Yama (East Asia)

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For the era, see Azuchi–Momoyama period.
"King Yan" redirects here. For Yànwáng (燕王), see Prince of Yan.
Azuchi-Momoyama period wall-scroll depicting Enma
South Indian depiction of Yama

In East Asian mythology, Yama, sometimes known as the King of Hell, King Yan or Yanluo is a dharmapala (wrathful god) said to judge the dead and preside over the Narakas ("Hells" or "Purgatories") and the cycle of saṃsāra.

Although based on the god Yama of the Hindu Vedas, the Buddhist Yama has developed different myths and different functions from the Hindu deity. He has also spread far more widely and is known in every country where Buddhism is practiced, including China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Yama in Theravāda Buddhism[edit]

Adopted from Hinduism into Buddhism, Yama's exact role is fairly vague in canonical texts, but is clearer in extracanonical texts and popular beliefs, although these are not always consistent with Buddhist philosophy.

In the Pali canon, the Buddha states that a person who has ill-treated their parents, ascetics, holy persons, or elders is taken upon his death to Yama.[1] Yama then asks the ignoble person if he ever considered his own ill conduct in light of birth, deterioration, sickness, worldly retribution and death (mrtyu). In response to Yama's questions, such an ignoble person repeatedly answers that he failed to consider the kammic consequences of his reprehensible actions and as a result is sent to a brutal hell "so long as that evil action has not exhausted its result."[2]

In the Pali commentarial tradition, the scholar Buddhaghosa's commentary to the Majjhima Nikaya describes Yama as a vimānapeta (विमानापता), a "being in a mixed state", sometimes enjoying celestial comforts and at other times punished for the fruits of his karma. However, Buddhaghosa considered his rule as a king to be just.[3]

Modern Theravādin countries portray Yama sending old age, disease, punishments, and other calamities among humans as warnings to behave well. At death, they are summoned before Yama, who examines their character and dispatches them to their appropriate rebirth, whether to earth or to one of the heavens or hells. Sometimes there are thought to be two or four Yamas, each presiding over a distinct Hell.[4]

Yama in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese mythology[edit]

Miyazu, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan. Statue of a Yama (Enma) at Nariai-ji

In Chinese mythology, King Yan (Chineset , s , p Yánwáng) is the god of death and the ruler of Diyu, overseeing the "Ten Kings of Hell". He is also known as Yanluo (t 閻羅, s 阎罗, p Yánluówáng), a transcription of the Sanskrit for King Yama (यम राज, Yama Rājā). In both ancient and modern times, Yan is portrayed as a large man with a scowling red face, bulging eyes, and a long beard. He wears traditional robes and a judge's cap or a crown which bears the character for "king" (王). He typically appears on Chinese hell money in the position reserved for political figures on regular currency.

Yan is not only the ruler but also the judge of the underworld and passes judgment on all the dead. He always appears in a male form, and his minions include a judge who holds in his hands a brush and a book listing every soul and the allotted death date for every life. Ox-Head and Horse-Face, the fearsome guardians of hell, bring the newly dead, one by one, before Yan for judgement. Men or women with merit will be rewarded good future lives or even revival in their previous life. Men or women who committed misdeeds will be sentenced to torture or miserable future lives. In some versions, Yan divides Diyu into eight, ten, or eighteen courts each ruled by a Yan King, such as King Chujiang, who rules the court reserved for thieves and murderers.

The spirits of the dead, on being judged by Yan, are supposed to either pass through a term of enjoyment in a region midway between the earth and the heaven of the gods or to undergo their measure of punishment in the nether world. Neither location is permanent and after a time, they return to Earth in new bodies.

"Yan" was sometimes considered to be a position in the celestial hierarchy, rather than an individual. There were said to be cases in which an honest mortal was rewarded the post of Yan and served as the judge and ruler of the underworld.[citation needed]

Some said common people like Bao Zheng, Fan Zhongyan, Zhang Binglin became the Yan at night or after death.[5][6][7]

These Chinese beliefs subsequently spread to Korea and Japan. In Japan, he is called Enma (閻魔, prev. "Yenma"), King Enma (閻魔王, Enma-ō), and Great King Enma (閻魔大王, Enma Dai-Ō). In Korea, Yan is known as Yeomna (염라) and Great King Yeomna (염라대왕, Yŏmna Daewang). In Vietnam, these Buddhist deities are known as Diêm vương and are venerated as a council of all ten kings who oversee underworld realm of địa ngục.

Yama in Tibetan Buddhism[edit]

Yama, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In Tibetan Buddhism, Shinje (Tibetan: གཤིན་རྗེ་, Gshin.rje) is both regarded with horror as the prime mover of the cycle of death and rebirth and revered as a guardian of spiritual practice. In the popular mandala of the Bhavachakra, all of the realms of life are depicted between the jaws or in the arms of a monstrous Shinje. Shinje is sometimes shown with a consort, Yami, and sometimes pursued by Yamantaka ("Yama-Death"):

A holy man was told that if he meditated for the next 50 years, he would achieve enlightenment. The holy man meditated in a cave for 49 years, 11 months, and 29 days, until he was interrupted by two thieves who broke in with a stolen bull. After beheading the bull in front of the hermit, they ignored his requests to be spared for but a few minutes and beheaded him as well. In his near-enlightened fury, this holy man became Yama, the god of Death, took the bull's head for his own, and killed the two thieves, drinking their blood from cups made of their skulls. Still enraged, Yama decided to kill everyone in Tibet. The people of Tibet, fearing for their lives, prayed to the bodhisattva Manjushri, who took up their cause. He transformed himself into Yamantaka, similar to Yama but ten times more powerful and horrific. In their battle, everywhere Yama turned, he found infinite versions of himself. Manjushri as Yamantaka defeated Yama and turned him into a protector of Buddhism. He is generally considered a wrathful deity.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

19th century kagamibuta netsuke depicting Enma
  • "If you lie, Lord Enma will pull out your tongue" (嘘をつけばと閻魔さまに舌を抜かれる?) is a superstition in Japan often told to scare children into telling the truth.
  • A Japanese kotowaza states "When borrowing, the face of a jizō; when repaying (a loan), the face of Enma" (借りる時の地蔵顔、返す時の閻魔顔?). Jizō is typically portrayed with a serene, happy expression whereas Enma is typically portrayed with a thunderous, furious expression. The kotowaza alludes to changes in people's behaviour for selfish reasons depending on their circumstances.
  • In the video game Spelunky, a King Yama appears as the boss of the final Hell level. He needs to be defeated in order to be able to leave Hell and finish the game.
  • Various forms and interpretations of Yama appear in popular media based on East Asian mythology:
  • In the video game Shadowrun: Hong Kong, the final antagonist is revealed to be Qian Ya, a Yama King that feeds off of the toxic spiritual state of the residents of the Kowloon Walled City.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See, for example, MN 130 (Nanamoli & Bodhi, 2001, pp. 1029–36) and AN 3.35 (Nyanaponika & Bodhi, 1999, pp. 51–3), both of which are entitled, "Devaduta Sutta" (The Divine Messengers).
  2. ^ Nanamoli & Bodhi (2001), p. 1032.
  3. ^ Nanamoli & Bodhi, 2001, p. 1341, n. 1206.
  4. ^ According to Nanamoli & Bodhi (2001), p. 1341 n. 1206, the Majjhima Nikaya Atthakatha states that "there are in fact four Yamas, one at each of four gates (of hell?)." [The paranthetical expression is by Bodhi.]
  5. ^ 七 閻羅王信仰
  6. ^ 中国古代传说中的三大阎王:包公寇准范仲淹
  7. ^ 学子 | 真有阎王阴界,虽唯心造,因果丝毫不爽!


  • Nanamoli, Bhikkhu & Bodhi,Bhikkhu (2001). The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-072-X.
  • Nyanaponika Thera & Bodhi, Bhikkhu (1999). Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. ISBN 0-7425-0405-0.