Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Yama Dharmaraja (Buddhist Protector) - Outer

གཤིན་རྗེ་ཆོས་རྒྱལ། 阎罗法王
(item no. 59686)
Origin Location Tibet
Date Range 1700 - 1799
Lineages Gelug and Buddhist
Material Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton
Collection Private
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Deity

Appearance: Animal-Feature

Gender: Male

Interpretation / Description

Yama Dharmaraja, Outer (Tibetan: shin je cho gyal. English: Lord of Death, King of the Law): the special protector deity for the Vajrabhairava Tantra and meditation practices. (See the Yama Dharmaraja Main Page and Outline Page).

(See image HAR #22497).

Yama Dharmaraja, an emanation of Manjushri, is a Tantric Buddhist deity, and specifically a protector deity. The name means 'Lord of Death, King of the Law.' In this circumstance the word 'dharma' does not refer to all of the teachings of Buddhism, or the truth of reality, but rather to the law of cause and effect (karma). Karma is often referred to as a fundamental law of Buddhism.

There are three principal forms of Dharmaraja which are known as the 'Outer, Inner and Secret.' A basic Tibetan description of 'Outer' Yama Dharmaraja and his female consort Chamundi is as follows: "...above a buffalo...is the Lord of Death, Yama Dharmaraja, with a body black in colour, having a very fierce buffalo face. The right hand holds a skull stick and the left a lasso. [He is] adorned with charnel ground ornaments. The red linga is pointing upwards [and he] stands in a manner with the left leg extended. On the left side is the Mistress of Death, Chamundi, with a body black in colour, one face, and two arms. The right [hand] holds a trident and the left a blood filled skullcup. The breasts are pendant and the stomach distended. [She is] wearing a buffalo hide and adorned with a garland of bones." (Konchog Lhundrub, 1497-1557. Sgrub thabs kun btus, vol.9, fol.638-639).

The Basic Profile of Yama Dharmaraja:
Identity: Manjushri emanation
Tantra Class: Anuttarayoga, Method Tantra
Source Text: Shri Vajramahabhairava Nama Tantra [Toh 468]
Function/activity: Protector Deity
Metaphor: Death

The special iconographic characteristics of 'Outer' Yama Dharmaraja are as follows:
Appearance: Wrathful with a Buffalo head
Colour: Black/dark blue
Attributes: bone stick & lasso
Consort: Chamunda
Mount: Buffalo

Yama Dharmaraja is a Tantric Buddhist - wisdom deity - protector of the Method Class (father) of Anuttaryoga Tantra specifically used by those engaged in the practices of the Vajrabhairava Tantra. This practice is found in all of the Sarma Schools (Sakya, Kagyu, Jonang, Gelug, and others), however the Gelugpa Tradition hold Yama Dharmaraja in a special regard as one of their three main religious protectors along with the Shadbhuja (six-armed) form of Mahakala and Vaishravana Riding a Lion.

In this painting of Dharmaraja, he is depicted at the center of the composition with the smaller figure of the consort Chamundi standing slightly to the left. At the top center of the painting is a small figure of the meditational deity Vajrabhairava, in Heruka appearance with one face and two arms embracing the consort Vajra Vetali. An even smaller unidentified Tibetan Gelugpa teacher, wearing the traditional yellow Pandita hat, is seated atop the buffalo head. The painting composition, drawing and colour application follow the Menri Sarma (new) tradition of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery of Shigatse, Tibet, which was popular in both the 18th and 19th centuries. This particular painting is likely a product of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, based on similar known painting examples in the Potala collection. The name and identity of the master artist is currently unknown and there are no apparent inscriptions on the front of the painting (back unknown).

Descending on the viewer's left side of the composition are the eight male attendant deities of Yama Dharmaraja. They are wrathful in appearance, in a variety of colours: blue, blue, white, red, light blue, red, yellow, and white. Descending on the viewer's right side are the eight female attendant deities. Each of these are dark blue in colour. Both the male and female figures are holding various weapons. Some of the attendants are mounted on animals and mythical creatures and others are standing in a variety of dynamic poses.

At the bottom center of the painting is 'Inner' Yama Dharmaraja. This form of the deity has the typical wrathful face commonly found in Tibetan art rather than the fierce looking head of a buffalo. In the right hand he holds a curved knife held with the arm outstretched and in the left a skull cup held to the heart. Surrounding the 'Inner' Dharmaraja are four attendant figures each in a different colour: white, yellow, red and dark blue. Each stands atop a buffalo having the same colour as the mounted figure. These four represent the four activities of (1) peaceful, (2) increasing, (3) powerful, and (4) wrathful. Each has a buffalo face and two hands. The third of the attendant figures, red in colour, is also known as the 'Secret' Yama Dharmaraja. He holds a jewel in the right hand and a skull cup in the left.

A Tibetan ritual text offering a brief history and explanation of Yama Dharmaraja states very clearly the hierarchy and position of the deity within the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet: "In the special, noble, Vajra Vehicle [Vajrayana], among the numerous four tantras [kriya, charya, yoga and anuttara] this protector is of the Anuttarayoga. Of those, from the three [classes], Method, Wisdom and Non-dual, this is Method Tantra. From the three famous Father Tantras of the Yamari Cycle, Rakta [Red], Krishna [Black], and Bhairava [Terrifying], this is the uncommon protector of the Vajrabhairava." (Ngor Ponlop Ngagwang Legdrub, 19th century. Sgrub thabs kun btus, vol.9, fol.647).

Lineage of Teachers: Vajradhara, Shri Vajrabhairava, Jnana Dakini, Lalitavajra, Vajrasana, Amoghavajra, Jnana Sambhava Bepa, Padmavajra, Dipamkara Shrijnana, Bharo Chag Dum, Rwa Lotsawa Dorje Drag, etc.

There are many common confusions and misunderstandings concerning the Buddhist protector deity Yama Dharmaraja. The Yama who is associated with the Hell realms, commonly depicted as the central figure in the Hell scenes of Buddhist paintings of the Wheel of Life (Samsara Chakra, Bhavana Chakra), and this Yama Dharmaraja of the Vajrabhairava Tantra are not the same entity, the same being, or the same individual. This conflation of the two figures is the most common misunderstanding held by scholars of the past.

The first and earliest Buddhist description of a Yama figure is that of a sentient creature, the King of the Ghost Realm (preta), commonly depicted occupying a central position in the Hell Realm scenes. This belief originates with the Buddhist Abhidharma literature which is based on a Theravadin and Sutrayana model of the world/universe. The second Yama form to be commonly depicted in art is 'Outer' Yama Dharmaraja which is based exclusively on the Vajrabhairava Root Tantra where the deity Manjushri assumes a variety of terrifying (Skt. bhairava) forms to metaphorically subdue Yama (death, a synonym for the endless suffering of cyclic existence). The theme of death is used as a metaphor in Tantric Buddhism for an entire cycle of Tantric practice which include the three prominent deities of Vajrabhairava, Krishna Yamari and the Rakta Yamari cycle (collection) of Tantras.

The Sanskrit language names of 'Yama', 'Yamari', 'Yamantaka', 'Bhairava' and 'Vajrabhairava' appear frequently in all classes of tantric texts and they can refer to a large number of different figures such as an attendant deity, a protector, or as a worldly god such as the fearsome form of Shiva depicted beneath the feet of a number of Buddhist meditational deities (Skt. ishtadevata) such as Vajrayogini, or Chakrasamvara. In those instances Bhairava represents the various negative human emotions to be conquered through meditation. Keeping in mind the similarities in names and forms of the different gods and deities related to death, it is important not to confuse and conflate those various figures, identities, and particularly the hierarchy of the Tantric deities. This is especially important with reference to the Tantric models and systems to which each god and deity belongs. It is very important to properly understand each name and unique identity in its own special and unique circumstance.

(Written for the publication and exhibition catalogue: Exhibition of Quintessence of Returning Tibetan Cultural Relics from Oversea. Beijing, China, July 2012).

Jeff Watt, July 9th, 2012

Numbered Image:
1. Yama Dharmaraja, Outer
2. Chamundi
3. Vajrabhairava, Heruka
4. Yama Dharmaraja, Inner
5. Yama, White
6. Yama, Yellow
7. Yama, Red
8. Yama, Blue

Blue Numbers 1 to 8:
Eight Male Attendant Figures

Green Numbers 1 to 8:
Eight Female AttendNt Figures

Secondary Images
Related Items
Thematic Sets
Buddhist Protector: Yama Dharmaraja ('Outer' Masterworks)
Buddhist Protector: Yama Dharmaraja Main Page
Buddhist Protector: Yama Dharmaraja, Outer
Collection: Private 10
Buddhist Protector: Yama Dharmaraja (All Forms Masterworks)
Collection: Private 10 (Masterworks)