Yama – Dharmaraja

There is the Hindu deity Yama, mostly known – and feared – as the God of Death: Yama, the god who judges the souls at the end of life. His other name is Dharmaraja, and he is called Lord of Justice, said to be rightly judging souls for their accumulated deeds on Earth. Said to be blue in colour, he rides a he-buffalo, and holds a rope and a stick (danda).


Yama is a Lokapāla and an Aditya. In art, he is depicted with green or red skin, red clothes, and riding a water buffalo. He holds a loop of rope in his left hand with which he pulls the soul from the corpse. He is the son of Surya (Sun) and twin brother of Yami, or Yamuna, traditionally the first human pair in the Vedas. He is also worshipped as the brother of Shaneshwara (Saturn). He is one of the Guardians of the directions and represents the south. He is described as reporting to either Vishnu (the maintainer) or Shiva (the destroyer) from the Trimurti (Hinduism’s triune Godhead). Three hymns (10, 14, and 135) in the Rig Veda Book 10 are addressed to him.

Garuda Purana mentions Yama often. His description is in 2.5.147-149: “There very soon among Death, Time, etc., he sees Yama with red eyes, looking fierce and dark like a heap of collyrium, with fierce jaws and frowning fiercely, chosen as their lord by many ugly, fierce-faced hundreds of diseases, possessing an iron rod in his hand and also a noose. The creature goes either to good or to bad state as directed by him.” In 2.8.28-29, “… the seven names of Yama, viz Yama, Dharma-raja, Mrtyu, Antaka, Vaivasvata, Kala, Sarva-pranahara …”

Guardian of the Directions

Lokapala, in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, any of the guardians of the four cardinal directions. They are known in Tibetan as ‘jig-rtenskyong, in Chinese as t’ien-wang, and in Japanese as shi-tenno. The Hindu protectors, who ride on elephants, are Indra, who governs the east, Yama the south, Varuna the west, and Kubera the north. Kubera, also referred to as Vaisravara, is common to both Hindu and Buddhist traditions.


dharm (obl. pl. dharmon) Hin. dharma San. m. (from dhri – to support, hold up, preserve) the intrinsic essence, inherent purpose or property of a thing; the essential order of things; the laws of nature that sustain the operation of the universe; rightness; righteous conduct; virtue; justice; faith, the essence of all religions but beyond them: ‘Religion is like a river. Dharma is like the ocean’.

Dharma is ‘the vesture of the cosmos’; it has both a general and a personal application: the harmony of the world must be maintained, and an individual’s dharma must be fulfilled by adherence to the duties and obligations relating to each person’s inherent nature, profession, status and stage of life as laid down by the ancient lawgivers. The Gita teaches, ‘It is better to perform one’s own duties imperfectly than to master the duties of another.’ Dharma is that particular course of conduct which will produce maximum benefit both for the thing concerned and for the rest of the universe. ‘Dharmam moolam jagat’ – dharma is the basis of the Universe. It sustains the world. It is not only divinely ordained but part of divinity itself: ‘Dhārayati iti dharma’ – that which sustains is dharma.

How to spot dharma? That which does not inflict pain on you or others, that is dharma. So act in a way that you get joy and others too get joy. Or take another standard for your actions: make the mind, the speech, the action all agree in harmony. That is to say, act as you speak, speak as you feel, do not play false to your own conscience; do not cover your thoughts in a cloak of falsehood; do not suppress your conscience by forcibly enslaving it and embarking on actions not approved by it. That is the way of life we call dharmic, following dharma.

One common definition of dharma is the adherence to the rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you“. Do not do to others what you do not wish them to do to you. Do not have a double standard; treat all as your own self. If you follow dharma in your life, then you have nothing to fear from Yama, for Yama is the ruler of dharma.



Mythology and Yama

Yama has undergone much transformation and change in Hindu mythology. We examine some legends of Yama:

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”.

He voluntarily chose death, departing to the other world. He found the path to the land of his fathers. Death is his realm. His death caused immense grief to Yami, who was inconsolable. When the Gods wished her to cease crying, she replied, “How can I not mourn, for today is the day of my brother’s death!” To cure her grief, the Gods created night. From that time, night follows day, and the cycle of time began.

The owl and the pigeon are mentioned as his messengers. Two four-eyed, broad-nosed, bridled dogs, the sons of Sarama (the celestial bitch) are his regular emissaries. They guard the path along which the dead man hastens to join his fathers (Pitris) who rejoice with Yama.

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.

He resides in Yamapuri and is a staunch devotee of Vishnu. His servants are called Kinkaras, who perform the duty of bringing the mortal soul to judgement. He rides a buffalo and is himself dark in color. He carries a noose in his hand, the Yama Paasa, (rope) with which he sunders the soul from its mortal coil.

Yama – Dharmaraja as Teacher

Yama is also the god of justice and is sometimes referred to as Dharma, in reference to his unswerving dedication to maintaining order and adherence to harmony. It is said that he is also one of the wisest of the devas. In the Katha Upanishad, among the most famous Upanishads, Yama is portrayed as a teacher. He is the father of Yudhisthira (also known as Dharmaraja), the oldest brother of the five Pandavas. The Pandavas are one or all of the five brothers – Yudhishthira, Bhīma, Arjuna and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva – sons of the wives of King Pāndu, and cousins of Krishna.

Despite Yama’s later role in Hindu mythology, the Vedas described Yama as the first man who died and the king of the departed. Vedic tradition also references Yama as the lord of justice, giving him the title Dharma. Yama can be interpreted to mean “twin” in Vedic tradition some myths have him paired up with his twin sister Yami. Surya, the sun god is also the father to Yama, his brother Shani and sister Yami. Yami has a minor role in the rg Veda, but fascinatingly Shani is portrayed as the deity that gives the sentence of one’s deeds throughout life by appropriate punishment and rewards; Yama grants the outcomes of the actions after death.

Relating back to death, Yama is given another name: Kala, Sanskrit for “time”, appropriately assigned because time is naturally selected and nobody can stop or change time. To better explain, human health always nears death after birth through decay, disease, or accident. The only cause of delay of being taken to Naraka (hell) is due to treatment options of sick persons, but the inevitability of death can never be stopped due to the outline of nature.

Nachiketha, son of Vajasravas, prayed to Lord Yama to teach him Atma Vidya (Science of Atma). Then, Lord Yama said, “Oh the son of immortality! Listen. First establish your link with the source from which you have come into the world.” He also advised Nachiketha that since the body was perishable like a water bubble and the mind was fleeting, both of them must be discarded, meaning, no importance should be attached to them and efforts be made to realise the fundamental Truth.

“Nachiketa! You need not search for Lord Easwara for He is very much present in you,” said Lord Yama.

Yama-Dharmaraja Tests Nachiketha

Nachiketa wanted first, that when he returned to his native place and home at His behest, his father must welcome him gladly, free from all anger over his former impertinence, and full of mental equanimity. His second desire was to know the secret of the absence in heaven of hunger or thirst or the fear of death. Yama gladly gave him these boons. In addition Yama initiated him into a special ritual, and its mystery. Nachiketa listened reverentially and grasped the details of that ritual quickly and clearly. Yama was so delighted with his new disciple that He gave the Yaga a new name Nachiketha Agni! This was an extra boon for the young visitor. Nachiketa said; “Master! Man is mortal; but, some say that death is not the end, that there is an entity called Atma which survives the body and the senses; others argue that there is no such entity. Now that I have the chance, I wish to know about the Atma from you.”

Yama desired to test the credentials of his questioner’s steadfastness and eagerness to know the Highest Wisdom. If he was undeserving, Yama did not want to communicate the knowledge to him. So, He offered to give him instead, various other boons, related to worldly prosperity and happiness. He told him that the Atma is something very subtle and elusive, that it is beyond the reach of ordinary understanding and He placed before him other attractive boons that could be enjoyed ‘quicker’ and ‘better’. Nachiketa replied: “Revered Master! Your description of the difficulty of understanding it makes me feel that I should not let go this chance for, I can get no teacher more qualified than You to explain it to me. I ask this as my third boon and no other. The alternative boons You hold before me cannot assure me the everlasting benefit that Atmajnana (knowledge of the spirit, the soul within) alone can bestow.”

Seeing this sraddha (spiritual effort) and this steadiness Yama was pleased and He concluded that Nachiketa was fit to receive the highest wisdom. He said, “Well, My dear Boy! There are two distinct types of experiences and urges, called Sreyas and Preyas, both affect the individual. The first releases; the second leashes. One leads to salvation and the other to incarceration! If you pursue the Preya path, you leave the realisation of the highest goal of man, far behind. The Sreya path can be discerned only by the refined intellect, by viveka (discrimination); the Preya path is trodden by the ignorant and the perverted. Vidya (knowledge) reveals the Sreyas and Avidya (lack of knowledge) makes you slide into the Preyas. Naturally, those who seek the Sreya road are very rare.”

Yama continued: “The Atma (soul, spirit within the human) is agitationless, unruffled; it is Consciousness, infinite and full. He who has known the Atma will not be moved by the dual ideas of ‘is’ and ‘is-not’, ‘Do-er’ ‘Not-doer’ etc. The Atma is not even an object to be known! It is neither knower, known nor knowledge. Discovering this is the supremest Vision; informing one of this is the supremest instruction. The Instructor is Brahmam, and the Instructed is also Brahmam. Realisation of this ever-present Truth saves one from all attachment and agitation and so, It liberates one from birth and death. This great Mystery cannot be grasped by logic; it has to be won by Faith in the Smrithis1 and experienced.”

“The Atma is capable of being known only after vast perseverance. One has to divert the mind from its natural habitat – the objective world – and keep it in unwavering equanimity. Only a hero can succeed in this solitary internal adventure and overcome the monsters of egoism and illusion! That victory alone can remove grief.”

1 smriti Hin., San. f. (from smri – to remember) remembering, recollection; memory; a memory; a traditionally handed down text, such as the dharma-shāstras (the law books governing righteous conduct), the great epics and the purānas. Though derived from revealed truth (shruti), smriti texts are traditionally open to all castes. They are basically explanatory commentaries on the primary texts, but unlike them are of human composition and therefore considered to be open to change in response to prevailing traditions and conditions.


Yama Tests Nachiketa



There is only one language, the language of the heart;
there is only one religion, the religion of love;
there is only one caste, the caste of humanity;

Religions are many but the path is only one and we need to discover this path. “O heroic children of Mother India! No religion is bad for the one who has a good sense of understanding.” It is incorrect to see differences among religions. In our daily life, we need to realise the limitations of education. What you read for the first time may look new to you but when you read it again and again it is no more new. Here is an example. Once God wanted to grant liberation to a person and sent Yama, the God of death, to him. When Yama approached this devotee, he questioned whether the devotee knew him. But the devotee answered that he (Yama) was a stranger to him. Then Lord Yama told him that he would return to him only when he could recognise Yama. When Yama returned after three days the same question was posed to him. Now the devotee answered that Yama was no longer a stranger to him, because he had already seen him. Everything appears strange and new before acquaintance. But once we acquaint ourselves we tend to shed differences. Basically, you have to get rid of the sense of differences and develop the sense of oneness. Then you will know that religion educare (eliciting human values within) and spirituality are one and the same.