Himalayan Art Resources

Wheel of Life: Components

Wheel of Life: Religious Context

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Description (below)
- Inner Disc:
--- 1st: Three Poisons (Center)
--- 2nd: Positive & Negative Actions
--- 3rd: Five Realms
--- 4th: Twelve Links of Dependent Arising
- Outer:
--- Demon of Impermanence
--- Two Verses & the Purity of Nirvana
- Outstanding Questions

- Wheel of Life
- Wheel of Life: Three Points
- Three Poisons
- Positive & Negative Actions
- Five Realms
- Twelve Links of Dependent Arising
- Six Buddhas of the Six Realms
- Demon of Impermanence
- Types of Beings Represented in Art
- Yama Confusions

Additional Topics:
- Six Divisions
- Six Buddhas
- Bodhisattvas
- Yama
- Indra

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.

First Center: The inner most of the 4 concentric circles shows a black pig (ignorance), green snake (anger/aversion) and a rooster (desire/attraction) circling on a blue background. They are often shown biting on each others tail in a circle. In Buddhist philosophy these are known as the Three Poisons.

Second: The next circle, depicting positive and negative actions, 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. This disc or circle of actions is not always included with all representations of the Wheel of Life.

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 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 often 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. Some depic5tions include the figures known as the Six Buddhas of the Six Realms.

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).

Jeff Watt 6-2022

(The images below are only a selection of examples from the links above).