The Buddhist cosmology model of the environment and inhabitants is based on the Abhidharma literature of the Theravada and Sutrayana vehicles. Within the Vajrayana system various divergent models are presented with the foremost being that of the Kalachakra Tantra. In the field of Himalayan Art, under the category of Painting, the subject of the Wheel of Life belongs to the sub-category of Charts. The Wheel of Life compositions can also be described as Mandala-like, but not an actual mandala.
The early models of the Wheel of Life depict five divisions of beings; gods, humans, animals, ghosts and hell beings. Later models from Central Asia and China also divide the gods into two groups, happy gods and jealous gods. In this model the two types of gods are always depicted at war with each other. In the Himalayas and Tibet both variant models of four, five and six divisions are found and explained according to different Buddhist and artistic traditions.
The Four Circles: First: The innermost of the 4 concentric circles shows a pig (ignorance), snake (anger) and a rooster (desire) circling on a dark background. They are often shown biting on each others tail.
Second: The next circle, made of a white half and a black half, shows those individuals that have performed meritorious actions (good karma) moving upwards in the circle of existence and those having performed bad actions moving downward, naked, led by red and green attendants of the Lord of Death.
Third: The widest of the circles is that of the six realms of existence; god, asura (anti-gods), human, animal, ghost (preta) and hell. Each segregated by a red dividing line. At the top is the Realm of the Gods highlighted by a heavenly being, the god Shakra (Indra), in a palace playing a stringed instrument. Some traditions explain that the god Indra depicted in this way is an emanation of Shakyamuni Buddha. To the right is the Asura Realm, a lower form of the gods that are always engaged in conflict. To the left is the Human Realm and below that is the Animal Realm. To the lower right is the Realm of ghosts (preta). At the bottom is the Hell Realm with a central blue figure, wrathful, holding a stick in the right hand and a mirror in the left. This is Yama Dharmaraja, the Lord of the Dead, King of Judgment (the Law of Karma). This form of Yama is a not the same entity as the Buddhist Tantric protector Yama Dharmaraja. Yama in the hell realm holds a mirror to reflect those actions (and consequences) performed by each individual that comes before him. In each realm the various beings are portrayed engaged in their respective activities along with the occasional buddha or bodhisattva.
Fourth: The outer circle is composed of 12 scenes which represent the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising starting at the bottom left with three blind figures (#1 ignorance) and then moving clockwise around the Wheel of Existence to meet again at the bottom right where two figures carry bundled corpses to the funeral pyre (#12 old age and death).
Yama: Yama the Lord of Death, although portrayed in the Hell Realms, actually resides in the Realm of Ghosts and is the King of the Pretas. He lives in the city of Pretas, Kapila, 500 miles below the classical north Indian city of Rajgir and is accompanied by thirty-six attendants. His association with the Hell Realms is in the capacity of a judge of karma, good and bad deeds.
Jeff Watt 3-2007 [updated 9-2016, 5-2017]Publications: King Udrayana and the Wheel of Life. Sermey Geshe Lobsang Tharchin. Mahayana Sutra and Tantra Press. New Jersey, 1984, 1989.
Reinventing the Wheel. Paintings of Rebirth in Medieval Buddhist Temples. Stephen F. Teiser. University of Washington Press, Seattle & London. 2006.
The Tibetan Wheel of Existence: An Introduction. Jacqueline Dunnington. Tibet House, New York: 2000.