Yama – The god of death

In Hinduism, God is worshipped in many diverse forms and ways. Various deities are worshipped with all forms representing various aspects of the Lord’s glory. The deities are considered symbols to help in concentration and focus of the mind. The concept of Brahman being subtle cannot be understood by all. The ultimate reality is beyond the comprehension of the mind and senses. Idol worship instils faith and devotion which in turn leads to God realisation as can be observed from the lives of great saints. The Aryans in the early Vedic period worshipped nature and performed rituals. Later, worship of deities gained prominence as it represented a compassionate Giver who would fulfil the desires of the seekers and help them in times of distress. The idol of the deity reflected the omnipresence and omnipotence of God who governed the entire universe. The temple became a sacred place where the deity was installed creating an atmosphere of reverence, piety and humility. The deity installed in homes enables members of the household to be constantly aware of the divine presence within them even while they carry out their daily tasks and responsibilities preventing them from indulging in sacrilegious acts. One of the Gods feared and respected by man is Lord Yama, the God of death. Over the centuries, his power and personality have undergone changes in Hinduism in relation to concepts of death and religion. He is known as Yama Dharmaraja, Kaalan, Kaal Deva and Yamraj.

Iconography

Lord Yama is said to be like the rain cloud, dark in colour with fire rimmed eyes, sharp side tusks and sometimes horns on the head mounted on a black water buffalo. Some legends state that he is four armed with yellow robes holding a noose (pasha) in one hand and a mace in the other hand. He is accompanied by two dogs which guard the road to his abode and wander among people as his messengers.

In the Vedas

In the Rig Veda, he is said to be the son of the Sun God Vivasvat and Sanjana (or Saranya), the daughter of Vishwakarma (or Tvashta). His twin sister is said to be Yami (or Yamuna). He is mentioned as the first mortal who died and made his way to the celestial abode; hence, he was considered the ruler of the departed.

In the Puranas

He is an Aditya (God) and a Lokpala with his loop being used to pull the soul from the corpse. He is one of the guardians of directions representing the South and hence referred to as Dakshinaspati. He is generally said to report to Vishnu and Shiva. He is called the God of Justice or Yama Dharmaraja and wisely maintains law and harmony in the universe and is also called Kala or the Lord of Time. His name means ‘restrainer’ and he is said to keep a record of all man’s deeds noted down by his attendant Chitragupta in the ‘Book of Destiny’ though he assumes different identities at different periods. Depending on man’s actions, he is said to decide on their level of birth in the next incarnation. Vishwakarma, the divine architect at the behest of Brahma, is said to have created his abode Sanjeevani with four pits and four doors. The Padma Purana mentions Yama as the judge of men with the virtuous being conveyed to Heaven (Swarga) and the wicked driven to the different regions of Hell (Naraka). It also mentions the greatness of the Tulsi plant and states that a dead body cremated with Tulsi twigs would have no rebirths and all sins would be washed away.  The Vishnu Purana states the name of the different hells and proclaims that men can be free from Yama’s authority by worshipping Vishnu and his forms as Yama is a follower of Vishnu. The Shiva Purana describes two paths to Yama’s kingdom, one short and easy for righteous people and the other lengthy and arduous with sharp and pointed thorns, haunted by wild beasts, hell fires and quicksand. The Garuda Purana describes the magnificence of Yama’s city where righteous people can stay although for a temporary period.  Most of the Puranas contain a list of the tortuous hells and the punishments meted out by Yama.

The Story of Ajamila

This story taken from Canto 6 of the Bhagavata Purana reiterates the power of devotion. In the city of Kanya Kubja, there lived a pious Brahmin. He was well learned in the scriptures, austere and led a holy and righteous life. Unfortunately, one day he fell in love with a woman of ill repute and unable to control his senses lived with her and she bore him many sons. To support his family he began to commit evil deeds like stealing and gambling. In this way he spent his life until he grew old, totally absorbed in material pleasures and completely forgetful of his holy beginnings. When he was eighty eight years old, the attendants of Yama came to take his life away. When he saw them, he grew fearful and began to shout out for his youngest son Narayana who was his favourite and very dear to him. Immediately, the attendants of Vishnu came rushing to his aid and blocked the attendants of Yama. They argued that anyone who utters the name of the Lord becomes worthy of protection. The attendants of Yama had to leave the place. Ajamila noting the conversation was shocked. He began to think that if the Lord could protect his devotee inspite of being called out to only at the last moment, what would be the situation if one prays to him all the time. A great transformation came upon him. He immediately left for Haridwar and sitting on the banks of the river, went into deep meditation. In due course he attained the Lord’s feet. This story indicates that devotion alone is the royal road to liberation.

Markandeya and Yama

The story of Markandeya is mentioned in the Bhagavatha Purana, Markandeya Purana and the Mahabharata. Rishi Mrikandu and his wife Marudmati had no issues and propitiated Lord Shiva who pleased, appeared before them. He gave them a choice of either a child of low intelligence but with a long life or an exceptionally intelligent son with a short life. They chose the latter and thus was born Markandeya, an exemplary child but destined to live only for 16 years. He grew up to be a great devotee of Lord Shiva. He was clever and mastered the Vedas and Shastras. His humility and devotion endeared him to all. His parents performed his Upanayana (thread ceremony) at the age of 12 years. As the years progressed, his parents became dejected at his impending doom and finally, as the day approached, they broke down and wept before him. Gently he asked them the reason and on knowing the truth, consoled them that he would perform severe penances to win over death. He then began his prayers near the Shiva Linga. When the attendants of Yama came at the ordained time to take his life, they found that they could not approach him due to the heat of his penances. Then Yama himself came and when he threw his loop over Markandeya’s neck, Lord Shiva emerged from the Linga and pierced Yama with his trident. Pleased with Markandeya’s devotion, he then blessed him with deathlessness and everlasting youth. At the request of all the Gods, Lord Shiva then revived Yama. Sage Markandeya is one of the Chiranjeevis (immortals) who are still said to be living in the Himalayas, guiding people towards the Godward path.

In the Upanishads

As concepts of Brahman, reincarnation, transmigration, death and immortality came into prominence, only a few of the Upanishads made a mention of Yama. The most prominent among them was the Kathopanishad which mentions the story of Nachiketa and Yama.

Nachiketa and Yama

It consists of two chapters divided into three sections and is famous for the story of Nachiketa and Yama. Once, there lived a learned sage named Uddalaka also known as Vajashravas. Though well versed in scriptures, he had a weak point namely control of anger. He and his wife were sad as they had no issue. They then performed a sacrifice and to their joy, a son was born to them whom they named Nachiketa. He grew up to be an intelligent boy. He was a curious boy and would always ask questions to his mother on various topics like right and wrong, merit and sin and so on. Nachiketa was then sent to a teacher to complete his studies and he was a diligent and obedient student. He was also brilliant and could absorb his lessons on being taught just once. Everyone in the ashram loved and admired him. One day a black cow in the ashram which Nachiketa was fond of, died. Nachiketa was grief stricken. His teacher consoled him explaining to him the futility of death. He then decided to meet Yama, the God of death. His teacher told him that it was impossible to meet Yama before death. Meanwhile, Vajashravas was performing the Viswajit sacrifice and invited all the sages including Nachiketa and his teacher. The rules of the sacrifice involved gifting away of all possessions like cows, jewellery and other items. To Nachiketa’s dismay, he found that his father was gifting away all weak and sick cows. Fearing that his father would be condemned to hell he decided to request his father to gift him. He approached his father and asked him as to whom he would give Nachiketa as a gift. His repeated questioning angered his father who replied that he would be gifted to Yama, the God of death. He then later regretted his sharp words but to no avail as his utterances had to be fulfilled. Nachiketa gave courage to his father and bidding farewell to him proceeded to the forest where he began deep prayers to Lord Yama. He then opened his eyes to find himself in front of a magnificent palace. The palace attendants requested that they take him to the Queen in the absence of Lord Yama but he refused the request and selecting a spot outside the palace, began to do severe penances without food or water for three nights. Lord Yama returned and pleased with his penances granted him three boons. With the first boon he asked Yama to relieve his father of the evil trait of anger and to welcome Nachiketa on his return with love and affection. He then asked for the knowledge of fire (Agni Vidya). Yama tried to dissuade him but Nachiketa was determined. Being a brilliant student, he quickly grasped Yama’s teachings. Yama was filled with joy at the young boy’s earnestness and intelligence. He then placed a garland of beautiful gems around Nachiketa’s neck. For the third boon Nachiketa asked Yama for Atma Vidya or Knowledge of the Self. Yama was stunned and after much persuasion taught him the Atma Vidya. Nachiketa was transformed with this knowledge and the heavens rained petals on him. Vajashravas and all the sages assembled there were wonderstruck to hear a heavenly voice. Suddenly a ball of light entered the sacrificial hall and they beheld Nachiketa. His parents hugged him and everyone bowed to his luminosity. This story has been mentioned in the Kathopanishad and has been translated in many languages.

In The Ramayana

Yama as Atibala

In the Ramayana after Lord Rama won victory over Ravana and the role of Rama and Lakshmana on earth were fulfilled, they had to return to Vaikunta. To further this cause, Yama played an indirect role. At Brahma’s behest, Yama went in disguise as a Sanyasin named Atibala and requested permission to meet Rama privately. Nobody was allowed to enter and Lakshmana was set up to guard the entrance with the dictum that Lakshmana would forfeit his life if he disobeyed. Sage Durvasa after completing austerities for a thousand years was hungry and then approached Lord Rama but Lakshmana prevented his entry. He then threatened to burn everyone to ashes. Lakshmana had no alternative but to go inside and inform Rama about the situation. Rama welcomed Durvasa and paid homage to him and served him well. Since Lakshmana had broken his promise to Atibala, he proceeded to River Sarayu and drowned himself. Rama then heartbroken entrusted the affairs of his kingdom to his ministers and drowned in the river Sarayu returning to Vaikunta.

Ravana and Yama

In the story of Ravana in the Ramayana, it is said that Ravana was intoxicated with his power and invincibility after obtaining various boons and began to harm and kill people. Sage Narada then approached him and goaded him to challenge Yama, the God of Death instead. When Ravana approached Yamaloka, he beheld the fate of good and evil souls with his own eyes. Even then he was unfazed and then he and his followers attacked Yama and his attendants. They fought for seven days and seven nights. Finally when Yama took out his Kala Danda to kill Ravana, Brahma appeared and begged him not to use it as his promise to Ravana would then not hold true. Yama had no other option but to vanish from the scene in reverence to Brahma. But this made Ravana more proud as he felt that he had conquered even Yama.

In The Mahabharata

Yudhishtira was the son of Lord Yama from the boon that Kunti had obtained and he was said to be the epitome of righteousness (Dharma). Vidura, the wise uncle of the Pandavas and Kauravas was said to be Lord Yama reborn as a result of a curse by Sage Mandavya.

Savitri and Satyavan

This story is found in the Vana Parva of the Mahabharata. It was recounted by Sage Markandeya to Yudhishtira when he wished to know if there was any woman whose devotion matched that of Draupadi. The King of Madradesha named Ashwapathi was a just and noble King but he and his wife Malavi were sad as they had no issues. After rigorous penances for eighteen years to Goddess Savitri (some legends state it was Sun God Savitr), she appeared before them and granted them their wish. Soon a daughter was born to them and in honour of the Goddess, they named her Savitri. She grew up to be a maiden of matchless virtue with beauty and humility. When she reached marriageable age, although many princes admired her, none of them came forward to marry her overawed by her beauty and piety. Finally the King asked her to go forth and select her own husband. Accompanied by her companions and minister, Savitri visited many kingdoms but she could not find the husband of her choice. Finally she decided to return home. On the way she came to a forest and saw a young man serving an old couple. She was immediately drawn towards the young man. She found out that his name was Sathyavantha (Sathyavan) and he was serving his parents who were the King and Queen of Salvadesha. As the King had become blind, his enemies had attacked and taken over the kingdom while the royal family sought refuge in the forest. Savitri then knew that she had made the right choice and returned to the palace happily. As she related her choice to her father, Sage Narada arrived and though he divined that her choice was an excellent one, he was unhappy. He then related that Sathyavan had a short life and would die after a year. Ashwapathi was shattered and requested Savitri to reconsider her choice but Savitri was determined. Finally after Narada’s blessings, the King reluctantly agreed to the alliance. Sathyavan’s parents were troubled as they could not imagine Savitri living in the forest but on her insistence they agreed to the wedding. After the wedding, Savitri assumed her new role in the forest, devoid of jewellery and grand clothes, serving her husband and his parents gladly. But deep in her heart she was afraid and could not forget Narada’s prophecy. As the day drew near, she began to fast and worship the Goddess day and night. Finally on the dreaded day, she decided to accompany her husband when he went to collect firewood as she did not want to be separated from him even for a short while. Sathyavan was surprised and tried to dissuade her but she was determined. In the forest suddenly Sathyavan complained of headache and she bade him rest for a while with his head on her lap. She then saw Lord Yama who had come to take Sathyavan’s life. Yama pulled away Sathyavan’s life with his noose and began to walk away. But to his astonishment he saw Savitri following him and asked her to return back. But Savitri said that it was her dharma to accompany her husband everywhere and she could not give it up. Pleased with her words he granted her many boons with which she restored the kingdom and eyesight of her father in law. But she still continued to follow him. Finally her devotion and wisdom impressed Yama and he was forced to restore the life of her husband. He then blessed them with long life and progeny. When they all happily rejoined in the palace, they were amazed that it was all due to the power and devotion of Savitri. The story of Savitri is a triumph of love over death and has been enshrined in the annals of Hindu mythology.

Yaksha Prashna

This Samvada (dialogue) is mentioned in the Vana Parva of the Mahabharata. Lord Yama wished to test Yudhishtira as he was considered to be the embodiment of righteousness. He appeared as a Yaksha before him when the Pandavas were in exile. Yudhishtira answered all his questions wisely and pleased with him, Yama blessed him that the Pandavas would be successful in their mission.

Karma theory, Garuda and Lord Yama

The theory of Karma in Hinduism can be summed up by the adage ‘As you sow, so shall you reap’. Thus according to each one’s Karma, the time of death is preordained. This is beautifully illustrated in the story given below –

One day Lord Vishnu mounted on Garuda came to meet Lord Shiva at his abode Mount Kailash. While Garuda was waiting at the entrance he noticed a tiny bird and was overwhelmed by the Lord who created the splendour of the lofty mountains and also the tiny bird, the big and the small. Just then Lord Yama came to visit Shiva. As he passed the bird, his gaze fell pensively on it. When he went inside, Garuda was filled with anguish as he felt that the pensive glance of Yama indicated the death of the bird. To save the bird from the clutches of death, he swooped the bird in his beak and deposited it in a forest near a brook, thousands of miles away. Then he returned to his original position at the entrance of Kailash. When Yama emerged, Garuda approached him and asked him why he had stared at the bird. Yama replied that in a short while, the bird was to be swallowed by a python and die in a forest near a brook thousands of miles away and he was wondering how such a tiny bird could fly that long distance. So he had been puzzled and then he looked at Garuda and smiling gently he went away. Garuda then marvelled at the law of Karma (law of cause and effect) and the sequence of actions that had just taken place.

Yama Gita

The Yama Gita is found in the Vishnu Purana, Narasimha Purana and Agni Purana.  In the Vishnu Purana, the disciple Maitreya asks his Guru Parashara how to avoid death at the hands of Lord Yama and Parashara explains the qualities of a Vishnu devotee who can avoid such a fate. The Agni Purana narrates the story of Yama and Nachiketa (which is also mentioned in the Kathopanishad). In the Narasimha Purana, devotion to Lord Vishnu and the qualities of a devotee forms the Yama Gita.

Yama Lingam

The sacred Arunachala mountain of Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu has eight lingams located in eight directions of which the Yama Lingam is facing the south and was said to have been installed by Yama himself. Mourners offer Abhishekha at the shrine to the Lingam after cremation.  People also offer homage at the shrine while performing Giri Pradakshina (circumambulation of the mountain). Behind the shrine, there is a large pond called Yama Theertham with beautiful flora and fauna offering scenic beauty.

 

Temples of Yama

There are a few temples dedicated to Lord Yama all over India though the number is more in South India. Most of the Shiva temples in India sometimes have a shrine dedicated to him as Yama is called Kaal or time (death) while Shiva is said to be Maha Kaal.

Festivals

Bhai Dooj or Yama Dwitiya

This festival is celebrated on the fifth day of Diwali and is a symbol of love and devotion between sisters and brothers. According to legends, Lord Yama visited his sister Yami (or Yamuna) on this day which is the Shukla Paksha Dwitiya day where she welcomed him to her home, performed his Aarti, put a garland around his neck and applied Tilak on his forehead. She then offered him various sweetmeats prepared in his honour while he blessed her with health, wealth and long life. This day is hence referred to as Yama Dwitiya and is celebrated all over the country.

Shloka

Yama Gayatri Mantra

Om Kala Roopaaya Vidmahe       or      Om Surya Puthraaya Vidmahe

Thanda Tharaaya Dhimahi                    Maha Kaalaaya Dhimahi

Thanno Yama Prachodayath                  Thanno Yama Prachodayath

Yama Bhaya Nivarana Stotram ( Shiva Shankara Stotram)

This stotra contains 12 shlokas to Lord Shiva for protection against Yama of which the first one is reproduced below –

Athibheeshana Katu Bhashana Yama Kinkara Patalee

Krutha Thadana Pari Peedana Maranagama Samaye

Umaya Saha Mama Chethasi Yama Sasana Nivasana

Shiva Shankara Shiva Shankara Harame Duritham

When the fearsome attendants of Yama

Speaking harsh words with dark veils approach

Come along with Parvathi into my consciousness

O Shiva Shankara and save me from their clutches

Conclusion

The true tradition of Hinduism gives its followers unlimited choice to approach God in myriad ways. The lives of great saints and seers show that concentration on a particular deity, repeatedly chanting his name and focusing on his glory and splendour builds a close relationship with him and increases love and devotion. This is the best way to control the restlessness of the mind and direct it God wards. Each deity represents some aspect of creation and propitiating that deity increases the positive effects while nullifying its negative influences. Lord Yama is said to be the embodiment of the rule of law and imparts justice according to the deeds of the dead thus encouraging mankind to realise that thoughts and deeds alone are responsible for their circumstances on earth and not caste, religion or status in society.

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