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Yama's Court and Hell. The Blue figure is Yama with his consort Yami and Chitragupta.
A 17th-century painting from the Government Museum in Chennai.

In Hinduism, Yama (Sanskrit: यम) or Yamarāja (यमराज) is the god of death, belonging to an early stratum of Vedic mythology. In the Vedas, Yama is said to have been the first mortal who died. By virtue of precedence, he became the ruler of the departed. There is a one-of-a-kind temple in Srivanchiyam, Tamil Nadu, India, dedicated to Yama.

Mentioned by the Buddha in the Pali canon, Yama subsequently entered Buddhist, Chinese, Tibetan, Korean, and Japanese mythology as a wrathful god under various transliterations.


Yama from Tibet

In Hinduism, Yama is the lokapala ("Guardian of the Directions") of the south. Three hymns (10, 14, and 35) in the 10th book of the Rig Veda are addressed to him. He has two dogs with four eyes and wide nostrils guarding the road to his abode (cf. hellhound). They are said to wander about among people as his messengers.

He was sometimes the son of Surya, the sun god & Usha, and sometimes the son of Vivasvat & Saranya. In Sanskrit, Yama's name can be interpreted to mean "twin", and in some myths, he is paired with a twin sister Yami or Yamuna. In these myths, they are the first pair of humans in the world.

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 case of Markandeya, where Shiva as Kalantaka ("Ender of Death") stops Yama and rescues his devotee Markandeya from his clutches.

The vedic legend relates the story of how Shiva protected Markandeya from the clutches of death, personified as Yama. Mrikandu rishi and his wife Marudmati worshipped Shiva and sought from him the boon of begetting a son. As a result he was given the choice of either a gifted son, but with a short life on earth or a child of low intelligence but with a long life. Mrikandu rishi chose the former, and was blessed with Markandeya, an exemplary son, destined to die at the age of 16. As per his destiny, the messengers of Yama came to take away Markandeya's soul, but failed to approach him as he ceaselessly repeated Shiva's name. Yama came himself to take Markandeya's soul and told Markandeya to stop his worship and come with him as per his fate. Markandeya refused, warning Yama that he was committing an offence against Shiva. Yama, however, proclaimed that not even Shiva could stop him. The wrathful Yama assumed a fearsome form and threw his noose to capture Markandeya, who embraced the linga. When the noose touched the linga, Shiva emerged from it and struck Yama with his Trishula and kicked his chest, killing the lord of death. Sages, gods and other beings appeared to praise Shiva, who blessed Markandeya to remain a youth of 16 for seven kalpas (aeons). As no one remained in the world to make beings die, the earth became burdened by evil beings. The earth, the gods, and Markandeya invoked Shiva to revive Yama. Once again, Shiva touched Yama with his foot, bringing him back to life. A sequel from Markandeya purana narrates how Shiva resurrected Yama on the request of the gods. Yama worships Shiva to atone for his sin. The Kashi Vishwanath shrine narrates how Yama promises never to touch Shiva's devotees. It is only Shiva who has absolute authority on his devotees.

In the four-armed form, one of the right hands holding a Trishula should be raised pointing to Yama or sometimes even piercing his torso or neck, while other right hand should hold in a parashu or be in varada mudra (boon-giving gesture). The left hands should be held in vismaya mudra (hand gesture of astonishment) and suchi mudra (needle gesture). In the eight-armed form, the right arms hold a trishula, parashu, vajra and khadga (sword). The left arms hold a khetaka (shield), pasha (noose) and in vismaya and such mudras. Sometimes, he may even hold a kapala or amriga (antelope), as Rudra.

Yama is often depicted as bowing to Shiva with folded hands and holding a noose in between them. He is depicted trembling with fear, with legs wide apart suggesting that he is trying to steady himself after being kicked by Shiva. Another configuration portrays him lying fainted on the ground after being kicked by Shiva. Shiva may be depicted as standing or dancing on the fallen Yama. Yama is sometimes mistaken as an apasmara (a dwarf) in this configuration and the image as that of Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance who is depicted trampling the apasmara.

Raja Ravi Varma, Markandeya.jpg

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.

Moment of his death he involuntarily chanted the name of Narayana (another Sanskrit name for Vishnu) and achieved moksha, 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.

In art, Yama is depicted with blue skin and red clothes and rides a water buffalo. He holds a loop of rope in his left hand with which he pulls the soul from the corpse. His Greek counterpart is Hades and Thanatos. His Egyptian counterpart is Osiris.

Yama's abode

Naraka (Hindu)

The Court of Yama, God of Death, circa 1800

Naraka in Hinduism is similar to the Christian Hell, but serves only as a temporary purgatory where the soul is purified of sin by its suffering. In Hindu mythology, Naraka holds many hells, and Yama directs departed souls to the appropriate one. Even elevated Mukti-yogyas and Nitya-samsarins can experience Naraka for expiation of sins.

Although Yama is the lord of Naraka, he may also direct the soul to a Swarga (heaven) or return it to Bhoomi (earth). As good and bad deeds are not considered to cancel each other out, the same soul may spend time in both a hell and a heaven. The seven Swargas are: Bhuvas, Swas (governed by Indra), Tharus, Thaarus, Savithaa, Prapithaa, Maha (governed by Brahma).

Naraka (Sikhism)

The idea of Naraka in Sikhism is like the idea of Hell. One's soul, however, is confined to 8.4 million life cycles before taking birth as a human, the point of human life being one where one attains salvation, the salvation being sach khand. The idea of khand comes in multiple levels of such heavens, the highest being merging with God as one. The idea of Hell is like it comes in multiple levels, and hell itself can manifest within human life itself. The Sikh idea of hell is where one is apart from naama and gurus charana (God's lotus feet (abode)). Without naama one is damned. Naama is believed to be a direct deliverance from God to humanity in the form of Guru Nanak. A Sikh is hence required to take the Amrit (holy nectar/water) from gurubani, panj pyare (khanda da pahul) to come closer to naama. A true Sikh of the Gurus has the Guru himself manifest and take that person into sach khand.

Naraka (Buddhist)

Yama Nat in Burmese representation.

Naraka is usually translated into English as "hell" or "purgatory". A Naraka differs from the hells of western religions in two respects. First, beings are not sent to Naraka as the result of a divine judgment and punishment; second, the length of a being's stay in a Naraka is not eternal, though it is usually very long. Instead, a being is born into a Naraka as a direct result of his or her previous karma (actions of body, speech and mind), and resides there for a finite length of time until his karma has exhausted its cumulate effect.

Diyu (Chinese mythology) and Meido and Jigoku (Japanese mythology)

Mandarin Diyu, Japanese Jigoku, literally "earth prison", is the realm of the dead or "hell" in Chinese mythology and Japanese mythology. It is based upon the Buddhist concept of Naraka combined with local afterlife beliefs. Incorporating ideas from Taoism and Buddhism as well as traditional religion in China, Di Yu is a kind of purgatory place which serves not only to punish but also to renew spirits ready for their next incarnation. This is interchangeable with the concept of Naraka.

In Japanese mythology Enma-O or Enma Dai-O judges souls in Meido, the kingdom of the waiting dead. Those deemed too horrible are sent to Jigoku, a land more comparable to the Christian hell. It is a land of eternal toil and punishment. Those of middle note remain in meido for a period awaiting reincarnation. Others, of high note, become honored ancestors, watching over their descendants.

Related concepts

Yama and Ymir

In a disputable etymology, W. Meid (1992) has linked the names Yama (reconstructed in Proto-Indo-European as *yemos) and the name of the primeval Norse frost giant Ymir, which can be reconstructed in Proto-Germanic as *umijaz or *jumijaz, in the latter case possibly deriving from PIE *ym̥yos, from the root yem "twin". In his myth, however, Ymir is not a twin, and only shares with Yama the characteristics of being primeval and mortal. However, Ymir is a hermaphrodite and engenders the race of giants.

Yama in Iranian mythology

A parallel character in Iranian mythology and Zoroastrianism is known as Yima Xšaēta, who appears in the Avesta. The pronunciation "Yima" is peculiar to the Avestan dialect; in most Iranian dialects, including Old Persian, the name would have been "Yama". In the Avesta, the emphasis is on Yima's character as one of the first mortals and as a great king of men. Over time, *Yamaxšaita was transformed into Jamšēd or Jamshid, celebrated as the greatest of the early shahs of the world. Both Yamas in Zoroastrian and Hindu myth guard hell with the help of two four-eyed dogs.

Yama in Javanese

There is Yamadipati in Javanese culture, especially in wayang. The word adipati means ruler or commander. When Hinduism first came to Java, Yama was still the same as Yama in Hindu myth. Later, as Islam replaced Hinduism as the majority religion of Java, Yama was demystified by Walisanga, who ruled at that time. So, in Javanese, Yama became a new character. He is the son of Sanghyang Ismaya and Dewi Sanggani. In the Wayang legend, Yamadipati married Dewi Mumpuni. Unfortunately, Dewi Mumpuni fell in love with Nagatatmala, son of Hyang Anantaboga, who rules the earth. Dewi Mumpuni eventually left Yamadipati, however.



Yama (Skt. Yama) or Yamaraja (Skt. Yamarāja; Wyl. gshin rje, chos rgyal), the 'Lord of Death'.



閻魔 (Skt, Pali; Jpn Emma)

Also known as King Yama. The Vedas describe Yama as the first man to enter the world of the dead and who became the king there. That world was considered a paradise and the king not a punisher of sinners. Later Brahmanic mythology regarded him as one of the guardians (Skt lokapala ) of the four cardinal directions, the regent of the south dwelling in a heaven above the world. Finally Yama became known as the just judge (dharma-raja) of the underworld who confronts the dead with a record of their actions while alive and determines their retributions. Though Buddhism originally had no such belief in judgment, Yama was incorporated into Buddhist mythology in China, Tibet, and Japan as the lord of the underworld. In China, under Taoist influence, Yama became one of the ten kings of purgatory and ruled the fifth court, which the dead are said to reach on the thirty-fifth day after death. This image of Yama was introduced to Japan, but Japanese folk belief came to regard Yama both as the judge of the dead and as their guardian deity. In Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, Yama is regarded as the king of hell who judges and determines the rewards and punishments of the dead.


Yama-16349 2.jpg

The God of Death. (See, e.g., DhA.iii.337; Yamassa santikam = Maranasantikam).

When beings die they are led before him to be judged according to their deeds. Birth, old age, illness, punishment for Crime and Death, are regarded as his messengers, sent among men as a warning to abstain from ill and do good. Yama questions beings brought before him as to whether they have seen these messengers and profited by them. If the answer is in the negative, the nirayapālas take them away to the different hells (M.iii.179ff).

In the MahāSamaya Sutta (D.ii.259) mention is made of two Yamas (duve Yamā), which the Commentary explains (DA.ii.690) by "dve Yamakadevatā" (the twins, whom Rhys Davids calls the Castor and Pollux of Indian Mythology, in Dial.ii.290, n.1).

Elsewhere (AA.i.374; MA.ii.953) Buddhaghosa speaks of four Yamas (im c' esa eko va hoti, catusu pana dvāresu cattāro janā honti) at the four gates (of the Nirayas?). He says that Yama is a Vemānikapetarājā, who sometimes enjoys all the pleasures of Heaven, in a celestial mansion, surrounded by kapparukkhas, and at other times experiences the fruits of his Kamma. He is a good king.

In the Jātakas* the Nirayas are particularly mentioned as Yama's abode (Yamakkhaya, Yamanivesana, YamasāDana, etc.); but, more generally, all Samsāra is considered as subject to Yama's rule, and escape from Samsāra means escape from Yama's influence, Yama being the God of Death. It is evidently in this sense that Yama is called Vesāyi (q.v.) (J.ii.317, 318).

Yama is sometimes mentioned** with Indra, Varuna, Soma, Pajāpati, etc., as a God to whom sacrifices are offered. There is a tradition (A.i.142) that once Yama longed to be born as a human being and to sit at the feet of a Tathāgata.

Yama's Nayanāyudha is mentioned (SNA.i.225) among the most destructive of Weapons.


In the Vedas, the god of the dead.

Damjan Choial (tib), Yamaharadja (mon). the ruler of the hell. Together with his sister Yam

One of the higher Kamadhatu Devas.

The frightening figure holding the wheel is Yama, the Lord of Death or Monster of Impermanence. He has three eyes and wears a crown of skulls.

Yama symbolises the impermanence of everything. The beings he holds are trapped in eternal suffering by their ignorance of the nature of the universe. Buddhism teaches that death is not the end and is not to be feared.

The god of death. (See, e.g., DhA.iii.337; Yamassa santikam = Maranasantikam).

When beings die they are led before him to be judged according to their deeds. Birth, old age, illness, punishment for crime and death, are regarded as his messengers, sent among men as a warning to abstain from ill and do good. Yama questions beings brought before him as to whether they have seen these messengers and profited by them. If the answer is in the negative, the nirayapalas take them away to the different hells (M.iii.179ff).

In the Mahasamaya Sutta (D.ii.259) mention is made of two Yamas (duve Yama), which the Commentary explains (DA.ii.690) by dve Yamakadevata (the twins, whom Rhys Davids calls the Castor and Pollux of Indian Mythology, in Dial.ii.290, n.1). Elsewhere (AA.i.374; MA.ii.953) Buddhaghosa speaks of four Yamas (im c esa eko va hoti, catusu pana dvaresu cattaro jana honti) at the four gates (of the Nirayas?). He says that Yama is a Vemanikapetaraja, who sometimes enjoys all the pleasures of heaven, in a celestial mansion, surrounded by kapparukkhas, and at other times experiences the fruits of his kamma. He is a good king.

In the Jatakas* the Nirayas are particularly mentioned as Yamas abode (Yamakkhaya, Yamanivesana, Yamasadana, etc.); but, more generally, all Samsara is considered as subject to Yamas rule, and escape from samsara means escape from Yamas influence, Yama being the god of Death. It is evidently in this sense that Yama is called Vesayi (q.v.) (J.ii.317, 318). Yama is sometimes mentioned** with Indra, Varuna, Soma, Pajapati, etc., as a god to whom sacrifices are offered. There is a tradition (A.i.142) that once Yama longed to be born as a human being and to sit at the feet of a Tathagata.

Yamas Nayanayudha is mentioned (SNA.i.225) among the most destructive of weapons.

  • E.g., J.ii.318; iv.273; v.268, 274, 304. The Vetarani is mentioned as forming the boundary of Yamas kingdom (i.21; J.ii.317; iii.472; but see ii.318). At J.iv.405, Yamas abode is called Ussadaniraya. DhA.i.334 explains Yamaloka by Catubbidham apayalokam. Cp. PvA.33 (Yamaloko ti petaloko); ibid., 107 (Yamavisayam = Petalokam).
    • E.g.,; D.i.244; at Mil.37 the list includes Kuvera, Suyama and Santusita; cp. Mtu i.265; iii.68, 77; 77, 307.

-- or --

1. Yama. A class of Devas, mentioned in lists of devas between those of Tavatimsa and those of Tusita (E.g., Vin.i.12, A.i.228; iii.287; M.ii.194; iii.100, etc.). Two hundred years of human life are but one day to the Yama deva, and two thousand Years, composed of such days, form their life period (A.i.213; iv.253). Sirima, sister of Jivaka, was born after death in the Yama world and became the wife of Suyama, king of

Yamabhavana. From there she visited the Buddha with five hundred others. SNA i.244f.; see also VvA.246 for an upasaka born in the Yama world.

The king of the 21 hells. It is believed that Yama, Lord of Justice, puts human beings after death for appropriate punishment like in boiling oil.

Moral Disciplines; First step of the Ashtanga;

In Yoga philoshopy, there are five or ethical standards called the Five Yama's. They act as moral guidelines.

The five yama's are:

  1. Non-violence
  2. Non-lying
  3. Non-stealing
  4. Non-sensuality
  5. Non-greed

Perhaps other than Indra, no other Vedic character has undergone so large a transformation by the time of the Puranas. In the Rig Veda, he is the son of Saranyu (daughter of Tvashta, the artisan God) and Vivasvant (associated with the sun).

In other places in the Rig Veda, Yama is the first man, sort of an Adam. His twin sister Yami calls him "the only mortal" in her dialogue [R.V.10.10], where she incites him to commit incest with her. He is righteous and rejects her sinful advances. He states, "The Gods are always watching our actions and shall punish the sinful".

By the time of the Puranas, Yama is said to be the son of Surya and Sangya (who is the daughter of Vishwakarma), and is the brother of the planet Shani. He is one of the eight guardians of directions, responsible for south. He is the lord of the dead, and all mortals go to his court to be judged. His scribe Chitragupta, keeps a record of all the deeds of men. Yama sentences the soul to either heaven or hell based on the balance of Karma. In his role as the judge, Yama is also referred to as Dharmaraja, the lord of justice. His knowledge of the scriptures is immense and and he is the ultimate arbiter of truth and falsehood.

Moral restraint; something one should not do. Comparable to the western idea of sin.

-- or --

Yama (यम): Yama, also known as Yamarāja (यमराज) is the lord of death, first recorded in the Vedas. God of dharma, whose son was Yudhishthira. It is he whose questions Yudhishthira answered correctly whereupon his dead brothers were brought back to life on the banks of the enchanted pool.