God of Death and Justice
|Other names||Dharmaraja, Yamraja, Kala|
|Affiliation||Lokapala, Deva, Gana|
|Mantra||Om Surya puthraya Vidhmahe MahaKalaya Dheemahi Thanno Yama Prachodayath [note 1]|
|Weapon||Danda, Noose and Mace|
|Siblings||Yami, Ashvins, Shraddhadeva Manu, Revanta, Shani and Tapati|
|Children||Sunita, Yamakumara, others; Yudhishthira (spiritual son)|
|Roman equivalent||Remus, Dis Pater|
Yama (Sanskrit: यम:), also known as Yamaraja, Kala, Dharmaraja, and Dharmaprabhu, is the Hindu god of death and justice, responsible for the dispensation of law and punishment of sinners in his abode, Yamaloka. He is often identified with Dharmadeva, the personification of Dharma, though they both have different origins and mythologies. Yama is one of the oldest deities in the pantheon and some of his earliest appearances are found in the Rigveda. From there, he has remained a significant deity, appearing in some of the most important texts of Hinduism including the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas.
Yama is one of the Lokapalas (guardians of the directions), appointed as the protector of the south direction. He is often depicted as a dark complexioned man, riding a buffalo and carrying a noose or mace to capture souls. Legends describe him as the twin of Yamuna, a river goddess associated with life, and the son of the sun god Surya and Saranyu. Some of his major appearances include in the tales of the Pandavas, Savitri Satyavan and the sage Markandeya. He is accompanied by Chitragupta, another deity associated with death. In modern culture, Yama has been depicted in various safety campaigns in India.
Etymology and characteristics
- "yamá" means 'twin' (Yama has a twin sister, Yami), and later came to mean 'binder' (derived from "yam"); the word also means 'moral rule or duty' (i.e. dharma), 'self-control', 'forbearance', and 'cessation'.
- In Vedic tradition, Yama was considered to be the first mortal who died and espied the way to the celestial abodes; thus, as a result, he became the ruler of the departed. His role, characteristics, and abode have been expanded in texts such as the Upanishads and Puranas.
- One of the Lokapāla – Guardians of the Directions – representing the south cardinal direction.
- Depicted as riding a water-buffalo and holding a danda (meaning 'stick', also referring to Vedic punishment) as a weapon.
- Although the Puranas state that his skin colour is that of storm clouds (i.e. dark grey) he is most often depicted as blue, but also sometimes as red.
In Hinduism, Yama is the lokapala ("Guardian of the Directions") of the south and the son of Surya. Three hymns (10, 14, and 35) in the 10th book of the Rig Veda are addressed to him. In Puranas, Yama is described as having four arms, protruding fangs, and complexion of storm clouds with a wrathful expression; surrounded by a garland of flames; dressed in red, yellow, or blue garments; holding a noose and a mace or sword; and riding a water-buffalo. He holds a noose (pāśa) of rope in one hand, with which he seizes the lives of people who are about to die. He is also depicted holding a danda which is a Sanskrit word for "staff". Yama is the son of Surya and Saranyu. He is the twin brother of Yami, brother of Shraddhadeva Manu and the step brother of Shani and his son was Katila. There are several temples across India dedicated to Yama. As per Vishnudharmottara, Yama should be represented on a buffalo with garment like of heated gold and all kinds of ornaments. He should have four arms with complexion like that of rain clouds. Dhumorna, his wife, should be represented sitting on the left haunch of Yama and she should have the colour of a dark blue lotus.
In the Rigveda, Yama is the son of a solar deity Vivasvat and Saraṇyū and has a twin sister named Yamī. He is cognate to the Avestan Yima, son of Vīvanhvant. The majority of Yama's appearances are in the first and tenth book. Yama is closely associated with Agni in the Rigveda. Agni is both Yama's friend and priest, and Yama is stated to have found the hiding Agni. In the Rigveda, Yama is the king of the dead, and one of the two kings that humans see when they reach heaven (the other being Varuna). Yama is stated to be a gatherer of the people, who gave dead people a place to rest. Out of the three Rigvedic heavens, the third and highest belong to Yama (the lower two belong to Savitr). Here is where the gods resides, and Yama is surrounded by music. In the ritual sacrifice, Yama is offered soma and ghee, and is invoked to sit at the sacrifice, lead the sacrificers to the abode of the gods, and provide long life.
In the dialogue hymn between Yama and Yamī (RV 10.10), as the first two humans, Yamī tries to convince her twin brother Yama to have sex with her. Yamī makes a variety of arguments, including continuing the mortal line, that Tvashtar created them as a couple in the womb, and that Dyaush and Prithvi are famous for their incest. Yama argues that their ancestors, "the Gandharva in the waters and the watery maiden," as a reason not to commit incest, that Mitra-Varuna are strict in their ordinances, and that they have spies everywhere. By the end of the hymn, Yamī becomes frustrated but Yama remains firm in his stance. However by RV 10.13.4, Yama is stated to have chosen to leave offspring, but Yamī is not mentioned.
Vedic literature states that Yama is the first mortal, and that he chose to die, and then proceeded to create a path to the "other world", where deceased ancestral fathers reside. Due to being the first man to die, he is considered the chief of the dead, lord of settlers, and a father. Throughout the course of Vedic literature, Yama becomes more and more associated with the negative aspects of death, eventually become the god of death. He becomes associated with Antaka (the Ender), Mṛtyu (Death), Nirṛti (Decease), and Sleep.
Yama has two four-eyed, broad nosed, brindled, reddish-brown dogs, and are the sons of Saramā. However in the Atharvaveda, one of dogs is brindled and the other is dark. The dogs are meant to track down those who are about to die, and guard the path to Yama's realm. Scholars who adhere to Theodor Aufrecht's interpretation of RV 7.55 state that the dogs were also meant to keep wicked men out of heaven.
In the Katha Upanishad, Yama is portrayed as a teacher to the Brahmin boy Nachiketa. Having granted three boons to Nachiketa, their conversation evolves to a discussion of the nature of being, knowledge, the Atman (i.e. the soul, self) and moksha (liberation). From the translation by Brahmrishi Vishvatma Bawra:
Yama says: I know the knowledge that leads to heaven. I will explain it to you so that you will understand it. O Nachiketas, remember this knowledge is the way to the endless world; the support of all worlds; and abides in subtle form within the intellects of the wise.— Chapter 1, Section 1, Verse 14
In the epic Mahabharata, Yama is the father of Yudhishthira (also known as Dharmaraja), the oldest brother of the five Pandavas. Yama most notably appears in person in the Yaksha Prashna and the Vana Parva, and is mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita.
In the Yaksha Prashna, Yama appears as a yaksha (nature spirit) in the form of a Crane to question Yudhishthira and test his righteousness. Impressed by Yudhishthira's strict adherence to dharma and his answers to the riddles posed, Yama revealed himself as his father, blessed him, and brought his younger Pandava brothers back to life. From the Yaksha Prashna article linked:
The Yaksha [Yama] asked, "What enemy is invincible? What constitutes an incurable disease? What sort of man is noble and what sort is ignoble"? And Yudhishthira responded, "Anger is the invincible enemy. Covetousness constitutes a disease that is incurable. He is noble who desires the well-being of all creatures, and he is ignoble who is without mercy".
In the Vana Parva, when Yudhishthira asks the sage Markandeya whether there has ever been a woman whose devotion matched Draupadi's, the sage replied by relating the story of Savitri and Satyavan.After Savitri's husband Satyavan died, Yama arrived to carry away his soul. However, Yama was so impressed with Savitri's purity and dedication to dharma and to her husband, he was convinced to instead bring Satyavan back to life.
- Tirtha-Yatra Parva
In the Tirtha-yatra Parva (Book 3, Varna Parva, CXLII), Lomasa tells Yudhishthira 'in days of yore, there was (once) a terrible time in the Satya Yuga when the eternal and primeval Deity [Krishna] assumed the duties of Yama. And, O thou that never fallest off, when the God of gods began to perform the functions of Yama, there died not a creature while the births were as usual.'
This led to an increase in the population and the Earth sinking down 'for a hundred yojanas. And suffering pain in all her limbs.' The earth sought the protection of Narayana, who incarnated as a boar (Varaha) and lifted her back up.
Of the celestial Naga snakes I am Ananta; of the aquatic deities I am Varuja. Of departed ancestors I am Aryama and among the dispensers of law I am Yama, lord of death.— Chapter 10, Verse 29
Yama and his abode are frequently mentioned in the Puranas.
Bhagavata Puruna / Srimad Bhagavatam
Third and Fourth Canto
In the third and fourth cantos of the Srimad Bhagavatam, Yama was incarnated as a shudra called Vidura due to being cursed by a sage for being too harsh in his punishments. From the A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada / Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT) translation:
— Canto 1, Chapter 13, Verse 15
Vidura, a devotee of Krishna, is the main protagonist in the third canto. In this canto, after being thrown out of his home by King Dhritarashtra (his older half-brother) for admonishing the Kaurava's ignoble behaviour towards the Pandavas, Vidura went on a pilgrimage where he met other devotees of Krishna such as Uddhava and the sage Maitreya, the latter of whom revealed Vidura's true origin to him:
I know that you are now Vidura due to the cursing of Māṇḍavya Muni and that formerly you were King Yamarāja, the great controller of living entities after their death. You were begotten by the son of Satyavatī, Vyāsadeva, in the kept wife of his brother.— Canto 3, Chapter 5, Verse 20
Krishna also states Yama punishes sinners, as relayed to Vidura (again, an incarnation of Yama) by Maitreya during their conversation about the origin and creation of the multiverse:
The brahmanas, the cows and the defenceless creatures are My [Krishna's] own body. Those whose faculty of judgement has been impaired by their own sin look upon those as distinct from Me. They are just like furious serpents, and they are angrily torn apart by the bills of the vulturelike messengers of Yamaraja, the superintendent of sinful persons.— Canto 3, Chapter 16, Verse 10
A detailed account of the punishment of a sinner upon their death is also provided, beginning with their seizure and journey to Yamaloka (i.e. Hell):
As a criminal is arrested for punishment by the constables of the state, a personal engaged in criminal sense gratification is similarly arrested by the Yamadutas, who bind him by the neck with a strong rope and cover his subtle body so that he may undergo severe punishment. While carried by the constables of Yamaraja, he is overwhelmed and trembles in their hands. While passing on the road [to Yamaloka] he is bitten by dogs, and he can remember the sinful activities of his life. He is thus terribly distressed.— Canto 3, Chapter 30, Verses 20–21
In the sixth canto, Yama (not as Vidura nor with Aryama in the post; see third and fourth canto) instructs his messengers, the Yamadutas, when questioned about who has supreme authority in the universe since there are so many gods and demigods:
Yamarāja said: My dear servants, you have accepted me as the Supreme, but factually I am not. Above me, and above all the other demigods, including Indra and Candra, is the one supreme master and controller. The partial manifestations of His personality are Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva, who are in charge of the creation, maintenance and annihilation of this universe. He is like the two threads that form the length and breadth of a woven cloth. The entire world is controlled by Him just as a bull is controlled by a rope in its nose.— Canto 6, Chapter 3, Verse 12
Lord Janārdana took the conchshell that had grown around the demon’s body and went back to the chariot. Then He proceeded to Saṁyamanī, the beloved capital of Yamarāja, the lord of death. Upon arriving there with Lord Balarāma, He loudly blew His conchshell, and Yamarāja, who keeps the conditioned souls in check, came as soon as he heard the resounding vibration. Yamarāja elaborately worshiped the two Lords with great devotion, and then he addressed Lord Kṛṣṇa, who lives in everyone’s heart: “O Supreme Lord Viṣṇu, what shall I do for You and Lord Balarāma, who are playing the part of ordinary humans?”
The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: Suffering the bondage of his past activity, My spiritual master’s son was brought here to you. O great King, obey My command and bring this boy to Me without delay.
Yamarāja said, “So be it,” and brought forth the guru’s son. Then those two most exalted Yadus presented the boy to Their spiritual master and said to him, “Please select another boon.”— Canto 10, Chapter 45, Verses 42–46
- Chapter 2.29–30: Yama has a daughter called Sunita and a grandson called Vena, who turned his back on dharma
- Chapter 20: The various hells of Yama are described along with their concomitant sins
- Chapter 30.64–68: Yama chastises his mother for cursing him (to his father)
- Chapter 35.11: Yama is destroyed by Shiva after coming to claim the soul of Markandeya (and at the behest of the Gods is revived afterwards)
- Chapter 48.4: Krishna describes himself as Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Indra, and Yama ('I am Yama who restrains the universe.')
- Chapter 105: Descriptions of the 'terrible servants of Yama' are given
- Chapter 126.42.50: Descriptions of the agony of death for sinners including being caught by Yama with His noose, and the tortures suffered in His abode
- Chapter 24 (book 4): Yama is killed in battle by Karttikeya; on Shiva's orders, Yama is revived by Nandin
Riding on his terrible buffalo, the god of Death Yama hastened to that place. He was holding his sceptre (rod of chastisement). His physical body was yellow in colour. In prowess he was comparable to none. He was unparalled in brilliance, strength and power of demanding obedience. His limbs were well developed and he wore garlands.— Brahma Purana, Chapter 30.9–12
In the Garuda Purana, Yama and his realm where sinners are punished are detailed extensively, including in the twelfth chapter called 'The Realm of Yama'. In this text, the name of Yama's wife is Syamala.
- Chapter XI: Yama as boy is cursed
- Chapter XLIX: Yama fights Janamejaya in Hell and after being captured, gives him knowledge of emanicipation
- Chapter XCIII: Yama is declared to be of Saturn
- Chapter CII: Synonyms of Yama are given (Dharmaraja, Mrityo, Antaka, Vaivaswata, Kala, Sarvabhutaksaya, Audumbara, Dadhna, Nila, Paramesthi, Vrikodara, Chitra, and Chitragupta)
- Chapter CCXLVIII: Yama – like others – is controlled by Vishnu
- Chapter CCLIII: Yama is 13th of the 32 Devas
In the Vishnu Purana, Yama is the son of sun-god Surya (Vivasvan named in the Vedas also means 'sun') and Sandhya (Saranya named in the Vedas is another name), the daughter of Vishvakarma (Tvastar named in the Vedas emerged from the navel of Vishvakarma). During a conversation with his servant, Yama states that he is subordinate to Vishnu. While establishing the relationship between Vishnu and Lakshmi, the Chapter 8 of Book 1 describes Dhumorna as Yama's consort.
Relationships with other deities
Marriage and children
The names and numbers of Yama's wives differ from text to texts. In most texts like Mahābhārata, Vishnu Purana and Vishnudharmottara, it is described that Yama married Dhumorna, alias Urmila. In other texts like Garuda Purana, Syamala is described to be his wife. In some texts, Yama is depicted with three wives Hema-mala, Sushila and Vijaya. The most detailed account of Yama's marriage is found in the Bhavishya Purana where his wife is Vijaya (sometimes referred as Shyamala), daughter of a Brahmina lady named Urmila.
As per Brahma Purana, the name of his elder daughter is Sunita, who is the mother of the king Vena. Some texts mention Sobhavati as the daughter of Yama, married to Chitragupta. In the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava, was blessed by Dharma to Kunti.
Identification with Dharmadeva
Yama is generally identified with Dharmadeva, the god who represents the concept of Dharma. However there are several differences in the mythologies of the two deities. Yama is the described as the son of sun god Surya and his wife Sanjna, while Dharma was born from the breast of the creator god Brahma. Yama's wife is mentioned to be Dhumorna, while Dharma married 10 or 13 daughters of the god Daksha.
Mantra and worship
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ॐ सूर्यपुत्राय विद्महे महाकालाय धीमहि तन्नो यम: प्रचोदयात
Om Surya puthraya Vidhmahe Maha Kalaya Dheemahi Thanno Yamaha Prachodayath
Om, Let me meditate on the son of the Sun God, Oh, great Lord of time, give me higher intellect, And let the God of death illuminate my mind.
Although Yama is worshiped as part of daily prayer rituals as one of the Guardians of the Directions, there are few temples dedicated to the worship of Yama. All known temples and shrines are located in India.
In Popular Culture
In addition to his depiction in movie and television adaptations of scriptures such as in the television series, Yama has also been depicted in road safety campaigns in India, particularly to warn against the dangers of riding motorcycles without helmets. Dharma Raja has been depicted as a character in "The Star-Touched Queen" and "A Crown of Wishes" by Roshani Chokshi.
- Different texts mention different names of Yama's wife and the most popular name is Dhumorna. But in other texts Urmila, Syamala or Vijaya is mentioned as his wife. Sometimes, Yama is depicted with three wives Hema-mala, Sushila and Vijaya. When identified with Dharma, he is depicted with 10 or 13 daughters of Daksha.
- Translation: Om, Let me meditate on the son of Sun God, Oh, great Lord of time, give me higher intellect, And let God of death illuminate my mind
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Yama told his servant, “Do not touch those who are devoted to Vishnu. I am the lord of all the others except these. I am not really independent, I work under the supervision of Vishnu. He is also capable of punishing me. Even the gods worship the lotus-like feet of Vishnu. Stay away from the devotees of Vishnu.”
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