Yama (यमः)

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Yama (Samskrit : 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 are taken into account and the elevation of soul is then decided. A Jiva's path of travel to higher realms namely Devayana and Pritruyana are dependent on the Karma (deeds) and the knowledge attained by a Jiva or soul, all of which is clearly accounted for in the records 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.

  • 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.
  • Yamadharma : Yama is known for his scrupulous 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 earthly lives and sends them to Naraka (hell).
  • Agrasandhani : As a time and book keeper, Yama records the virtuous and sinful acts of men in this book named Agrasandhani, and Chitragupta is his associate in enforcing justice.
  • Yama avataras : 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.
  • Suryaputra : Yama is the son of Surya and Samjna, the daughter of Viswakarma.
  • 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)
  • 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.
  • Maarkandeya Yamagaatha : The legend about Yama and Maarkandeya, a youth of sixteen years age, who prays to Shiva for longevity is well known. When Yama, in arrogance throws his noose around Maarkandeya who was holding the Shivalinga, Shiva appears and burnt Yama to ashes thereby protecting Maarkandeya. At that time there was no Yama to govern the process of death. Similar such age when there was no Yama includes the Kritayuga, when the earth was overcrowded with living beings.
  • Savitri Yamagaatha : The legend about Savitri, a mahapativrata, following Yamadeva to bring back her husband Satyavaan's life is very well known.
  • Nachiketa Yamagaatha : Yama and Nachiketa legend reveals that Yama was knowlegeable 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.

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 abode 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 has the detailed information of 28 different kinds of Narakas based on the sins committed.

Yama disclosed the secrets of Dharma as per Mahabharata (Anus. Parv. Chap. 130)

कालः || Kaala

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 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 shrouta dharmas are overseen by Yama.

Yama Devataswaroopam

 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 worshipped since Vedic times. द्युर्लोकः || Dyurloka (land of light ) is under the control of Yama.

"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 Dyurloka 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.     Yama Loka is 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).

This is also explained in the Vedas (ruk Samhita 10.14.8). Therefore, it should not be hastily construed that Yama Loka 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.

Of course, this does not mean that the hellish planet Naraka does not exist. Naraka exists and Yamaraja is the controller of this planet. Yama’s functions as described by  Yaska in the Nirukta (10.2-20) can be summarised as follows,

"यच्छति उप रमयति जिवितम् सर्वम् भुत ग्रमन् इति यमह ||"

"yacchati upa ramayati jivitam sarvam bhuta graman iti yamaha ||"

Because causes death to all the beings he is called as Antaka.  Yama’s main responsibility is to give different destination according to the  piety and impiety of jiva, therefore he is called as Antaka .  It is also explained that Yama strolls along with other devatas (Rik Samhita 10.135.1). Therefore it is not correct to say that Yamaraj is only the master of the Naraka loka(hell).  The previous episodes describe Nachiketa’s journey to Yamaloka and the realisation he had was the yama loka was the resting place of his pitris (ancestors). He also heard the playing of the flute (Rik Samhita 10.135.7).

Yama in mahabharata

"Yudhishthira said, 'Do thou discourse to me once again, O grandsire, upon the merits attaching to gifts of sesame and of lamps for lighting darkness, as also of food and robes.'

"Bhishma said, 'In this connection, O Yudhishthira, is recited the narrative of the discourse that took place in ancient times between a Brahmana and Yama. In the country lying between the rivers Ganga and Yamuna, at the foot of the hills called Yamuna, there was a large town inhabited by Brahmanas. The town was celebrated under the name of Parnasala and was very delightful in appearance, O king. A large number of learned Brahmanas lived in it. One day, Yama, the ruler of the dead, commanded a messenger of his, who was clad in black, endued with blood-red eyes and hair standing erect, and possessed of feet, eyes, and nose all of which resembled those of a crow, saying, 'Go thou to the town inhabited by Brahmanas and bring hither the person known by the name of Sarmin and belonging by birth to the race of Agastya. He is intent on mental tranquillity and possessed of learning. He is a preceptor engaged in teaching the Vedas and his practices are well-known. Do not bring me another person belonging to the same race and living in the same neighbourhood. This other man is equal unto him I want, in virtues, study, and birth. With respect to children and conduct, this other resembles the intelligent Sarmin. Do thou bring the individual I have in view. He should be worshipped with respect (instead of being dragged hither with irreverence).' The messenger having come to the place, did the very reverse of what he had been bidden to do. Attacking that person, he brought him who had been forbidden by Yama to be brought. Possessed of great energy, Yama rose up at the sight of the Brahmana and worshipped him duly. The king of the dead then commanded his messenger, 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 pass, dwelling even here, O thou of unfading glory! 1

"Yama said, 'I cannot ascertain the exact period, ordained by Time, of one's life, and hence, unurged by Time, I cannot allow one to take up one's residence here. I take note of the acts of righteousness (or otherwise) that one does in the world. Do thou, O learned Brahmana of great splendour return immediately to thy abode. 'I ell me what also is in thy mind and what I can do for thee, O thou of unfading glory!'

"The Brahmana said, 'Do thou tell me what those acts are by accomplishing which one may earn great merit. O best of all beings, thou art the foremost of authorities (on the subject) even in the three worlds.'

"Yama said, 'Do thou hear, O regenerate Rishi, the excellent ordinances regarding gifts. The gift of sesame seeds is a very superior one. It produces everlasting merit. O foremost of regenerate ones, one should make gifts of as much sesame as one can. By making gifts of sesame every day, one is sure to attain the fruition of one's every wish. The gift of sesame at Sraddhas is applauded. Verily the gift of sesame is a very superior one. Do thou make gifts of sesame unto the Brahmanas according to the rites ordained in the scriptures. One should on the day of the full moon of the month of Vaisakha, make gilts of sesame unto the Brahmanas. They should also be made to eat and to touch sesame on every occasion that one can afford. They that are desirous of achieving what is beneficial to them should, with their whole souls, do this in their houses. 2 Without doubt, men should similarly make gifts of water and establish resting places for the distribution of drinking water. 3One should cause tanks and lakes and wells to be excavated. Such acts are rare in the world, O best of regenerate persons! Do thou always make gifts of water. This act is fraught with great merit. O best of regenerate persons, thou shouldst establish resting places along the roads for the distribution of water. After one has eaten, the gift unto one should especially be made of water for drink.'

"Bhishma continued, 'After Yama had said these words unto him, the messenger who had borne him from his abode conveyed him back to it. The Brahmana, on his return, obeyed the instructions he had received. Having thus conveyed him back to his abode the messenger of Yama fetched Sarmin who had really been sought by Yama. Taking Sarmin unto him, he informed his master. Possessed of great energy, the judge of the dead worshipped that righteous Brahmana, and having conversed with him a while dismissed him for being taken back to his abode. Unto him also Yama gave the same instructions. Sarmin, too, coming back into the world of men, did all that Yama had said. Like the gift of water, Yama, from a desire of doing good to the Pitris, applauds the gift of lamps to light dark places.

Hence, the giver of a lamp for lighting a dark place is regarded as benefiting the Pitris. Hence, O best of the Bharatas, one should always give lamps for lighting dark spots. The giving of lamps enhances the visual power of the deities, the Pitris, and one's own self. 1 It has been said, O king, that the gift of gems is a very superior gift. The Brahmana, who, having accepted a gift of gems, sells the same for performing a sacrifice, incurs no fault. The Brahmana, who, having accepted a gift of gems makes a gift of them unto Brahmanas. acquires inexhaustible merit himself and confers inexhaustible merit upon him from whom he had originally received them.

Conversant with every duty Manu himself has said that he, who, observant of proper restraints, earns makes a gift of gems unto a Brahmana observant of proper restraints earns inexhaustible merit himself and confers inexhaustible merit upon the recipient. The man who is content with his own wedded wife and who makes a gift of robes, earns an excellent complexion and excellent vestments for himself. I have told thee, O foremost of men, what the merits are that attach to gifts of kine, of gold, and the sesame agreeably to deserve precepts of the Vedas and the scriptures One should marry and raise offspring upon one's wedded wives. Of all acquisitions, O son of Kuru's race, that of male issue is regarded as the foremost.'"

Yama And Crows

In Valmiki Ramayana, Uttara Kanda, there is a story 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 escaped the attention in the form of a crow. Kubera took the form of chameleon. Varuna took the form of a Royal Swan. 

From that time, Yama was pleased with crows. 

'When human beings suffering from hunger, if you are fed / eating, those people become happy as if they have (met and fed) all his relatives (past and present). 

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. Thus the right of the crows to eat offerings of rice, originated from that time.

Worship of Yama

Yamapanchakas is the period of time starting from Asweyuja Krishna Trayodasi till Kaartika Suddha Tritiya.  The Day of Narakachaturdashi  falls in between Sacred scripts prescribe that after taking bath on Naraka Chaturdasi day all those who are eligible to offer Pithru tharpana should give Thila Tharpanam in the name of Yama Dharma Raja (God of Death) called Yama Tharpanam by reciting the following sloka containing 14 names of Lord Yama Dharma Raja. 

Yamaaya; Dharmarajaya; Mruthyave; Chaantakayacha;

Vaivaswathaya; Kaalaaya; Sarva Bhootha Kshayayacha;

Audhumbaraya; Dhadnaya; Neelaya; Paramestine;

Vrukodaraya; Chitraya; Chitraguptayathe Namah

Facing South, Tharpana should be given with water and black sesame seeds (thila) with Yagnopaveetham in Savya position like Deva Tharpanam (Yama Dharma Raaja being a Demi God) 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. 

Scripts like Dharma Sindhu says that this Tharpana should be given by one and all irrespective of the fact whether father is alive or not. In case father is not alive it can be given in Savya/Apasavya position as said above. In case father is alive it should be given with water and rice with Yagnopaveetham in Savya position.


  1. VSP
  2. The Mahabharata, Book 13: Anusasana Parva: Section LXVIII