Yama (Sanskrit : यमः) also called as Dharmaraja is the much feared ruler of Kala and Dharma (righteousness). According to Sanatana Dharma principles, after death every deed done by a person when alive are taken into account and the elevation of soul is then decided. A Jiva's path of travel to higher realms namely Devayana and Pitruyana are dependent on the Karma (deeds) and the knowledge attained by a Jiva or soul, the records of which are maintained by Yama.
Yama though is associated with Dharma, is also feared as the god of death. Following are a few important aspects about Yama as given in various texts.
- दिक्पालकः || Dikpalaka : Yama, the ruler of the 'South' direction is one among the Astadikpalakas as per the Devi bhagavata (Astama skanda). The name of the city ruled by him is Samyamani.
- धर्माधिकारी || Dharmadhikari : Yama is famed for his impartial administration of justice to all the beings who reach Yamaloka after death. Based on their virtues or vices, he assigns suitable punishments depending on the severity of sins in their earthly lives and are all sent to naraka (hell).
- अग्रसन्धनी || Agrasandhani : As a time and book keeper, Yama records the virtuous and sinful acts of men in this book named Agrasandhani, and Chitragupta, his associate ensures the enforcement of justice.
- यमावतारम् || Yamavataras : Yama was born as Vidura, as he was cursed by Maharshi Animaandavya as seen in Mahabharata. Yudhisthira was the eldest of the Pandavas, who was born to Kunti, after invoking Yamadeva.
- काकस्वरूपम् || Kaakaswaroopa : Yama took the form of a Crow and escaped, when at King Marutta's Maheswara's sattrayaga, he saw Ravanasura. Pleased with crows, he blessed that crows will have the right to eat rice offered to pitrus or ancestors. (as in Uttararamayana)
- रामावतारसमाप्ति समये Ramaavatara Samaapti : At the end of Sri Rama's rule after 11,000 years, upon Brahmadeva's request Yama descends, on earth, in the form of a maharshi, to recall Sri Mahavishnu back to Vaikuntha. Yama visits Sri Rama and in the ensuing events, Lakshmana first enters Sarayu river followed by Sri Rama, thereby leaving the mortal forms.
- यमगाथ || Yamagaatha : The legend about Yama and Markandeya, a youth of sixteen years age, who prays to Shiva for longevity is well known. When Yama, in arrogance throws his noose around Markandeya who was holding the Shivalinga, Shiva appears and burns Yama to ashes, protecting Markandeya. Consequently, Yama is absent to govern the process of death. Another such age is the Kritayuga when Yama was not there and the earth was overcrowded with living beings. The legend about Savitri, a mahapativrata, following Yamadeva to bring back her husband Satyavaan's life is very well known. Yama and Nachiketa legend reveals that Yama was knowledgeable about brahmavidya and he imparts it to Nachiketa. (Chandogya Upanishad).
Amarakosha defines the following about Yama in स्वर्गवर्गः (Prathama kanda Slokas 58 - 59)
धर्मराजः पितृपतिः समवर्ती परेतराट् | कृतान्तो यमुनाभ्राता शमनो यमराड् यमः || (Amara 1. स्वर्ग. 58)
कालो दण्डधरः श्राध्ददेवो वैवस्वतोन्तकः | (Amara 1. स्वर्ग. 59)
Yama like other deities has many names, a few are Dharmaraja, Pitrupati, Samavarthi, Paretaraat, Kritaanto, Yamunabhraata, Shamana, Kaala, Dandadhara, Vaivasvata, Antaka among others.
Yama’s is described by Yaska in the Nirukta (10.2-20) as follows,
यच्छति उप रमयति जिवितम् सर्वम् भुत ग्रमन् इति यमह || yacchati upa ramayati jivitam sarvam bhuta graman iti yamaha ||
Because Yama causes death to all the beings he is called as Antaka. Yama’s main responsibility is to give different destinations according to the vices and virtues of a jiva, therefore he is called as Antaka .
"यमु उपरमे" is the Dhatu or the root word from where "यम शब्द" is derived from. Swami Dayanand's commentaries of the Vedas have expressed that Yama also means Paramatma (While Nachiketa means Jivatma). Example : यमः = यन्ता (परमेश्वरः) (Yaju. 35.1 Maharshi Bhashyam)
Role of Yama
Yama's chief role is that of time calculation and administration of impartial justice to all souls after their lifespan is completed on earth. Thus, he is much feared as the Mrityudeva (Devata for Death).
धर्मराजः || Dharmaraja
Yama though kept at a distance as Mrityudevata, his role is highly acclaimed as the Dharmadevata. Yama is known for his meticulous book keeping and impartiality towards all beings and hence called as समवर्ती || Samavarthi. With this unyielding impartial nature he takes into account the minutest karmas of every being with the help of Chitragupta and accordingly assesses their path to further higher realms (Devayana and Pitriyana). It is said that a soul after liberation from the mortal body is received by the agents of Yama and taken to Yamapuri. From there the holy souls are directed to Vaikuntha (the abode of Vishnu) or to the realms of Parabrahma and the sinful souls are sent to Naraka (Hell) to complete their time as per the nature and seriousness of their sins. Garuda Purana details the 28 different kinds of Narakas based on the sins committed.
Yama discloses the secrets of Dharma as given in Mahabharata Anushasana Parva (Adhyaya 130).
समयपालकः || Samayapalaka
Brahma, it is said assigns a time of existence or lifespan for every being, to be spent on Bhuloka. In the sense of maintaining the longevity records of every being, Yama plays an important role as a Samayapalaka or timekeeper of every being that is born on prithvi (earth). Markandeya's legend explains the scrupulous time keeping sense of Yama, where He throws his pasha or noose around Markandeya at the end of his lifespan, and invites the wrath of Mahadeva.
पितृपतिः || Pitrupati
Yama is the Adhipati or king of Pitruloka. This loka is in the middle of the three worlds, bordered by Bhuloka on the southern side and Atalaloka on the upper end. Agnisvattas and other pitrs stay there in meditative trance for securing prosperity to those who come to pitruloka. The efficacy of performing shraddha karmas, giving tila (gingelly seeds), jala (water), and anna (food) to Brahmana's and other srauta dharmas are overseen by Yama as mentioned in Mahabharata Anushasana Parva (Adhyaya 68) under the heading तिलजलदीपरत्नादीनां दानमाहात्म्यप्रसङ्गे धर्मराजब्राह्मणयोः संवादः
Birth and Family
- Yama descended from Mahavishnu in the following order according to Puranic Encyclopedia:
Vishnu - Brahma - Marichi - Kasyapa - Surya - Yama
- The birth of Yama is described in Vishnu Purana (Part 3, Chap 2). Yama is the son of Surya and Samjna. Dhoomornyaa is the name of Yama's wife.
यथा चन्द्रश्च रोहिण्यामुर्मिलायां[ण्यां धूमोर्णया यथा यमः। वरुणश्च यथा गौर्यां यथा चर्ध्यां[र्द्ध्यां] धनेश्वरः॥ 5-117-9 (Mahabharata. Udyoga Parva, Chapter 117, Verse 9).
- Yama is the brother of Manu, Yami, Sanaischara, Tapati and Manu (another one of same name) and Ashvinikumaras, Revanta and Bhaya.
Yama in Vedas And Upanishads
Yama, as an upholder of Dharma is seen in the vedic literature as one who is well versed in brahmavidya. The famous conversation of Nachiketa and Yama, Savitri and Yama stand as a testimony to the greatness of Yama's knowledge of the subtle aspects of Vedas.
Among the many devatas, Yamadeva is one of the significant ones, as he represents Kala (time). Along with Indra, Varuna, Agni, and Soma, Yama is also worshiped since Vedic times. Yama is mentioned in many instances in the Rig Veda.
"यत्र राजा वैवस्वतो यत्रावरोधनं दिवः | यत्रामूर्यह्वतीरापस्तत्र माममृतं कृधीन्द्रायेन्दो परि स्रव ||" (Rig. Veda. 9.113.8)
"yatra rājā vaivasvato yatrāvarodhanaṁ divaḥ | yatrāmūryahvatīrāpastatra māmamr̥taṁ kr̥dhīndrāyendo pari srava ||" (Rig. Veda. 9.113.8)
Meaning : Make me eternal in the realms where King Vivaswaan's son rules. Surya is also called Vivasvaan.
"तिस्रो द्यावः सवितुर द्वा उपस्थां एका यमस्य भुवने विराषाट | आणिं न रथ्यममृताधि तस्थुरिह ब्रवीतु य उ तच्चिकेतत् ||" (Rig. Veda. 1.35.6)
"tisro dyāvaḥ savitura dvā upasthāṁ ekā yamasya bhuvane virāṣāṭa | āṇiṁ na rathyamamr̥tādhi tasthuriha bravītu ya u tacciketat ||" (Rig. Veda. 1.35.6)
Meaning: Two of the three Urdhvalokas (Higher heavens) are controlled by Savitr, and one by Yama.
Swarga (heavens) are three in number, of which two, the द्युर्लोकः || Dyurloka (land of light ) and Bhuloka are under the control of the Surya. One is under the control of Yama.
Sayanacharaya explains that Yama controls the middle planet Antariksha where exists the Yamaloka also described as Paravyoma, it is the higher plane of existence for the dead, who along with the pitris (ancestors) reside in this place for which Yama is the palaka (governor). Thus, Yamaloka and the Pitruloka are under the control of Yama.
Therefore, it should not be hastily construed that Yamaloka is the land of suffering alone. This larger understanding as explained in the Vedas demolishes the common notions prevalent among people, that Yamaloka is an infernal place. However it should be emphasized that Naraka does exist and Yamadeva oversees the activities there. Thus, the common notion that Yama is only the master of the Naraka (hell) is not appropriate.
Nachiketa’s journey to Yamaloka is described in describes Nachiketa's understanding that the yamaloka is the resting place of his pitris (ancestors). He also heard the playing of the flute (Rig Veda. 10.135.7).
Yama upon Nachiketa's perseverance reveals the eternal secret of the Vedas to him. Even though every living entity has eternal association with Paramatma, an age-old question that bothers many people, is how does Jiva acquire births as different species of lifeforms? Yama discusses the role of Paramatma for jiva as an indwelling Consciousness and its impact on jiva’s rise and fall.
"नचिकेतमुपाख्यानं मृत्युप्रोक्तं सनातनम् ||" (Katha. Upan. 3.16)
Meaning: This is Sanaatana (timeless) Nachiketa story told by Mrityu (Yama). In this Upanishad, Yama is referred to, not as a person, but by Antaka, Mrityu, and Vaivasvata. Kathopanishad contains the 'secrets of death'. Yama answers these questions, though some may assume this is the act of destiny or blame the paramatma for pushing jiva into different forms of life, it is the own actions or Karma of the Jiva when in bodily form, that makes a Jiva attain births in different life forms.
"अङ्गुष्ठमात्रः पुरुषोऽन्तरात्मा सदा जनानां हृदये सन्निविष्टः ||" (Katha. Upan. 6.16)
Meaning: In the body, in the hridaya-stana, is seated the thumbsized Jivatma (Inner Self) which is immortal.
Apart from the above mentioned instances the story of Nachiketa and his conversation with Yama is found in Taittriya Brahmana, Varaha Purana and Mahabharata
Yama in Mahabharata
Yama and Sarmi
Yudhishthira once requested Bhishmacharya to describe the greatness in giving gifts, sesame or til seeds, of lighting lamps and giving Vastra or clothes. Bhishmaacharya in this context recited the narrative of the conversation that took place in ancient times between a Brahmana called Sarmi and Yama (Mahabharata Anushasana parva Chapter 68).
In the country lying between the rivers Ganga and Yamuna, at the foot of the hills of Yamuna, in a town called Parnasala, there were a number of eminent scholars. In this places lived a well learned Brahmana called Sarmi. One day, Kaala or Yama's messengers were instructed to bring one of the two persons who were named Sarmi. The did the very reverse of what Yama told them to do. Yama rose up at the sight of the Brahmana and worshipped him duly. He then commanded his messenger, that he should be taken back saying, 'Let this one be taken back, and let the other one be brought to me.' When the great judge of the dead said these words, that Brahmana addressed him and said, 'I have completed my study of the Vedas and am no longer attached to the world. Whatever period may yet remain of my mortal existence, I wish to spend the balance of my life dwelling here."
Yama could not allow the Brahmana's wish to take up residence in Yamaloka. Upon the request of the Brahmana, Yama recites the merits of giving charity and gifts.
The offering of sesame seeds is a very superior one. One should gift of as much sesame as one can. By gifitng sesame every day, all wishes are fulfilled. The donation of sesame at Sraddhas is applauded.
One should on the day of the full moon of the month of Vaisakha, offer sesame to the Brahmanas. They should also be offered to eat sesame on every occasion possible. Similarly men should make gifts of water and establish resting places for the distribution of drinking water especially during Vaisakha month. Digging wells, tanks and lakes were seen as acts of great merit. Similarly establishing resting places along the roads, setting up the distribution of water are pious acts that should always be done. Like the gift of water, Yama, from a desire of doing good to the Pitris, applauds the gift of lamps to light dark places. Lighting of lamps benefit the Pitris, and they bestow prosperity to the lineage.
Yama and Savitri
This famous legend about Savitri, a mahapativrata, who brought back the life of her husband Satyavan from Yama, is given in the Vanaparva of Mahabharata (Chap 293 to 299). Savitri upon her husband's death, follows Yama to the neither worlds, and seeing her resolve Yama offers her four boons, except the life of her husband. As a first boon, she asks for the restoration of the eyesight of Dyumatsena, the King of Salva and father of Satyavan. Secondly she asks that his lost kingdom be restored to him, which Yama willingly grants her. For her third boon she asks that her father, Asvapati, the King of Madra, be blessed with hundred sons to continue the lineage. As she still refused to leave her husband, Yama pleased at her love and devotion, grants her the fourth boon. For her fourth boon she asks to be blessed by a hundred sons from Satyavan, to which Yama agrees in haste. Realizing the futility of the boon if Satyavan is not alive, Yama grants her back the life of Satyavan.
Yama And Crows
In Valmiki Ramayana, Uttara Kanda, there is a legend about the crow's right to eat the offering of rice to Pitrus.
Once a King named Marutta performed a Mahesvara sattra. Indra and other Gods attended the sattra; hearing about this, Ravana came that way. The frightened Gods took the forms of different birds. Indra took the form of peacock, Yama a crow. Kubera, a chameleon. Varuna took the form of a Royal Swan. From that time, Yama was pleased with crows.
He gave a blessing that in future, when human beings worship the pitrus by offering rice to them, the crows will have the right to eat that rice.
Worship of Yama
A special mention of worship of Yama is made here since Yama is feared in general and his worship is less known. However, during the time of Deepavali, Yama is worshipped. Yamapanchakas is the period of time starting from Asweyuja Krishna Trayodasi (13th day of the Second half of Asweyuja month) till Kaartika Suddha Tritiya (3rd day of the First half of Kaartika month). Based on different calendars the month is either Asweyuja or Kartika, but it happens during the time of Deepavali. The day of Narakachaturdashi falls in between these five days. The worship of Yama is also observed in Nepal.
Sacred texts like Dharmasindhu prescribe that after taking bath on Naraka Chaturdasi day all those who are eligible to offer Pithru tharpana (offerings to ancestors) should give Thila Tharpanam (offering of sesame or gingelly seeds) in the name of Yamadeva (Mrityudevata). This is called Yama Tharpanam, which is done by reciting the following mantras having the 14 names of Yamadharmaraja.
Yamaaya; Dharmarajaya; Mruthyave; Chaantakayacha; Vaivaswathaya; Kaalaaya; Sarva Bhootha Kshayayacha; Audhumbaraya; Dhadnaaya; Neelaya; Paramestine; Vrukodaraya; Chitraya; Chitraguptayathe Namah
Facing South, tarpanam should be given with water and black sesame seeds (thila) with Yagnopaveetham in Savya position like in Deva Tharpanam by reciting each name in the above sloka by adding Namah. For eg. Yamaaya Namah–Yamam Tharpayami; Dharmarajaya Namah – Dharmarajam Tharpayami; etc…… It is said and believed that giving Yama tharpana on this day is highly meritorious and one will get relief from suffering in Naraka Loka.
According to Dharma Sindhu this Tharpana should be given by one and all irrespective of the fact whether one's father is alive or not. In case father is not alive tila tarpanas can be given with yagnopaveetam in Apasavya position. In case one's father is alive, it should be given with water and rice with yagnopaveetham in Savya position.
Verses and Meanings
यम सूक्त || Yama Sukta in Rig Veda
प्रेहि प्रेहि पथिभिः पूर्व्येभिर्यत्रा नः पूर्वे पितरःपरेयुः | उभा राजाना स्वधया मदन्ता यमं पश्यासिवरुणं च देवम || 7
prehi prehi pathibhiḥ pūrvyebhiryatrā naḥ pūrve pitaraḥpareyuḥ | ubhā rājānā svadhayā madantā yamaṁ paśyāsivaruṇaṁ ca devama || 7
सं गच्छस्व पित्र्भिः सं यमेनेष्टापूर्तेन परमेव्योमन् | हित्वायावद्यं पुनरस्तमेहि सं गच्छस्व तन्वासुवर्चाः || 8
saṁ gacchasva pitrbhiḥ saṁ yameneṣṭāpūrtena paramevyoman | hitvāyāvadyaṁ punarastamehi saṁ gacchasva tanvāsuvarcāḥ || 8
अपेत वीत वि च सर्पतातोऽस्मा एतं पितरो लोकमक्रन् | अहोभिरद्भिरक्तुभिर्व्यक्तं यमो ददात्यवसानमस्मै || 9
apeta vīta vi ca sarpatāto'smā etaṁ pitaro lokamakran | ahobhiradbhiraktubhirvyaktaṁ yamo dadātyavasānamasmai || 9
अति द्रव सारमेयौ श्वानौ चतुरक्षौ शबलौ साधुना पथा | अथा पितॄन्त्सुविदत्रानुपेहि यमेन ये सधमादं मदन्ति || 10 (Rig. Veda. 10.14)
ati drava sārameyau śvānau caturakṣau śabalau sādhunā pathā | athā pitr̥̄ntsuvidatrānupehi yamena ye sadhamādaṁ madanti || 10 (Rig. Veda. 10.14)
Brief Summary of the Sukta: This is a sukta in honor of Yama. We honor Yama, Vivasvan's son, who gathers all men together, and shows them a place to stay. He travels above and shows the path to many. Men may chose their own path to their ancestors (based on their deeds). Along with the Angirasas, Atharvans, Bhrigus, Yama is invited to have Soma. All the meters Tristub, Gayatri are contained in Yama. Mantra 8 and 9 in this sukta explain that Yamaloka is an abode for the ancestors, where they are given a place to rest with light and water.
- Amarakosha (Page no 30)
- Shri Mahabharatam
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- Vishnu Purana Page Number 188
- Rig Veda (Mandala 9, Sukta 113)
- Rig Veda (Mandala 1, Sukta 35)
- Narayanacharya, K. S. (2011). Veda Samskrita Parichaya. Hubli:Sahitya Prakashana.
- Upadhyaya, Kasinath (1907) The Dharmasindhu Delhi : Sri Sadguru Publications
- Rig Veda (Mandala 10, Sukta 14)