views updated May 08 2018


YAMA . In the earliest gvedic hymns, Yama is a benign god who looks after the well-being of the dead, whom he entertains with food and shelter. His abode and its environment are pleasant and comfortable; survivors supplicate him for the care of their departed relatives.

Yama is the son of Vivasvat and Sarayū; he has a twin sister, Yamī. In the gveda, Amta ("ambrosia") is Yama's son, but in the Atharvaveda, Yama has a son, Dusvapna ("bad dream"), by Varuānī. In the epic-Puranic literature, the Aśvins are his brothers, and Śani and Manu are his half brothers. The Agirasas are his associates.

The name Yama is derived from a stem meaning "twins"; Latin gemini and the Avestan names Yima and Yimeh are cognates. In a gvedic hymn, Yamī implores Yama to unite with her, but he rejects her advances. The hymn has an abrupt, inconclusive end. In Buddhist literature, Yama is identified with Kāma ("desire") and Māra ("death"). In the Vedic literature, Yama has close relations with Rudra, Soma, Agni, Kāla, and Nirti. Yama also bears a remote relationship to Varua.

Yama in the Vedas was the first mortal to die. He then went to heaven, where he ruled over the dead. But toward the close of the Vedic period sinister traits began to appear in him, and they grew stronger with time. Yama then became the god of death and the lord of Hell. In the Kaha Upaniad, as death personified, he holds a long discourse with the boy Naciketas, whom he initiates into the mysteries of life, death, and immortality. Prayers are offered to Yama for longevity and deliverance from recurring deaths. Yama also grants release from aśanāyā (hunger). In many rituals of ancestor worship, oblations are offered to Yama with prayers for averting recurring deaths. In the Ghyasūtras, oblations are offered to Yama's men, presumably his associates, in the realm of the dead.

Of the two paths in later Vedic eschatology, Devayāna and Pityāa, the latter is that of the fathers and of spirits doomed to rebirth. These spirits proceed through Soma, the moon, and are judged by Yama. In the epics and Purāas, Yama has a palace, Śubhāvatī, in the netherworld. Yama's realm begins, in Buddhist literature, to shift from the heaven of the gods until, in the Hindu epics and Purāas, it assumes distinctly sinister characteristics. As god of death and lord of Hell, Yama is dark and malevolent, yet still a giver of boons.

The south is the region of Yama (as it is that of the Avestan Yima) and the region of death. Yama has two dogs, Śyāma and Śabala, who are associated with the final judgment of souls, as are Hades' dog, Kerberos, the Egyptian Anubis, and Yima's four dogs. Yama is also associated with oil and with the dove, eagle, and raven (all of which are endowed with sinister traits). The epic and Puranic Yama has a buffalo for a mount. Dread monsters (rākasas ), semidivine yaka s, demons, cruel messengers, the Agirasas, and the souls of the departed throng his realm. His ritual oblations in ancestor worship are gruesome and evil. The symbols associated with his various aspects as Kāla, Mtyu, and Antaka are images of repulsiveness, cruelty, and deformity. In descriptions of Yama red and black colors predominate.

In the final stage of his evolution, Yama shares two significant characteristics with Śiva: He is Kāla ("time") and Dharmarāja ("lord of righteousness"). As Kāla, he is also Antaka, the "ender" (i. e., Death). As Dharmarāja, he takes over Varua's role as the moral judge and punisher whose assistants torture the wicked in hell. At this stage his name is clearly derived differently, from the root yam ("to control"), from which are derived yantraa ("constriction") and yantraā ("torture"). As Dharmarāja, Yama can also be lenient to supplicants and revoke his own order (as he did for Sāvitrī) or modify it (as he did for Pramadvarā in the Mahābhārata ).

Numerous episodes in the epics and Purāas contribute to Yama's almighty and sinister image. This image contrasts with his early Vedic appearance as a minor god who is simply a "gatherer of men." A cluster of hymns in the tenth and last book of the gveda presents him as a benign god like any other in the pantheon. But from the Yajurveda (especially in the Puruamedha sacrifice), where different oblations are prescribed for each of the various aspects of Yama, his personality undergoes a radical change: From the benevolent god of the dead he becomes the dread god of death. The theophany of Yama as Kāla, Antaka, and Dharmarāja brings him closer to Śiva.


Barua, P. R. "The Conception of Yama in Early Buddhism." Journal of the Asiatic Society (Pakistan) 9 (December 1964): 114.

Bhattacharji, Sukumari. The Indian Theogony: A Comparative Study of Indian Mythology from the Vedas to the Purāas. Cambridge, 1970. The chapter on Yama (pp. 4864) seeks to trace Yama's evolution from the Vedic to the epic-Puranic period and his transformation from a benign god of the dead to an agent of Śiva.

Chapekar, N. G. "Pitārā and Yama." In Belvalkar Commemoration Volume, Benares, 1957, pp. 3642. Deals with Yama's relationship with ancestral spirits.

Dandekar, R. N. "Yama in the Veda." In B. C. Law Commemorative Volume, edited by D. R. Bhandarkar. Calcutta, 1945. A critical and comprehensive account.

Dumézil, Georges. "La sabhā de Yama." Journal asiatique 253 (1965): 161165.

Ehni, Jacques. Die ursprüngliche Gottheit des vedischen Yama. Leipzig, 1896. One of the earliest studies.

Heras, Henry. "The Personality of Yama in the gveda." In Jadunath Sarkar Commemoration Volume, edited by Gupta Hari Ram, vol. 2. Hoshiarpur, 1958. Discusses the Vedic antecedents of Yama.

Karmarkar, A. P. "YamaThe God of Death of the Dravidians." Indica 4 (March 1967): 710.

Varma, M. Yama. Allahabad, 1939. A fairly full study of some important aspects of Yama's personality.

Wayman, Alex. "Studies in Yama and Māra." Indo-Iranian Journal 3 (1959): 4473, 112131. A critical and comparative treatment of the Vedic Yama and his transformation into Māra in Buddhist literature.

New Sources

Merh, Kusum P. "Yama, the Glorious Lord of the Other World." Reconstructing Indian History & Culture no. 12. New Delhi, 1996.

Sukumari Bhattacharji (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 18 2018

Yama (Skt., ‘restraint’).
1. The god of death in Hinduism and Buddhism, also called Dharma Rāja, possibly connected with the Iranian Yima. In the Ṛg Veda he appears in books 1 and 10 presiding over the ancestors or ‘fathers’ (pitṛ) in the third (highest) heaven of the sky (svarga) realm (above atmosphere, bhuvah, and earth, bhūr). In the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, Yama bestows highest knowledge. Post-Vedic mythology in contrast portrays Yama as a judge and punisher of the dead in a lower world where the soul (ātman, jīva, puruṣa) goes after death and receives its sentence. The Mahābhārata depicts Yama as clothed in red with glaring eyes, holding a noose with which to bind the souls of the dead. This image is embellished in later mythology where he is a terrible deity inflicting torture upon souls. Yama is associated with the south, the realm of the dead.

In Buddhism, Yama is the Lord of the Underworld. In some respects, he is replaced by Māra. The canonical account of Yama is contained mainly in the two almost identical Devadūta Suttas in Majjhima Nikāya 3. 179 ff., and Anguttara Nikāya 1. 138 ff.

In the post-canonical Buddhist literature, Yama is depicted as the overlord of the purgatory system who assigns to beings the punishments they must undergo in expiation of their karmic misdeeds. In Tantric Buddhism, Yama is a fierce deity. Tibetan iconography and the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol) portray Yama, who appears at death, as standing in a halo of flames, adorned with human skulls and heads, holding in his left hand the mirror of karma (which reflects the good and bad deeds of the deceased) and in his right hand the sword of wisdom (prajña).

2. The first limb of eight-limbed (aṣṭaṅga) or rāja yoga comprising five ethical rules: (i) non-injury (ahiṃsā), (ii) truthfulness (satya), (iii) non-stealing (asteya), (iv) celibacy (brahmacarya), and (v) greedlessness (aparigraha). Commitment to these is the Great Vow (Mahāvrata).


views updated May 23 2018

Yama in Hindu mythology, the first man to die. He became the guardian, judge, and ruler of the dead, and is represented as carrying a noose and riding a buffalo.