To an average Hindu vāyu is nothing more than “wind” personified as “god”. Just one of the 5 elementals – earth, water, wind, fire, aether. To hold such a notion is to profoundly ignore the complex characteristics of the mighty deva. Vāyu was once a supreme deity, senior to Indra himself and even the very brahman. The prabhāvas of the deva are numerous and we’ll focus on one attribute at a time. In this article we will look at vAyu the teamster: vāyu niyutvat.
The strength of the two mighty sons of Vayu, Bhima and Hanuman from mahAbhArata and rAmAyaNa is legendary. We learn from Sambhava Parva (Adi Parva, Section CXXIII) that when kunti had bhIma from Vayu, an asharIri proclaimed “this child will have extraordinary strength, large limbs and will be capable of humbling the pride of everybody”. The same section also informs us kunti accidentally dropped the infant bhIma but instead of him getting injured, the stone on which he falls is shattered into hundred pieces.
The same parva narrates how bhIma tormented his cousins kauravas, sons of dhR^itarAshTra by seizing their hair, throwing them down, dragging them along the earth and almost drowning them. Sometimes the knees of kauravas will be broken, sometimes their shoulders.
” śatam ekottaraṃ teṣāṃ kumārāṇāṃ mahaujasām
eka eva vimṛdnāti nātikṛcchrād vṛkodaraḥ” – Vrikodara easily defeated those hundred and one children of great energy as if they were one instead of being a hundred and one. Bhima in his strength of arms is equal to ten thousand elepants – bāhvor bale cāyuta nāgavīryam.
In tIrthayAtrA parvan, he meets his elder brother hanumAn at first not realizing it was hanumAn himself. During vanavAsa, draupadi gets hold of a celestial lotus with unearthly fragrance, having thousand petals and effulgent like sun itself. She requests bhIma to collect more of those so that they may take them to their hermitage at kAmyaka and gift it to yuddhishtra. Bhima begins the journey. He follows the flower scent and wades through the jungle. Each of his step causes the ground to quake. His roar frightens elephants and lions. He uproots whole trees and casts them away to make way. He slaps attacking elephants (“trāsayan gajayūthāni“) and thrashes tigers and lions on his way (“siṃhavyāghra gaṇāṃś caiva mardamāno mahābalaḥ“).
Then he encounters an old monkey lying who in none other than hanumAn. Hanuman says “you can go no further. Take some rest, eat fruits and roots sweet like amR^ita and turn back”. Bhima announces himself as son of mighty Vayu and of kuru race and enquires who the monkey himself is. Hanuman once again warns Bhima to not proceed further which makes Bhima angry. Bhima says, “I know supreme brahman pervades a whole body – from whom all creatures spring, and one knowable only through true knowledge. I cannot disregard this, else I would have jumped across not only you but the mountain itself, like hanuman jumped across ocean”.
Hanuman toys with Bhima and asks “Who is Hanuman? When did he cross the ocean?”. Bhima narrates the story of Ramayana and the incident of Hanuman leaping the ocean to give Ramachandra’s ringlet to jAnakI imprisoned by Ravana in the island Lanka. Bhima also boasts he is as powerful as Hanuman.
Hanuman further tests Bhima and says, “I’m but a feeble monkey. Why don’t you set aside my tail and proceed?” Bhima proceeds to move Hanuman’s tail. Initially he grabs the tail by his left hand. He could not move it. Then he tries with both hands with all his might, sweating from the brows. Not an inch moved.
Then the haughty Bhima is humbled. He requests the monkey to reveal himself. The monkey finally reveals he is none other than Hanuman his brother and blesses him. Upon Bhima’s request he also reveals his mighty form that he assumed when he jumped across ocean in the past yuga.
From the above we can not only realize the power of Bhima but also of Hanuman his elder half-brother. Bhima is second only to Hanuman who is mighty in his own right – the one who leapt across ocean; the one who leapt towards sun as a baby thinking it was a fruit to consume.
Now Ramayana informs us Hanuman is “pitustulyaparaakramaH“. He is equal in strength to his father Vayu. While most Hindus are aware of the legendary strength of Bhima and Hanuman, lot are unaware that their strength is actually inherited from their father Vayu himself. Vayu’s strength is amply described in Mahabharata story of the haughty shalmali tree but let us go a bit further and examine the niyutvat aspect of Vayu in Rig Veda.
Niyutvat is an epithet of vAyu that appears repeatedly in Rig Veda. Few examples should suffice:
“niyutvatā rathenā yāhi dāvane vāyo makhasya dāvane” – Come with your team drawn chariot to the gift; yea to the sacrificer’s gift (RV 1.134.2)
“ā no niyudbhiḥ śatinībhiradhvaraṃ sahasriṇībhirupa yāhi vītaye vāyo havyāni vītaye” – Come with hundreds, come with thousands in thy team to this our solemn rite, to taste the sacred food, Vāyu, to taste the oblations. (RV 1.135.3)
“vāyo śataṃ harīṇāṃ yuvasva poṣyāṇām |
uta vā te sahasriṇo ratha ā yātu pājasā ||”
– Harness, O Vāyu, to thy car a hundred well-fed tawny steeds,
Yea, or a thousand steeds, and let thy chariot come to us with might. (RV 4.48.5)
Indo-Aryans not only domesticated horses, they even specialized in specific breeds – war horse, race horse, team horse e.g. Vayu is a teamster whose chariots are pulled by team horses. The kavis give a huge number for the team size – navatIr nava (ninety nine) , shataM (hundred) or sahasram (thousand). They want to convey a sense of a supernatural team size.
A team horse or draught horse is specifically bred for hard tasks like ploughing, farm labor and transporting cargo. There are a variety of breeds and strength, patience and docility are traits common to all. They have a tall stature, powerful hind quarters, upright shoulder and extremely muscular build.
Size comparison of draft horse and stock horse. (Image courtesy: Wikimedia commons)
To give perspective, Twenty Mule Team is a mining company that ferried borax across Mojave, California. The wagons were some of the largest and were pulled by a team of 18 mules and 2 horses. They were designed to carry 9 metric tons of borax at a time. This is just from 20 draft animals.
20 Mule team ferrying borax. (Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
So when the Rig Vedic Kavi uses a team of hundreds and thousands of draft animals with Vayu as teamster, he is actually conveying the might of the deva Vayu. A draft horse itself is a symbol of strength. The metaphor “hundreds and thousands” is intended to convey the force multiplication factor – that of incredible strength. Thus the teamster himself is an incredible in might and strength.
It is this strength that kenopanishad targets in Vayu to demote him and make him subservient to “brahman”. The yaksha who is secretly brahman tests Vayu by asking what is unique about him. Vayu answers “he can lift anything”. Yaksha places a blade of grass and asks Vayu to lift it and Vayu fails to lift it. This episode also demotes the might of other devas to indicate brahman is superior to all. The point to note is that this episode tacitly understands that the specialty of Vayu is indeed his incredible strength. Probably the Mahabharata story of Bhima failing to lift the tail of Hanuman is a rework of this episode.