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47 Yama and Yami

Yama and Yami

Yama is the Hindu God of Death - Mrityu. But unlike other cultures, religions etc. it is interesting that he has precious little in the overall mind-scape of a religious Hindu. The apathy is intriguing. He is not worshiped, which may be understood at some level. But he is not even feared or dreaded - unlike other cultures where Death has a great deal to do with the doctrine of fear or retribution. Yama is not an object of terror. Now how is that?

There are hardly any temples of Yama - except a few in South India. At least you don't find one in the famous teerthas or clusters of temples. There are no specific rituals, or pujas assigned to him. Apart from Vata-Savitri that is usually followed in Maharashtra and South India, Yama does not come in the top-of-mind recall in terms of deities.

And all this, in spite of his prominent role in the epic Mahabharata. Not only is the main protagonist - Yudhishthira Dharmaraja - Yama's son, there is also the speculation that Vidura was Yama's incarnation. And who can forget the dog that follows Yudhishthira when he reaches heaven? In spite of all of this, Yama is largely ignored in the normal spiritual course.

Even in terms of his character, the boundaries sometimes get blurred between Yama and some other deities. Case in point is his brother Shani, who is also one of the Adityas. In terms of appearance, both Shani and Yama are dark in color, wearing golden clothes, fierce and with red eyes. Both are supposed to judge people based on their deeds. Of course, Shani does the judgement in the same life, while you have to wait till you die to hear Yama's verdict and suffer the consequence in the next life.

Shani and Yama
Even Yama's 'pasha' (noose) was originally attributed to an earlier Vedic god, another Aditya - Varuna. It was initially Varuna's job to drag the people to their deaths and take them to nether-land. It is only after Yama - being the first mortal to die - followed the path to the world of the dead, that he was granted the rule of the departed, and Varuna's job of guiding people to the land of the dead was assigned to Yama and his minions called 'yamadoots' - who are basically those souls who have passed many years in hell and have not descendants (see earlier discussion about 'Put').

In Rig Veda, sometimes the characters of Agni - the messenger between men and gods - and Yama overlap. In some cases, Agni is called Yama's priest. While in some cases, both are considered to be the carriers of the dead.

Yama is known to general public through the story of Savitri and Satyavan, in which Savitri follows her dead husband Satyavan being taken away by Yama, and Yama - pleased with her devotion - grants her wishes that brings her husband back to life.

The story of Yama's birth is mentioned in the Rig Veda. He is supposed to be the twin brother of Yami and a son of Vivasvat (sometimes overlapped with Surya) and Saranyu, who is the daughter of Tvastri (the 'heavenly builder' or maker of great weapons). But this would mean that he is no longer an Aditya, as Vivasvat himself is an Aditya - son of Aditi from Kashyapa.

Vivasvat is also considered to be father of Manu, the first mortal to be born. Unless Manu and Yama are the same - both are first to be born and are rulers of the earth when alive - this story has some major overlaps. Generally the sources consider these two as brothers.

Although Yama is at least spoken of and known as the god of the departed souls, his twin sister Yami has probably gone completely out of radar - apart from the namesake North Indian river Yamuna and the fourth day of Diwali - the Bhai dooj or Bhau beej or also called Yama Dwitiya - where the brother-sister bond is celebrated in India.

As Yama was the first man, Yami is supposed to be the first woman. Although they are siblings, in some texts, they are depicted as married to each other. Yami seems to have a great strength of character, but unfortunately not much is known of her. 

After Yama died, Yami was grief-stricken and lost all track of time. During this time, there was no night, only daytime. In order for Yami to know the passage of time, the gods are supposed to have created night. Yami understood that the time was passing due to the play of night and day, and slowly came to her senses and recovered from her sorrow.

Yama is considered the king of pitras (basically dead people, taking all technicalities in account - see here for a discussion on pitras). He is also a Lokapala (one of the four guardians of the cardinal directions), and is the regent of the South. He is supposed to reside, along with his sister-wife Yami, in Pitra-loka - one of the nether lands, along with his agents the Yamadoots. 

The exact location of Pitra-loka is a matter of debate. Some say it is the moon, but the general consensus is that it is somewhere 'down below'. However this one does not get counted in the seven Patalas - maybe it is the 3rd or 4th of them.

Since his main task is to decide the fate of every dying soul, Yama needs someone to keep detailed accounts of all the good deeds (punya) and bad ones (paap) of all living beings. This mammoth task is ably managed by his personal accountant Chitragupta, who is Lord Brahma's son born directly out of  his body.

In Katha Upanishad, Yama has a much larger role and comes across as the transmitter of knowledge. The boy Nachiketa travels to nether-land and awaits Yama. When Yama returns, Nachiketa asks him what happens to people when they die. Yama, after some initial reservations, asks Nachiketa to sit beside him and launches into a detailed discourse on some of the most profound philosophical and meta-physical discussions. Hence the name 'Upanishad' - lit. sitting beside.

In the story of Markandeya, Lord Shiva protects his devotee Markandeya from being taken away by Yama (see here for the story). And thus, while Yama is usually called Kala (Time), Shiva is considered Maha-kala, or Kalantaka (someone who ends the Time) and also Mrityunjaya (conquerer of death).

Stories like this - that of Markandeya for Shiva and another one of Ajamila for Vishnu - are meant to underline their superiority over Yama. But even otherwise, there is no reason to fear or appease Yama. And the reason for that is the dispassionate nature of Yama. All other gods love it when you worship them - like Vishnu getting happy even when the evil man Ajamila inadvertently calls out Vishnu's name (actually, as the story goes, he is only calling out to his son named Narayana, but since Vishnu is also called by that name, Ajamila achieves salvation or 'moksha'). The gods get angry if you do something wrong. There are numerous examples of these.

But Yama does not get mad if you do something wrong. He does not get pleased if you try and appease him with worship. There is no punishment for you have been naughty or egoistic in front of him.  In his role of the guardian of justice (loosely, 'Dharma'), he goes on imparting judgments based on your account balance - paap and punya - like a dispassionate judge. There are no emotions here, and so there is no appeasement.

Also, there is nothing to appeal here. If your balance is negative (more paap), you will go to Naraka (hell). Even if your balance is positive, you will go to Swarga (heaven) - which is still part of samsara, which means that you are still stuck with the cycle of rebirth. The very fact that Yama's agents brought you in front of Yama's seat of judgement means that you have no other choice. The only escape - moksha - is by escaping the Yamadoots, and that is through various practices - like yoga etc. - for which Yama does not get involved anyway.

And this dispassionate nature is the key difference between the two brothers Shani and Yama. Shani gets angry, and when he does, you better prepare for seven terrible years of your life. And so you see Shani temples mushrooming all across the country, with devotees queuing up to appease the angry and vengeful god. 

Yama, on the other hand, simply reads out your deeds and pushes you in the direction that is inevitable. This is perhaps the reason Yama is not an ishta-devata (god of worship), because there is no so-called benefit in worshiping him. Or are there?


New Delhi
03 October 2013


Unknown said…
Please translate in telugu,thank you!!
Wandering Nomad said…
I’m sorry @Unknown but I don’t have the language skills. Let me know if anyone else can.