Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Hell, Yama, Lord of Death

Hell Main Page

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Yama Explanation (below)
- Yama Outline Page
- Yama Forms Outline Page
- Hell Main Page
- Hell Outline Page
- Wheel of Life
- Wheel of Life Outline
- Hindu Gods Index/Glossary
- Masterworks
- Confusions
- Others...

Description based on art depictions:
1. Name: Yama, King of the Law (of Karma)
2. Status: King of the Preta Realm
3. Life Status: living being of the Preta Realm
4. Function: Judge of beings entering the Hell Realm
5. Appearance: wrathful (raksha-like)
6. Colour: blue or dark red
7. Hand Attributes: butcher's stick & mirror
8. Attendants: (two) Deer-face & Raksha-faced figures

Yama is understood to be a living being, actually the King of the Preta (ghost) realm, who functions as the judge of beings entering hell. The reason why he is categorized as a ghost is because no being can actually exist in hell unless they have been born there due to bad actions committed in previous lives (karma). In various versions of Hinduism Yama is categorized as a god and in Indian literature Yama and Yami, a brother and sister, are associated with hell. The Wheel of Life and these depictions of Yama are based on Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism and this particular Buddhist understanding of the person of Yama and the hell realm is based on the Abhidharmakosha writings of Vasubhandu.

In Buddhist Tantric systems the popular Hindu divinities are quite often employed as minor worldly 'gods' filling the ranks of the outer retinue of many complex Buddhist Meditational Deities and their mandalas. Also, in a number of the Buddhist mandalas of wrathful deities such as Hevajra and Chakrasamvara the eight Hindu gods are placed in the eight surrounding cemeteries. Yama, as the Hindu god of hell is included in this group of eight.

In Himalayan style art, depictions of Yama are found in (1) Wheel of Life paintings, (2) Bardo Todrol paintings and (3) narrative paintings, or illuminations. Depictions of the Hindu god Yama are found in the scenes of the Eight Great Cemeteries surrounding a wrathful mandala of deities such as Chakrasamvara, Hevajra and Vajrabhairava.

In the Tantric Buddhist classification of Anuttarayoga, according to one system, the Eight Direction Gods of the Cemeteries are: 1. east Shakra on an elephant, 2. south Yama on a buffalo, 3. west Varuna on a makara, 4. north Yaksha on a horse, 5. north-east Ishana on a bull, 6. south-east Agni on a goat, 7. south-west Rakshasa on a zombie, 8. north-west Vayu on a deer.

The depictions of 'Death' - the terrifying personification of death (samsara, cyclic existence) - who holds the Wheel of Life between the two hands, held up to the mouth, about to be swallowed, are not the same being or entity as Yama associated with the hell realms.

In the Wheel of Life paintings the figure of 'Death' is often depicted with ornaments identical in appearance to a wrathful Buddhist deity. This however is not completely correct according to proper, or orthodox, iconography. This figure holding the Wheel of Life is merely a personification of death, impermanence, and the misery of cyclic existence. He is not conceived of as being a living entity like Yama in the Hell realm, or a Hindu god, or a deity of any type.

Jeff Watt 2-2007 [updated 5-2017]