OM – The universal prayer

The best upadesha (spiritual instruction) is the Pranava, the sacred syllable OM, which summarises many principles of theology, philosophy and mysticism. Little children just learning to toddle about are given a three-wheeled contraption which they push forward, holding on to the cross-bar. The OM is such a 'vehicle' for the spiritual child. The three wheels are a, u and m, the three components of the mantra. OM is the primal sound inherent in the life breath.
- Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, 4/10/1965; SSS 5-46

OM is single-syllabled and represents Brahman (God).
- Bhagavad Gita 8.13

OM is a universal prayer to all forms of God. Phonetically, OM is composed of three sounds “a”, “u” and “m”. The sound “a” arises from the inner most part of the vocal apparatus (gut), the sound “m” from the outer most vocal apparatus (lips) and the sound “o” is representative of all of the sounds from the rest of the vocal apparatus. Thus the combination of all three represents all possible sounds. Since names are words and words are sounds, OM contains in it all the names of God (irrespective of the religion). Each name of God is associated with some form or concept of God. So when one chants OM, it has the same effect as chanting all the names of God of all forms. Thus OM is the most universal of all prayers to God.

In the Vedic tradition OM is considered as the harbinger of auspiciousness. It is believed that Lord Brahma (name used to address God when viewed as performing the task of creation) uttered the word OM and then began the task of creation. Hence chanting OM before beginning any task will augur well for the successful completion of the task.

Sri Krishna said: ( Bhagavad Gita 7.8 and 10.25 respectively)

I am OM in all the Vedas.
Among words, I am the single-syllable OM.

Namaha – The complete surrender

You have nothing in you or belonging to you that you can claim as yours to offer to God. Then, what does surrender of the self, signify or imply? To experience God as Omnipresent, to be aware of nothing other than God this is true surrender. To see God in everything, everywhere, at all times, is true sharanaagathi (surrender). He gives, He enjoys, He experiences.
-Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, 8/10/1981; SSS 15-28

The word “namo” is the same as the word “namaha”. The word “namaha” under certain rules of phonetic conjunction is pronounced as “namo”. They are the same.

The meaning of the word namaha is reverential salutation. The word namaha is derived from the root word “nam” in Sanskrit which means “to bow”. Even though that is the etymology from the linguistic perspective, the spirit behind the word is the attitude of “na mama” or “not mine” which is a concise way of expressing the subordination of one’s individual preferences and prejudices to the will of God.

The first part of Sri Rudram is called Namakam because of the repetition of the word “namaha” or “namo” that occurs after every utterance of a glory or attribute or name of the Lord or His manifestation. This repeated utterance indicates the attitude with which one should pray to God, namely “not mine, but Thy will be done”.

Vedic tradition recommends that the reverential salutation be done in the form of prostration with eight limbs namely the knees, the feet, the palms, the chest, the mind, the forehead, the speech and the sight. Among all these, Swami has laid particular emphasis on the mind being the most important aspect of reverential salutation. Sri Rudram too mentions about the worship in one’s mind (“prabharamahe matim” – we worship you in our minds; in the 10th anuvaka). It also talks of worship being done with an attitude of surrender (“namasaa vidhema te” – we worship you with surrender; in the 10th anuvaka).

One of the main purposes of chanting Rudram is to inculcate the spirit of surrender to God as elucidated by Swami (quoted above) namely by recognizing that God is immanent in all life and matter and there is nothing other than God. Sri Rudram goes beyond saying that there is only one God, by showing that there is only God.

Sri Krishna said:

Seek refuge in Him (God) alone with all your being, O Arjuna (scion of Bharata dynasty). Through His Grace you will attain supreme peace and eternal abode.
- Bhagavad Gita 18.62

Bhagavan – The Supreme Lord

What is the inner meaning of the expression, Bhagavaan? The Vedas say, Bhagavaan principle is the same as Brahman, Paramaatma. Bhagavaan is the Ultimate, the Full. Bha means having full auspiciousness and prosperity. Ga means deserving praise and adoration. In the Raamaayana, Bhagavaan is described in clear terms. He sustains the Universe using His creative power as the means. He creates and fosters what is created. So, He is Sambhartha or Bhartha, He who raises, He who rules and saves. Bha also means light, splendour. Bhagavaan is He who sheds and spreads Light. Bhagavaan is embodiment of Light, Effulgence. Since He can and does illumine all things and beings everywhere at all times, He is Bha-ga-vaan.
- Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, 5/4/1981; SSS 15-4

The word “bhagavate” is the dative case (4th declension) of the word “bhagavan”. The word “bhagavate” means “unto bhagavaan (supreme lord)”. It means that the salutations (“namaha”) are unto Rudra who is Bhagavan. The word “Bhagavaan” in the Vedic tradition means the one who has the following six attributes: lordship, power, fame, wealth, knowledge and dispassion – all in full measure without any deficiency or defect.

In this sacred hymn Rudra is praised as the "pati" or Lord of various beings. He is presented as having complete lordship over them (example: “pashuunaam pataye namaha” - lord of all beings; in the 2nd anuvaka). The list of beings mentioned is meant to be only to be illustrative and not exhaustive. In such verses, one finds repeated mention of the words "pataye namaha" which means "salutations unto the Lord". Such praises are meant to highlight that the Lord is in complete control of all life forms and their destinies. Recognizing this helps the devotee to worship God seeking His protection with faith and surrender.

The hymn further explains that all forms (animate and inanimate) are manifestations of Rudra. The creation is not different from the Creator. Just as the pot is never separate from the clay, the wave never separate from the sea, so also the creation is never separate from the Creator. Creation is a collection of names and forms. By presenting the very same Rudra as manifest in different names and forms, the hymn teaches us that though names and forms may be many, their truth is one and that is God. Therefore, worship of creation is really a worship of the Creator provided their identity is understood. Thus, Rudra is worshipped as the material cause of the universe.

While worshipping Rudra as manifested in various forms, both good and bad are equally worshipped (example: “namo grutsebhyo” - salutation to the greedy, and “namo mahadbhyaha” - salutation to respectable people; both in the 4th anuvaka). This teaches that while God is the Creator the universe, He is also unaffected by creation. Just as all life becomes active in the presence of sunlight and yet the sunlight is never affected by the activities performed in it, so also all creation (good and bad; animate and inanimate) comes to being because of God and yet He remains unaffected by them. Even though God manifests in various forms, He is limited neither to those forms nor by those forms. And hence, He is able to be both just and merciful. As a dispenser of the law of karma, He is just and when devotees repent for their wrongdoings and surrender to Him, He is merciful.

Rudra is also worshipped as the very force that governs the universe. Not only matter, but also the various natural laws that govern the universe are also manifestations of Rudra. Rudra, the one and only God, is worshipped as many Rudras to indicate that the one God manifests as various forces that govern the lives of beings (“namo rudrebhyaha” - salutations to the Rudras; in the 11th anuvaka). In this way, Rudra is worshipped as the efficient cause of the universe.

Rudra is in everything; in fact everything is Rudra. He is proximate and profound. He is full and free. Rudra is Bhagavan. When the devotee comprehends this glorious vision of Bhagavan, he or she learns to spontaneously Love All, Serve All.

Beholding the Cosmic Form revealed by Sri Krishna, Arjuna praised Him as follows:

You are the primal deity; the ancient being; the supreme refuge of this universe; you are both the knower and what is ought to be known; and the supreme abode. O Thou of infinite forms, the universe is pervaded by Thee.
- Bhagavad Gita 11.38

Rudra – The fierce and auspicious

...In the context of Shiva, one of these aspects has been described as Mangalaakaara (auspicious form) or one who gives prosperity and good. There is an opposite side of it called Rudra Aakaara (fierce form). These two aspects differ in form and appearance, but we have not tried to realise the oneness or unity that is present in both aspects. Not only in God do we see these two aspects of anger and peace, we see them also in the whole created world occurring side by side. The aspect that one really notices depends totally on the attitude of one’s mind.

When the fearsome Narasimha (incarnation of God in the form of man-lion), emerged out of the pillar, Prahlada (a great devotee) witnessed His form but enjoyed the serenity enshrined within. Prahlada was deeply immersed in happiness when he looked at this peaceful attitude. To Hiranyakasipu (demon father of Prahlada), who regarded himself as an enemy of God, the very same Narasimha appeared in an angry mood. That the same was seen by one as Shiva and another as Rudra has to be interpreted by saying that these two aspects are not intrinsic to God but arise from the different attitudes which the devotees themselves possess.
- Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba: Summer Showers in Brindavan 1974, Part 1

The name Rudra is derived from the root word "rud" which in Sanskrit means to cause anguish (literally, to cause to cry). In the first anuvaka, Rudra is depicted as the fierce one who is ready to dispense the results of one's karma. The depiction of Rudra as fierce is merely a reflection of the devotee faced with the consequences of past actions, the results of which are inexorable. The root word "rud" also means one who removes sorrow. This twin interpretation is very appropriate to the Lord, since it is the very same Lord who is about to unleash the fury in the form of karmic results is also the one who can relieve us from the results of our actions. Thus Rudra as the dispenser of karmic results is fierce, but as the saviour from the law of karma, He is auspicious.

The prayer in the first anuvaka implores Rudra to show mercy on all beings including oneself ("maa himsih purusham jagat" - may thou not harm me and the world, and "shivo nah sumanaa bhava" – be thou of benevolent disposition to us; both in the 1st anuvaka). Here, the devotee recognizes the painful consequences of one's own karma and seeks refuge in God (Rudra) for protection. Then between the 2nd and 9th chapters the glory of Rudra as Bhagavan is described which is for contemplation by the devotee. Then in the 10th and 11th anuvaka, there is further prayer to seek His protection and to request that He bless one and all with peace and bliss.

In this sacred hymn, the devotee seeks to transform Rudra from one who causes anguish to one who removes all anguish. When a person is immersed in worldly life and is unmindful of the consequences of one's actions, He beholds Rudra as the fierce one. But when that person realizes the higher potential of human existence and reaches out to God (Rudra) for help, the very same Rudra appears as auspicious. This transformation of Rudra is really a transformation of the individual.

Thus, the chanting of Sri Rudram is said to be very conducive to spiritual progress. And because it is a prayer on behalf of both oneself and all beings, it invokes the blessings and protection of God on all.

Sri Krishna said:
Even if a man of very bad conduct worships Me with single-hearted devotion, he is to be considered good for he has resolved rightly.
Bhagavad Gita 9.30


Thus, we see that Sri Rudram is a universal prayer to the Supreme Lord with complete surrender seeking His protection for oneself and for all beings in the creation.

When performed as a ritual with selfless motives and for the benefit of the world, it takes the form of karma yoga. When the glories of Bhagavan are chanted and reminisced, it serves as bhakti yoga. When one enquires into the unitary principle behind all diversities, as pointed out by the prayer, it is conducive to jnana yoga. Thus Sri Rudram is a complete prayer and truly the crest jewel among the several hymns in the Vedas.

The Vedic tradition says that just as the entire tree is nourished when its roots are watered, so also all forms of God are as though worshipped when Rudra is worshipped. The chanting of various glories of God in this hymn is the most ancient and original form of Namasmarana or Japa (contemplation on the various names of God). Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita (10.25): “Among the rituals, I am the ritual of japa”.

Swami has emphasised the study of Vedas and within Vedas the study and chanting of Rudram. That it would please Him if we study the Vedas, chant, understand the meaning and practice it, should be sufficient motivation for us to encourage and enthuse ourselves in this noble endeavour.

Let us conclude by reminding ourselves of what Swami said about the Vedas: Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, 9/8/2006;

A regular study of the Vedas and practice of Vedic injunctions confer all forms of wealth on the human beings. The fundamental principles governing human life and destiny are contained in the Vedas. The Vedas are the gift of God for the welfare of the entire humanity. The Vedas make no distinction whatsoever on the basis of religion, caste, nationality, etc. The Vedic mantras can be chanted by one and all… It is Swami's wish that the Vedas be spread to every country, so that every human being, irrespective of religion, caste, nationality, etc., learns Vedas and chants them...The Vedas remove all types of sorrow.

Krishna Subrahmanian
Alumnus, Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning
Chairperson, Mill Hill Sai Centre, Region 3, SSSSO UK