Himalayan Art Resources

Wheel of Life (Yama without Ornaments)

Wheel of Life Iconography

Three Main Points:
1. Hands & feet of Samsara clutching the Wheel of Life
2. The wheel between the upper & lower teeth: Example HAR #85113
3. No ornaments adorning the wrathful figure of Samsara

Video: Wheel of Life: Three Points

The Wheel of Life represents the container and the contained, the ground and the inhabitants. The container is the wrathful figure on the outside that represents samsara, cyclic existence and suffering. The contained are represented by the disk of the wheel of Life which displays the five or six principal forms of life available to sentient beings.

[1] The feet and hands of the wrathful figure should hold the disk or circle of the Wheel of Life. Often with paintings and murals only the hands are touching the wheel.

[2] The upper teeth of the wrathful figure are almost always shown directly above the wheel, however, the lower teeth should also be displayed at the bottom of the wheel. The meaning of this is that at any moment the wrathful figure of Samsara can swallow the wheel and life will be lost and beings moved along to their next karmic experience based upon the causes and effects of actions. There is only a single good example depicting both the upper and lower teeth (HAR #85113).

[3] Samsara, represented by the wrathful figure holding the wheel, is ugly in appearance. He properly should have no ornaments, no crown of five skulls with colourful ribbons and gold earrings, no hair flaming upwards, no bracelets, bangles, tiger skin garment, or snake ornaments. He does not require a third eye placed on the forehead. All of the mentioned ornamentation are characteristics of wrathful Tantric deities. Samsara is not a Tantric deity. The figure represents impermanence, death and suffering.

All of the embellishments and decoration on the figure of Samsara are the result of the creativity and imagination of painters and artists, most notably in recent times. The more accurate Wheel of Life paintings, based on Buddhist teachings, appear to be from Mongolia and Buryatia.

Jeff Watt [updated 4-2021]