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Yama: God of Death

Updated on July 2, 2013
Yama riding a buffalo.  via Wikimedia Commons
Yama riding a buffalo. via Wikimedia Commons | Source

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 By Company School Tanjore Style [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Yama By Company School Tanjore Style [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

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.

Death is a new beginning say Yama, wisest of all Hindu Gods
Death is a new beginning say Yama, wisest of all Hindu Gods | Source

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.

Bhaitika is a Nepali festival for brothers and sister dedicated to Yama and Yami.
Bhaitika is a Nepali festival for brothers and sister dedicated to Yama and Yami. | Source

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 representation. By Ancheta Wis at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [CC-BY-2.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
Yama in Tibetan representation. By Ancheta Wis at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [CC-BY-2.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons | Source

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.

Scroll painting of Yama , via Wikimedia Commons
Scroll painting of Yama , via Wikimedia Commons | Source


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    • Vinaya Ghimire profile imageAUTHOR

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      7 years ago from Nepal

      Hello Rajan, thanks for reading and commenting.


    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 

      7 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA.

      Very interesting read about Yama in different religions.

      Voting up and interesting.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile imageAUTHOR

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      7 years ago from Nepal

      Dear mckbirdbks,

      thanks for always reading my hubs and leaving in depth comments. You are a wonderful write and friend.


    • mckbirdbks profile image


      7 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

      Vinaya you continue this series regarding the myths, legends and religious beliefs of the East. Your knowledge and research is put together so well. You are a natural teacher.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile imageAUTHOR

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      7 years ago from Nepal



      Thanks for reading and leaving appreciative comments.


    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 

      7 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      Very nice, Vinaya. Up and shared. Very interesting and informative.

    • Peanutritious profile image

      Tara Carbery 

      7 years ago from Cheshire, UK

      Fascinating and very well presented. You have taught me a lot. Thank you.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile imageAUTHOR

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      7 years ago from Nepal

      Hello Soumyarajan,

      I agree with you regarding the time of the Vedas, however, when writing I like to use the reference from Encyclopedia Britannica.

      Thanks for your comment.

      I will take a look of your article.


    • profile image


      7 years ago from Mumbai India and often in USA

      Hi! Vinaya

      Nice and enjoying article. I enjoyed very much reading about yama in nice style you have.

      I wonder how far it is right to say Vedas were written only by 1500 BCE. I think with remote sensing data collected by some French scientists, it is now fairly well established that saraswati river most likely flew between 6000 BCE to 4000 BCE and by 3000 BCE it had already dried up. So most likely vedas (which have many words praising saraswati river and general feeling is that they were written along the bank of river saraswati when it was a mighty river-much before it dried up ) were spoken much earlier than 3000 BCE.

      I wrote one old story about Yama and an artist in a short article. You may perhaps enjoy that one.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile imageAUTHOR

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      7 years ago from Nepal




      Always exploring

      Thank you my dear writers and friends for reading and leaving wonderful comments. Have a wonderful weekends.


    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      7 years ago from Southern Illinois

      This is very interesting to me. The beliefs and cultures from other countries is fascinating to say the least. I can't keep from wondering where all the different beliefs arrived from. I love your hubs. They are so enlightening. Thank you for sharing your part of our world with us, perhaps we all will blend together some day..Thank you..Cheers.

    • agusfanani profile image


      7 years ago from Indonesia

      A very interesting story, there are some mythologies in my country and this one has enriched me once more. I like to watch puppet show and one of the figures is Batara Kala and now I know that he has another name, Yama.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      7 years ago

      Interesting background and history on Vama, Lord of Death. You have done a great job of detailing the different beliefs regarding Vama.

    • radhapriestess profile image


      7 years ago from Minneapolis, MN

      Well written blog on Yama. I did not know too much about him except he is mentioned sometimes in Hindu stories as the god of death. There was one lady whose husband died and she outsmarted him and so her husband came back to life. Death most of time wins in most stories. My guru explained hell as being different in Hinduism than in Christianity. Hell is more a temporary state of mind or realm and at any time you could go to one of the other 16 cities after death if your state of mind warrants it. He said that there higher regions in heaven, what is called the seven heavens in Christian Bible, where people who are more highly evolved go after death. If you still have to perfect yourself more, you will have another life. Liberation is obtained when you reach perfection. You can come back if choose to to help humanity.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile imageAUTHOR

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      7 years ago from Nepal








      Thank you my dear fellow writers and friends for reading and leaving appreciate comments. I thank you from bottom of my heart for your sincere follow.


    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 

      7 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      Vinaya, you are so knowledgeable. This Hub is so interesting and the photographs gorgeous.

    • dinkan53 profile image


      7 years ago from India

      I am impressed with your knowledge in Indian Mythology vinayaghimire. Thanks for sharing and I'm truly grateful for your support too. Voted and shared.

    • ishwaryaa22 profile image

      Ishwaryaa Dhandapani 

      7 years ago from Chennai, India

      An insightful and engaging hub! You wrote a comprehensive article on one of the noted gods - Lord Yama. I learnt more from this detailed hub of yours. Well-done!

      Thanks for SHARING. Awesome & Interesting. Voted up & shared on Facebook

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      Fascinating. Thank you for this

    • Rosemay50 profile image

      Rosemary Sadler 

      7 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

      A fascinating hub Vinaya. Well written and set out. It is so interesting to learn of other cultures and their myths and beliefs.

      Voting up

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 

      7 years ago from Central New Jersey

      What a fascinating hub. I know very little about Hinduism and only slightly more about Buddhism and found this introduction to Yama the Lord of Death very interesting to compare with various Western religious and cultural notions. Well organized and researched and beautifully illustrated-- you make me want to learn more. Thumbs up.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      7 years ago from Shelton

      You know VG every time you hub.. I take away something new yeah a fantastic well written piece voted interesting.. because it is so :)


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