In Hindu mythology, Yama is the lord of death,
first recorded in the Vedas. Yama belongs to an early stratum of Indo-Iranian theology.
In Vedic tradition Yama was considered to have been the first mortal who died and espied
the way to the celestial abodes, thus in virtue of precedence he became the ruler of the departed.
In some passages, however, he is already regarded as the god of death. Yama’s name can be interpreted
to mean “twin”, and in some myths he is paired with a twin sister Yamī.
Yama is assisted by Chitragupta who is assigned with the task of keeping complete records
of actions of human beings on the earth, and upon their death deciding to have them reincarnated
as a superior or inferior organism, depending on their actions on the earth.
Yama is also the lord of justice and is sometimes referred to as Dharma, in reference to his
unswerving dedication to maintaining order and adherence to harmony. Characteristics Yama is a Lokapāla and an Aditya. He is the
son of Surya and twin brother of Yami, or Yamuna, traditionally the first human pair
in the Vedas. Interestingly Surya’s two sons Shani and Yama judge. Shani gives us the results
of one’s deeds through one’s life through appropriate punishments and rewards; Yama
grants the results of one’s deeds after death. He is one of the Guardians of the directions
and represents the south. Yama is also the god of justice and is sometimes referred to
as Dharma, in reference to his unswerving dedication to maintaining order and adherence
to harmony. It is said that he is also one of the wisest of the devas. In the Katha Upanishad,
among the most famous Upanishads, Yama is portrayed as a teacher. He is the father of
Yudhisthira, the oldest brother of the 5 Pandavas and is said to have incarnated as Vidura by
some accounts in the Mahabharata period. Yama is called Kāla. Shiva is also called
Kāla as well as Mahākāla in his form as the destroyer of the world.
In the Rigveda In the Rig Veda he is mentioned as the son
of Vivasvat and of Saranya, the daughter of Tvastar, with a twin sister named Yami. Only
three hymns in the Rig Veda are addressed to him. There is one other consisting of a
dialog between Yama and his sister Yami. Yama’s name is mentioned about 50 times in the Rig
Veda but almost exclusively in the first and in the tenth book.
Agni, who is a conductor of the dead, has close relations with Yama. In RV 10.21.5 Agni
is said to be the friend of Yama, and in RV 10.52 Agni is Yama’s priest, serving as the
burner of the dead. Agni, Yama, and Mātariśvan are mentioned together as the names of one
being, along with other forms of the divine, in RV 1.164.46, which says that “learned priests
call one by many names.” Iconography
In art, some Sanskrit sources say that he should be of dark color, resembling the rain-cloud,
with two arms, fire-colored eyes and sharp side-tusks. He is depicted with red clothes,
and seated either on a lion throne or a he-buffalo. A different iconographic form described in
the Viṣṇudharmottara depicts him with four arms and wearing golden yellow garments.
He holds a noose of rope in one hand. He is also depicted holding a danda which is a Sanskrit
word for “stick”. Garuda Purana mentions Yama often. His description
is in 2.5.147-149: “There very soon among Death, Time, etc. he sees Yama with red eyes,
looking fierce and dark…, with fierce jaws and frowning fiercely, chosen as their lord
by many ugly, fierce-faced hundreds of diseases, possessing an iron rod in his hand and also
a noose. The creature goes either to good or to bad state as directed by him.” In 2.8.28-29,
“…the seven names of Yama, viz Yama, Dharma-raja, Mrtyu, Antaka, Vaivasvata, Kala, Sarva-pranahara…”.
His wife is symala. Subordination to Shiva and Vishnu In the Puranas, Yama although one of the most
powerful controllers, is still subordinate to Shiva and Vishnu because they are different
aspects of the overruling Brahman. A story of Yama’s subordination to Shiva is well-illustrated
in the story of Markandeya, where Shiva as Kalantaka stops Yama and rescues his devotee
Markandeya from his clutches. Another story found in the Bhagavata Purana
shows Yama’s subordination to Vishnu. The man Ajamila had committed many evil acts during
his life such as stealing, abandoning his wife and children, and marrying a prostitute.
At the moment of his death he involuntarily chanted the name of Narayana and achieved
moksha, becoming saved from the messengers of Yama. Although Ajamila had actually been
thinking the name of his youngest son, Narayana’s name has powerful effects, and thus Ajamila
was released from his great sins. See also
Apte, Vaman Shivram. The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 81-208-0567-4.
Arya, Ravi Prakash; Joshi, K. L.. Ṛgveda Saṁhita: Sanskrit Text, English translation
according to H. H. Wilson and Bhāṣya of Sāyaṇācārya. Parimal Publications. ISBN
81-7110-138-7. Chidbhavananda, Swami. Siva Sahasranama Stotram.
Sri Ramakrishna Tapovanam. Macdonell, A. A.. Vedic Mythology. Motilal
Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd. ISBN 81-208-1113-5. Rao, T. A. Gopnatha. Elements of Hindu Iconography.
D. K. Publishers. ISBN 81-7536-169-7. Further reading
The Garuda Purana. Wood, Ernest and Subrahmanyam, S.V.. BiblioBazaar, LLC. 2008. ISBN 1-4375-3213-6.
Meid, W. 1992. Die Germanische Religion im Zeugnis der Sprache. In Beck et al., Germanische
Religionsgeschichte – Quellen und Quellenprobleme, pp. 486–507. New York, de Gruyter.
External links Dying, Yamaraja and Yamadutas
Yama’s subordinance to Vishnu