Yama - Buddhist Icon of Hell and Impermanence

Fearsome protector of the dharma

Yama as a Wrathful Dharmapala
Wikipedia Commons

If you are familiar with the Bhavachakra, or Wheel of Life, you've seen Yama. He is the monstrous being holding the wheel in his hooves. In Buddhist myths, he is lord of the Hell Realms and represents death, but more than anything else he represents impermanence.

Yama in the Pali Canon

Before there was Buddhism, Yama was a Hindu God of death who first appeared in the Rig Veda. In later Hindu stories, he was a judge of the underworld who decided punishments for the dead.

In the Pali Canon, he holds a similar position, except that he no longer judges, whatever will befall those who come before him is the result of their own karma. Yama's chief job is to remind us of this. He also sends his messengers—sickness, old age, and death—into the world to remind us of the impermanence of life.

For example, in the Devaduta Sutta of the Sutta-pitaka (Majjhima Nikaya 130), the Buddha described an unworthy man seized by the wardens of hell and brought before Yama. The wardens declared that the man had ill-treated his father and mother, and had ill-treated contemplatives, brahmans, and the leaders of his clan.

What Would Yama Do With Him?

Yama asked, did you not see the first divine messenger I sent to you? The man said, no, I did not.

Have you never seen a young, tender infant lying prone in his own urine and feces? Yama asked. I have, the man said. The infant was Yama's first divine messenger, warning the man he was not exempt from birth.

Yama asked if the man had seen the second divine messenger, and when the man said no, Yama continued, Haven't you seen an old woman or man of eighty or ninety or one hundred years, crooked and leaning on a cane, miserable, broken-toothed, gray-haired, bald, wrinkled and blotchy? This was the warning that the man was not exempt from old age.

The third divine messenger was a man or woman gravely ill, and the fourth was a criminal punished by torture and decapitation. The fifth was a swollen, rotting corpse. Each of these messengers were sent by Yama to warn the man to be more careful with his thoughts, words, and deeds, and each was ignored. The man was then subjected to the torments of various hells—not suggested reading for the faint of heart—and the sutta makes clear that the man's own actions, not Yama, determined the punishment.

Yama in Mahayana Buddhism

Although Yama is lord of hell he himself is not exempt from its torments. In some Mahayana stories, Yama and his generals drink molten metal to punish themselves for overseeing punishment.

In Tibetan Buddhist myth, once there was a holy man meditating in a cave. He had been told that if he meditated for fifty years, he would enter Nirvana. However, on the night of the forty-ninth year, eleventh month, and twenty-ninth day, robbers entered the cave with a stolen bull, and they cut off the bull's head. When they realized the holy man had seen them, the robbers cut off his head also.

The enraged and possibly not-so-holy man put on the bull's head and assumed the terrible form of Yama. He killed the robbers, drank their blood, and threatened all of Tibet. The Tibetans appealed to Manjusri, Bodhisattva of Wisdom, to protect them. Manjusri assumed the wrathful form of Yamantaka and, after a long and fierce battle, defeated Yama. Yama then became a dharmapala, a protector of Buddhism.

Yama is portrayed several different ways in tantric iconography. He nearly always has a bull's face, a crown of skulls and a third eye, although occasionally he is depicted with a human face. He is depicted in a variety of poses and with a variety of symbols, representing different aspects of his role and his powers.

Although Yama is frightening, he is not evil. As with many wrathful iconic figures, his role is to frighten us to pay attention to our lives—and the divine messengers—so that we practice diligently.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Yama - Buddhist Icon of Hell and Impermanence." Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, learnreligions.com/yama-buddhist-icon-of-hell-and-impermanence-450163. O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 25). Yama - Buddhist Icon of Hell and Impermanence. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/yama-buddhist-icon-of-hell-and-impermanence-450163 O'Brien, Barbara. "Yama - Buddhist Icon of Hell and Impermanence." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/yama-buddhist-icon-of-hell-and-impermanence-450163 (accessed March 29, 2023).