This article is about Yama the Dharma raja, the dispenser of justice, the guardian of the ancestors and the lord of death. Yama is one of the Loka-pala or Dikpala, the Regents of the directions. He presides over the South.
Before we return to Yama, let’s briefly talk about the Dikpalas.
1.1. Space the substratum of the cosmos is the abode, the source of all forms. The directions, the determinants of space, therefore, have a special significance. In the Indian traditions which include Buddhism and Jainism, the deities are connected with the directions which symbolically reveal and express their powers.
1.2. Orientation is an essential aspect of the yajna. Elaborate care is taken to ensure location of the yajna altar exactly along the East-West axis, the prachee. The East where the sun rises; West where the sun sets; the North and South towards which Sun’s path tilts during the cycle of seasons, were all of much significance to the Vedic people. That was because; those directions complimented the attributes associated with the gods invoked in the yajna.
2.1. Each direction is governed by a deity, a Dikpala. These Regents of the directions are deemed the protectors of the world, Loka-pala. They are the rulers of the spheres; and therefore are depicted with royal attributes.
2.2. Dikpalas are usually said to be eight in number; each governing a direction in space. In the Upanishads, the Dikpalas or Lokapalas are mentioned as four and at times as five; in the puranas and epics their number is eight; but, the Tantra traditions which adopt a three-dimensional view of the cosmos regard the Lokapalas as ten, by including zenith and nadir.
3.1. The orientation and architecture of the yajna vedi, the yajna altar, the towns, cities, the temples and buildings are all related to the division of the sphere that corresponds to the attributes of its deity. In the context of the yajna, the Southern gate is reckoned as the way of the ancestors the pitris; and, the offerings to the departed ancestors are always submitted facing South.
3.2. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad mentions Surya the Sun as the Regent of the East; Varuna of the West; Yama of the South; Soma of the North; and Agni in the zenith. But, the Chandogya Upanishad presents a slightly different arrangement of the Dikpalas. It is this spatial allocation of the Dikpalas that is commonly mentioned in the puranas, epics etc; and followed in the Tantra texts as also in astrology, architectures and Vastu. The classification is briefly:
Indra the king of Devas, the Lord of the heavens dwells in the East, which represents power and courage.
Yama the protector of the Law (Dharma raja), guardian of the ancestors and the king of the Dead dwells in the South, which represents justice and the care of the ancestors.
Varuna the protector of rta the cosmic law; guardian of rites; lord of destiny and the lord of water element dwells in the West, which represents knowledge.
And, Kubera the king of Yakshas and the lord of riches dwells in the North, which represents an upper position and wealth.
The Regents of the half-directions are mentioned as:
North-East is the region of Soma (the moon or the offering made to Agni); Ishana the purifier, an aspect of Shiva; and, Prithvi the Earth that nourishes all.
South-East is the region of Agni the fire in all its forms and the yajna.
South-West is the region of Surya the sun; or Nirtti the misery.
And, North-West is the region of Vayu or Marut the lord of winds, and of breath and life.
The two additional Regents mentioned in the Tantra are: Brahma representing knowledge at the zenith (Urdhva); and, Anantha, the endless or the boundless at the nadir (Patala), representing the potential powers of Vishnu.
3.3. The Dikpalas are the prominent Vedic deities. But, with the advent and rise of the puranic gods they have now receded to the background.
3.4. Before we discuss Yama let me briefly mention of an interesting analysis made by Dr. Sukumari Bhattacharji in her classic ‘The Indian Theogony’ (Cambridge University Press, 1970) wherein she views the space as interplay of the benevolent , not so benevolent and the malevolent forces in nature. The point is that the universe is not all milk and honey, but is continual frictions, on gong challenges; strive for ascendency; as also the mutual tolerance and existence between sets of forces opposing each other in varying degrees .
Shatapatha Brahmana (1:2:5:17) mentions the East is the region of gods, the North is the region of men; and South is the region of Pitris the departed ancestors. Indra the solar deity who represents light rules over only one quarter- the east, while the seven other quarters are ruled by the opposing deities. The west, diametrically opposite to east, is ruled by Varuna who somehow was included among the Adityas, the solar deities.
But, Varuna symbolizes the setting sun; and, thus is more closely associated with gods and powers of darkness than with those of light.
Agni who rules south –east is at once both beneficent and sinister. It is said; as Havya-vahana, the carrier of oblations to gods he is with the solar gods; but, as Kavya-vahana and Kavyad, the messenger of the Pitris, he is with the gods of darkness.
[Kavya-vahana or Kavyad is described as a fire invoked with Yama, as an offering to Pitris, on the New-moon day at the conclusion of the four-monthly offering.]
Similarly, Isana who rules north-east too has both divine and sinister bearings. He is the intermediary between gods and other powers.
Rudra who rules north is a Vedic god; but later he assumes darker hues and associations’.
And, Kubera is sub-divine, a Yaksha, with links to Rudra. Between Rudra and Varuna is Vayu who rules north-west; and, he too leans more towards the dark gods than towards the solar gods in the east.
In the South is Yama the Lord of Pitris and his followers, the Pitris. Yama too, like Rudra, is a Vedic god. But since the age of Brahmanas he is identified as the Lord of death and is almost a malevolent figure.
Finally, Between Yama and Varuna is the Nairratta kona the south west corner where the Nirriti and Nairrattas (monsters) rule.
It is even said; the Dikpalas are associated not merely with the directions but with the seasons as well. The spring, summer and rainy seasons belong to and represent the gods; while autumn, winter and dewy seasons belong to the Pitris. The fortnight during which the moon waxes is associated with gods; while the darker half of the month when the moon wanes is associated with Pitris. The day belongs to the gods and the night to the Pitris. The morning belongs to gods and the afternoon to the Pitris (SBII: 1:3:1).
As you see, Indra and Adityas, the solar deities, rule one quarter, while seven other quarters are ruled by forces that are either intermediary or in opposition the solar forces .What associates the gods of seven other quarters is the nature of death, decay and destruction. And, their distinct association with Pitris, the departed ancestors, binds the seven together; but, they do co exist with the solar gods. This complex interplay of light and shadow is a peculiar character of the Indian pantheon.
Yama the Dharma Raja
4.1. Yama is depicted as the sovereign of the infernal; the lord of death and the dispenser of justice; and the governor of eternal law that ensures rejuvenation of life and a sense of balance between the old and the new in all existence. Yama , the son of Vivaswan is Vaivaswata ; and, just as Sri Dakshinamurti , Yama is also associated with Udumbara ( fig tree). He is the embodiment of righteousness, the Dharma; and he is the king of justice, the Dharma raja. He judges the dead; but, he is amenable to pity and reason, as in the case of Savitri and Pramadvara* in the Mahabharata.
Pramadvara (pramadaam varaa, the best among the most beautiful) was the daughter of Menaka, the Apsara (celestial nymph) and Viswavasu, the king of Gandharvas. Since Pramadvara was abandoned by her parents, Rishi Sthulakesa raised the most delightful little girl with great care and love. Later in her life, just on the eve of her wedding with her beloved Ruru (son of hermit Pramati and damsel Ghritachi) Pramadvara died suddenly , bitten by a snake. Ruru, the heartbroken bridegroom, in deep sorrow and bewailing appeals to gods (Devas) to restore his Love Pramadvara to life. Yama, the Dharmaraja, moved by pity and sympathizing with the plight of Ruru agrees to bring Pramadvara back to life; but, on condition that Ruru should gift half of his remaining lifespan (Ayu) to her. Ruru readily agrees to Yama’s rider with alacrity; Pramadvara comes back to life; and, immediately marries Ruru without losing time. The happy parents later beget a son Sunaka. And, his son Saunaka, later, as the chief of the Rshis, performed a very long Yajna in the Naimisha forest (Naimisaranya). Saunaka is the one who heard the recitations of Mahabharata and Srimad Bhagavata from Suta and his son Ugrashravas. Saunaka, in turn, narrated these epics. Saunaka is credited with monumental works, such as the Anukramanis ( a sort of Vedic Index) , Brhaddevata (which narrates the legends of the Vedic gods ) and Rg Vidhana (which explains each rk in the context of the Srauta and Gruhya Sutras)]
At times, a distinction is made between Yama and Mrutyu. The both have a sort of working relationship. Mruthyu the death snatches the life on earth; and transfers it to Yama the lord of ancestors for dealing with it further.
Mrutyu the death, is the reality of life on the planet Earth (prithvi).The term Mrutyu is derived from the root mru which stands for earth (as in mrun the earth; mrutya the mortal being rooted to earth); and, Mrutyu literally is returning to the bowels of the earth.
Mrutyu is death personified; hymns are addressed to Mrutyu in Rig Veda (10.18) praying him not to harm children and men. The lifeless body is laid into earth the mother with the prayer –O mother Earth, oppress him not; be gracious unto him; shelter him kindly; cover him as mother covers her infant with her garment.
While the physical body returns to the elements, the subtle body is handed over by Mrutyu to Yama the lord of the ancestors. A prayer is submitted to Yama to prepare a dwelling place , in his world, for the dead one.
4.2. Three hymns (10, 14, and 35) in the tenth book of Rig Veda are addressed to Yama.
In the Rig Veda, Yama is a minor god; and he is benign like any of its gods. He is described as “the first of men that died, and the first that departed to the (celestial) world.” He was the one who found the way to the home which cannot be taken away: Yama is ‘a gatherer of men’; and as one who looks after the well-being of the dead, to whom he provides food and shelter. He is invoked along with the Pitris (the departed ones) and Angirasa, and invited reverentially to sit on the grass-seat (kusha) and taste the oblation (RV 10.14.4-5).
Dr. Muir says: “Yama is nowhere represented in the Rig-Veda as having anything to do with the punishment of the wicked. . So far as is yet known, the hymns of that Veda contain no prominent mention of any such penal retribution”
Atharva Veda (18.3.13) sings “Worship the son of Vivasvat, the gatherer of men with oblations, he who was the first of the mortals to die, he who first entered this world”). It appears that Yama was initially a mortal but was the first to die and enter the ‘other world’ and gain the status of the gatherer of people (departed souls) . He was eventually elevated to divine status and assigned a portion of the oblation at the Yajna. Yama is thus the first ancestor and the king of ancestors (pitr raja; Preta-adipati ) as also the god of ceremonies, Sraddha deva. He is also the king of ghosts (preta raja).He is entitled to a full share of Soma offered to gods in the yajna.
4.3. The term Yama means one who restrains (yam to control) or one who binds. He binds, decides on the action of men . He controls (yacchati) all beings without distinction and restrains all beings.
4.4. Prayers are offered to Yama for longevity and deliverance from recurring deaths. As for the dead, he is requested to offer them proper food and shelter. Yama is also sought to grant release from asanaya (hunger). In the Grhya-sutras, many rituals are prescribed for worship of ancestors, offering them oblations with prayers to Yama for averting recurring deaths. In these passages Yama is revered as any other god whose abode is beyond death .a kindly god who is more revered than feared. He is god of the dead but not a god of death. He is the god of righteousness (Dharmaraja) and a restrainer (niyamaytir)
5.1. From Yajur Veda onwards, especially after the purusha-medha sacrifice, where oblations are prescribed for each aspect of Yama, his personality undergoes a radical change. From then on, the benevolent god of justice becomes the dreaded god of death. He gets associated with the destructive aspects of Shiva as Kaala, Antaka etc.
5.2. Yama the Dakshinadhipathi the lord of the southern quarter is himself called death Mrityu, the end, the finisher Antaka, and one who takes away all lives Sarva-pranahara. He is the finisher kratanta; the equitable one samana; and, one who hands out punishments danda. He is also Danda-dhara , one who wiellds the fearous weapon Danda . He is also Pasi, the one who holds the noose . He is respected and feared because he ensures that his orders are executed ruthlessly : Danda sashana or Bhima-shasana .
Yama is kaala, both time and death; ‘the cook of the creatures ‘ripening them with time; ‘he who ever knows day and night and the seasons; and the good and evil works of man’ . As kala he is dark with red eyes and holding a staff.
Yama and family
6.1. Yama is the son of the resplendent Visvasvat; hence his last-name is Vaivasvata (Rig Veda 10.14.5). His mother is Sanjnya or Saranyu (meaning the cloud) the daughter of Tvastra Visvakarman the divine architect. Yama is the brother of Vaivasvata Manu the progenitor of this eon; and of Asvins the gods of health. Yama’s twin sister Yami loves him passionately. She is of the nature of night (yamini); and, it is said, the dark flowing river the Yamuna is named after Yami.
6.2. The Bhrigus and Varuna are his associates. Yama has close relations with Rudra, Soma, Kala, and Nirrti, and a closer one with Agni who conveys to him the dead.
6.3. Mahabharata mentions that Yama married the ten daughters of Daksha the progenitor. Elsewhere it is mentioned that Hema mala; Sushila and Vijaya are his three wives. At other places, Dhumorna (shroud of smoke that rises from the funeral pyre) and Sri (the fortune) are mentioned as his wives.
6.4. In the Rig-Veda, Amrta is Yama’s son, but in the Atharva Veda, Duḥsvapna (bad dream) is his son by Varunani.
Yama, his residence and his entourage
7.1. As regards his residence, it is said, Yama resides in his mansion Yamalaya at the South. His city is Samyamini (city of bondage). His abode in the city and its environment are described as pleasant and comfortable. His city has four gates and seven arches, as also two rivers the Pushpodaka (stream of flowers) and the Vivasvati (the roaring) that flow through the city.
7.2. Yama sits upon the Vichara-bhu the throne of deliberation, placed in the centre of the judgment hall named kaalaci (hall of destiny). The janitor at the entrance to the judgment hall is Vaidhyata (meaning the legal process). Yama’s scribe and secretary is the ever efficient Chitra-gupta, person privy to many secrets. His ministers are Chanda (wrath) and Mahachanda (terror). There is also the kala-purusha who keeps eternal vigil. Apart from demons, many sages and kings are also said to assemble in his court, to pay their respects. The messengers of death (yama duta) are his attendants and foot soldiers. They are dressed in black, have red eyes and bristling hair. Their legs, body and nose are like those of crows.
7.3. Two insatiable dogs having four-eyes and wide nostrils accompany Yama. They are Syama (the black) and Sabala (the powerful) who were born to Surama (the swift) the dog of Indra, the king of gods. Yama’s dogs watch the path of the dead. They guard the road to his abode, and which the departed are advised to hurry past . These dogs are said to wander about among men as his messengers, for summoning them to their master, who is described as ’ sending a bird as the herald of doom’.
7.4. Yama rides a chariot named Roga (sickness); and is followed by demons that are the different diseases.
Yama, his court
8.1. Of the two paths of the dead mentioned in the later Vedic doctrines of death and after-death, Devayana (the path of the gods) and Pitryana (the path of ancestors) , the latter is that of the humans and of spirits doomed to take rebirth. Such souls proceed through Soma, the moon, and eventually are judged by Yama.
8.2. As regards the procedures involved in procuring the dead and judging them, it is said; when it is time for a jiva to depart from its body the messengers of death secure it with a noose and drag it through barren territories without shade or water, on its way to Yama’s court. At the judgment hall the Dead one presents himself before Yama, all alone unaccompanied by friends or relatives; accompanied only by his past deeds. After the record-keeper Chitragupta reads out from his main record (agra – samdhani) the list and summary of the good and bad deeds committed by the dead one, the judgment is pronounced by Yama who appears gracious to the good-doer and fearful to the evildoer. The unfortunate dead ones condemned to naraka the hell, are made to pass through red-hot iron gates and wade through the stinking and boiling river the Vaitarini (abandonment) littered with filth, blood, hair and bones.
9.1. Coming to Yama’s appearance, it is said, the virtuous and the sinners see him differently. To the virtuous , Yama looks like Vishnu “with charming smiling face, four arms, eyes like lotus in blossom; holding the conch, discus, mace and lotus; and riding Garuda”.
9.2. To the not-so-fortunate, Yama is of grim and fearful appearance. His body of dark or green complexion is huge and ill shaped with glowing red eyes. His eyes are deep wells, his lips are thin the color of smoke, his teeth and nails are long, and his breath from his wide nostrils is hurricane like. His reed-like hair is tied on the top over which sits a glittering crown. He has on his chest garlands made of weird beads; and yellow and red wild flowers. He rides a huge black buffalo named Ugra the terrible, wielding in his claw like hands a sword, mace or a long staff (danda) and a noose. He roars like the ocean of destruction.
10. Having said all that, Yama is otherwise regarded as Dharma Raja the lord of justice dedicated to maintain order and adherence to rule of law with a view to preserving the harmony in existence.
Yama is also associated with the legend of Markandeya the devote boy , an icon of innocence and absolute faith.
Yama is respected as one of the wisest of the Devas and a very good teacher. He is also an adept in Atma-vidya, the knowledge of Self. In the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, as death personified, he holds a long discourse with the boy Nachiketas, whom he initiates into the mysteries of life, death, and immortality. Yama, explains to boy Nachiketa: “that knowing which, everything else becomes known?”
Yama in other traditions
Buddhist Yama of Tibet
11. Lord Yama traveled to other traditions too. The Vedic yama is Yima Kshaeta in the Avesta of Zoroaster (the latter part of this name derived from the root kshimeans “to rule”. The name Yima Kshaeta,is thus “Yima, the King”). Yima, whose region is south, is the first mortal and a great king of men. In Buddhist lore, Yama is identified with Kama the desire and Mara the death. He judges the dead and presides over the Buddhist hells. The Buddhist Yama is also a part of the Chinese and Japanese mythologies. The legends of YamaorYima, the son of the Sun transformed in the Japanese mythology to Jimmu the first mortal as well as the first Emperor of Japan, born of the Sun-goddess.
Concept of Death
2.1. One of the meanings assigned to the term Yama is the ‘twin’, as in ‘yamala the twins’. The moment a being is born, death too is born along with him as his twin. Both travel the journey of life together, the death always shadowing his twin; that is only until death overtakes the twin. Thus, life and death are never apart, they are ever together. Of the two, death is a certainty, while its twin comes with no guarantees. Death is also the only reality and the only experience one cannot escape.
12.2. In the Indian traditions, death is not a punishment but is a part of the sequence of life. Death is not the final end; but is a passage or a doorway to other possibilities that might exist thereafter. It is like getting into a new dress, discarding the old and worn out, and going about fresh business. And, as my mother used to put it, death is like” being shifted from one breast to other breast of the mother. The baby feels lost for a short instant, but not for long.”
12.3. If it is so why do Hindus and Buddhists have to fear death? It is explained, the fear is because of the horrid process of dying, the pain and the agony; and the physical suffering as also psychological trauma it involves. The fear or helplessness for not being in control of the time and circumstances of one’s death exacerbates the scare. The dying person is inundated with anxiety, fear and sorrow of parting forever from his attachments, his near and dear ones and all that he loved and valued during those years of his life. The experience of death is the helplessness, the grievous sense of loss and betrayal; and the sheer fright of ceasing to be and staring into the unknown. These fears and anxieties are universal.
12.4. Acharya Vinoba Bhave in one of his talks explained, there is no way one can avoid death; it is inevitable. He said, one may not be able to control the happening of the event, but one can surely try framing ones approach to it. We came into this world without a choice, but can try leaving it on our terms. That might not succeed in all cases, but it can help influence our attitude to death.
Everyone dies, he said, there is nothing unique about it; but one can make his mark by trying to leave behind a better world than the one he inherited. One way of doing that is to work and live on the basis that death is just round the corner; that somehow seems to spur a person to do his best in his endowers. Acharya said, life is in a way a skilful preparation to face death with equanimity, without fear or anxiety.
“Anayasena maranam, vina dainyena jivanam”,
A life without humiliation and death without pain was his prayer to Krishna.
Rehearse death; rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. He is beyond the reach of all political powers.
– Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD). Letters from a Stoic
References and sources
The myths and Gods of India by Alain Danielou
Brahmiya Chitra Karma sastram by Dr. G Gnanananda for the line drawings of Yama.
Shilpii Shri Thippajappa (1780-1856) For the drawing of the eight Dikpalas
Other pictures are from internet