Yama: God of Death
Yama, equivalent of Greek God Hades and Roman Pluto, is the lord of death in Hinduism. He rules the netherworld called Yamaloka, also known as Naraka, and after a mortal dies, Yama decides who goes to heaven and who remains in hell. The early reference to Yama, also called Yamaraja, comes in the Vedas, Hindu Scriptures composed between 1500-1200 BCE. According to the Veda, Yama is the son of Sun God (Surya in Hinduism), and was cursed by his father to take human lives.
Yama is green in color, his eyes are red, he wears red garments, rides a buffalo, and carries a noose. As the guardian of the south, the reign of death, Yama is sometimes ascribed as Dikpala. Crow is his messenger and two four-eyed dogs guard the entrance to his kingdom. Chitragupta is his aid who maintains the record of human deeds.
Yama as the lord of death has also passed into Buddhist, Persian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Indonesian mythologies.Yama is present in every country, in different names and functions, where Buddhism is practiced, and Hindu beliefs are present.
Yama in Buddhism
Yama, the Hindu God of Death also happens to be the Buddhist Death God. The reign of Yama is Naraka, the underworld. In Buddhist mythology, Yama is Dharmapala, the defender of religious law, who passes judgments over the dead, and lives in Naraka, the hell. Like Yama, description of Buddhist hell is also burrowed from Hinduism.
Yama has been mentioned in the early Buddhist texts, even theBuddha has mentioned Yama in his discourse. According to the Buddha, when a person dies he/she is taken to Yama, who passes judgment according to the person’s karma. Men and women are sent back to the earth to be born again or to hell or heaven depending upon their karma.
Yama in Hinduism
Yama is one of many Gods in Vedas. He is called Kala, literally death, or time.The word Kala, meaning time and death, is also a name of HinduGod Shiva, who is associated with death and destruction. Hindu mythologies closely relate Yama with Shiva. Shiva takes the form of Mahakala, Great Kala, and destroys the world. No one but Shiva and Vishnu, two Gods in Hindu Trinity (the third one is Brahma, the creator), have power to repel death of mortals, if they choose to do so. Shiva and Vishnu can bless human beings with eternal lives.
In the Veda, Yama is called a king, the gatherer of men, and rules over the departed fathers. He is the appointed judge in the post-Vedic mythologies, and Restrainer or Punisher of the dead in which capacity he is also called Dharma. Yamaloka or Naraka is the realm of the dead, ruled, by Yama and everyone has to enter the netherworld to receive his judgment. Yamaloka was originally conceived as the heaven of heroes, and later that of pitrs, or dead ancestors liberated from sin, but later it was ascribed as Naraka, hell or purgatory.
In the Hindu Epic Mahabharata and Garuda Purana, Yama is described as dressed in blood-red garments with a glittering form, a crown on his head, glowing eyes and holding a noose which he blinds the spirit after drawing it from the body, in size about the measure of a thumb. He is wrathful deity and tortures the sinners. Yama, otherwise, is represented as grim in aspect, green in color, clothed in red, riding a buffalo, and holding a club in one hand and noose on the other.
There is a difference in portrayal of Yama in the ages of mythology and Vedic literature. In the Veda, he is the king of happy and auspicious world, where pious souls enjoy all kinds of pleasure, but in the mythologies he is a king of hell always represented as a terrible deity inflicting torture. He is also one of the eight guardians of the world as regent of the south quarters.
Yama: The Philosopher
Yama, wisest of all Gods, is also referred as Dharmaraja, the lord of justice, and called Dharma. There are three Hindu books of philosophies ascribed to him: Kato Upanishad, Yama Samhita and Maitreyani Samhita. In these scriptures Yama is a teacher and addressed as Death, and described as the one who knows about death, the knowledge that is concealed even for Gods.
The philosophy Yama imparts in Kato Upanishad is known as Agni-Vidya, Fire Knowledge. In Kato Upanishad, Yama explains what happens after a mortal dies. According to Yama, when humans die, their breathis mixed into air, bones and flesh into earth, liquid into water, consciousness into the ether. Every element that makes human bodies body merges into the very elements of the world, and later they pass into plants and animals in the form of food, water, air etc. This is the rebirth, this is heaven; because you serve the mankind even after you abandon your body. Body is temporal, every moment death nibbles it. The mortals end up being decomposed, but then they rise up entering into the living things again.
In Yama Samhita, Yama says: The universe is composed of perishable matters. Here everything is destroyed or changed. Transformation, in a sense, is destruction. Everything are terminated such that new are created, so annihilation is also the father of creation. Life is minute part of greater death (Mahakala), hence transient life is not important happening. Life is just a phantasm, death is supremacy after finality. Detachment is demise, asceticism is expiration, inner repose is mortality.
Yama in Indonesian Mythology
Yama also appears in Indonesian mythologies, Javanese culture to be precise. When Hinduism reached Java, an island in Indonesia, the people accepted Yama as Yamadipati. In the 16th century, Islam replaced Hinduism in Indonesia, and the attributes of Yamadipati changed. However, in Bali, another island in Indonesia, where majority of people are Hindu, legends of Yama are told in different versions.
Yama and Yami
Yami also called Yamuna is Yama’s twin sister. There is a chapter called Yama-Yami Sambad, dialogues of Yama and Yami, in Veda. According to Nepalese legend, love between Yama and Yami is eternal. Every year, people in Nepal celebrate a five-day festival called Yamapanchak, which falls in November. Hindus remember Yama as the ferocious God who loved his sister and went to be deified after she sent crow, dog, cow and ox to run errands.
The first day of Yamapanchak is crow worshipping day. On the second day, dogs are worshipped. Cows are worshipped on the third day, and oxen in the fourth day. The fifth day of Yamapanchak is called Bhaitika. During Bhaitika, brothers and sisters worship each other by lighting oil wicks and incense, marking each other foreheads with seven colors, and anointing with oil and garlands of marigold. The invocation for Bhaitika, the last day of Yamapanchak is – As Yama is immortal, so may my brother be immortal; may your life be as long as the nut flower remains unfading, your body hard as walnut, and your heart as soft as butter!
Bhaitika is also celebrated by Hindus in India and elsewhere. Yamuna, one of the holy rivers in India, is said to be a form of Yami.
Yama in Tibetan Buddhism
Yama occupies a significant position in Tibetan Buddhism. According to Tibetan mythologies, there are eight protective deities called Dharmapala, very similar to Dikpala in Hinduism, and Yama is one of them. The eight Dharmapalas are described in ferocious form. Their hair is disheveled, they have three big eyes, and wear crowns and garlands of skulls. Dharmapalas are usually depicted as trampling human beings or animals, and accompanied by their female consorts. Most of the Dharmapalas have Hindu variation, and looks like they were burrowed from Hindu mythologies.
Dharmapala Yama, called Gshin-rje in Tibetan language and Shinje in local dialect, is the lord of the death, most of the time accompanied by his sister Yami. In the drawings popularly called Mandala, life is shown between the jaws or arms of monstrous Shinje-Yama.
According to Tibetan legend, once a meditating man was disturbed by two thieves, when he was just about to reach enlightenment. In his fury, he became Yama. He killed the thieves, but his fury did not stop, he began to kill everyone in Tibet. Manjushree, the Bodhisattva, the Buddha-to-be, came to rescue people. He took the form of Yamantaka, Yama-Death. Manjushree as Yamantaka was similar to Yama but ten times more powerful and ferocious. Yamantaka tamed Yama and turned him into a protector of Buddhism.
Yama in Chinese Mythology
In Chinese mythology, Yama appears as Yan, the lord of death, who rules the underworld. Like Hindu Yama, Yan passes judgment over the dead. The pious souls are rewarded with good future whereas sinners are tortured. Yan is aided by a judge who keeps the record of all mortals. Yan’s aid has the likeness of Yama’s aid Chitragupta. Yan is described as a big man with red face, bulging eyes, and a long beard. According to Chinese mythologies, Yan is sometimes considered to be a position rather than a particular deity.
Chinese myths about Yan later passed to Korean and Japanese mythologies. In Korea, Yan is known as Yomna, and in Japan, he is called Emma.
Yama in Japanese Mythology
Emma in Japanese mythology is similar to Hindu Yama. Emma is the lord of hell and judges the souls of men. Emma has a sister who judges the souls of women. In the judgment of Emma, sinners are punished where as pious souls are rewarded. Emma is described as a wrathful deity and his judgment can be overruled only by prayers.
More by this Author
A short introduction to Hindu God Krishna, his teachings and the Bhagavadgita
Fertility symbols and fertility rituals are present in many cultures and faiths. Hinduism makes extensive use of fertility symbols and fertility rituals in religious practices.
An overview of the origin and development of cat species, and a short introduction to 32 cat breeds including Persian and Siamese.