Yama (Sanskrit: यम:), also known as Yamaraja and Dharmaraja, is the Hindu god of death and justice, responsible for the dispensation of law and punishment of sinners in his abode, Yamaloka. He 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.
God of Death and Justice
Yamaraj on his mount, Buffalo
|Other names||Dharmaraja, Yamraja|
|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, Tapati and Bhadra|
|Consort||Dhumorna, Urmila or Syamala[note 2]|
|Roman equivalent||Remus, Dis Pater|
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 characteristicsEdit
- The 'Yama' means 'binder', but the word also means 'twin' (Yama has a twin sister, Yami), '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.
ॐ सूर्यपुत्राय विद्महे महाकालय 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.
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 "mace". 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.
Vedas (Rig Veda)Edit
In the Rig Veda, Yama is the son of Vivasvan (the sun god, son of Kashyapa) and of Saranya (the dusk goddess, daughter of Tvastar) and has a twin sister named Yami. He helped humankind find a place to dwell, and gave every individual the power to tread any path in life which he or she so chooses.
Yama is mentioned roughly fifty times in the Rig Veda, almost exclusively in the first and (far more frequently) in the tenth book.Macdonell 1898, p. 171 Four hymns (10.10, 10.14, 10.135, and 10.154) are directly addressed to or about Yama. From the Jamison/Brereton translation:
1. To the one who has departed along the great slopes, having spied out the path for many, |
son of Vivasvant, uniﬁer of the peoples—to Yama the king show favor with oblation. ||
2. Yama ﬁrst found the way for us: this pasture-land is not to be taken away. |
(The way) on which our ancient forefathers departed, along that (do) those who have since been born (follow) along their own paths.||— Book 10, Hymn 14, Verses 1–2
6. As (the debt) came to be forgiven, after that the top was born; |
the base was stretched out in front and the “coming forth” was made behind. ||
7. Here is the seat of Yama, which is called the palace of the gods.|
Here is his pipe blown; here is he adorned with hymns.||— Book 10, Hymn 135, Verses 6–7
4. Also those ancients who were servers of truth, truthful, strong through truth, |
the forefathers full of fervor, o Yama—right to them let him go now. ||
5. The poets of a thousand devices who protect the sun, |
the seers full of fervor, o Yama—to those born of fervor let him go now.||— Book 10, Hymn 154, Verses 4–5
Hymn 10.10 consists of prayer by Yama's sister, Yami, to him.Macdonell 1898, p. 171 Agni, the god of fire, has close relations with Yama.Macdonell 1898, p. 171 In hymn 10.21, Agni is said to be the envoy of Vivasvat (Yama's father) and a well-loved friend (kāmya) of Yama himself:
5. When just born, Agni found all the poetic arts with (the aid of) the Atharvan (priest). | He became the messenger of Vivasvant, dear and desirable to Yama. – In my exhilaration I wish to acclaim you (gods). ||— Book 10, Hymn 21, Verse 5
Hymn 10.52, asks who Yama's priest is:
3. [Saciﬁcer?:] This one here who is the Hotar—who is he to Yama? Whom am I calling upon when the gods anoint (him)? |
Every day he is born, every month. And so the gods have installed him as conveyor of the oblation. ||
4. [Agni:] The gods have installed me as conveyor of the oblation—I who had slipped away, undergoing many troubles: |
“Agni, the knowing one, will arrange the sacriﬁce for us, with its ﬁvecourses, three turns, seven threads.”||— Book 10, Hymn 52, Verses 3–4
Hymn 1.164 states Agni, Yama, and Mātariśvan are the names of One being, along with other forms of the divine:
46. They say it is Indra, Mitra, Varuṇa, and Agni, and also it is the winged, well-feathered (bird) of heaven [the Sun]. | Though it is One, inspired poets speak of it in many ways. They say it is Agni, Yama, and Mātariśvan. ||— Book 1, Hymn 164, Verse 46
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.
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 BhagavatamEdit
Third and Fourth CantoEdit
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.
Marriage and childrenEdit
The names and numbers of Yama's wives differ from text to texts. In most texts including Vishnu Purana and Vishnudharmottara, it is described that Yama married Dhumorna, who rose from the funeral pires. In early texts, Yama was associated with Sri, goddess of fortune, who, in later texts, became the goddess Lakshmi. As per Mahabharata, Yama married ten daughters of Daksha. Among them, Urmila is described to his chief consort. 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.
Katila, meaning "murder", is described to be Yama's son with Dhumorna. The text also mentions that Sobhavati is the daughter of Yama, married to Chitragupta. As per Brahma Purana, the name of his daughter is Sunita, who is the mother of Vena. In the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava, was blessed by Yama to Kunti.
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 CultureEdit
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.
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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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- 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
- Different texts mention different names of Yama's wife. The most popular name is Dhumorna. In the Mahabharata, Urmila is said to be his wife. But in other texts like Garuda Purana, Syamala is described to be his wife. As per Bhavishya Purana, he is married to Vijaya or Syamala, daughter of a Brahmina lady named Urmila. In some texts, Yama married 10 daughters of Daksha. Sometimes, Yama may be depicted with three wives Hema-mala, Sushila and Vijaya.
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