YAMA is the god of death and is the lord of the infernal regions visited by man after cessation of life. He is the embodiment of the rule of law and imparts justice according to deeds. The word ‘ Yama’ means the restrainer, it is he who keeps the mankind in check.
Yama’s mount is a fierce-looking black buffalo, a form, which he also adopts for himself on occasions. He has got a rope noose in one hand, by which he is supposed to catch hold of his victims and a mace in the other, which represents the weapon of punishment.
He decides what are the actions of the living beings that bear or do not bear fruits, when his messengers drag the dead before his throne. In Vedas, Yama is the First Ancestor and has the full distinction of a god. He is shown as having a fearful and grim appearance and he wears a glittering crown upon his head.
Yama is the son of VIVASAT, the embodiment of social morality, while his mother is SARANYU (clouds), who is the daughter of VISHWAKARMA, the cosmic architect. Yama’ s twin sister is YAMI, who has the greatest affection for her brother. Yami later appeared on this earth as the river YAMUNA.
As being the judge of the dead, he is said to hold a court, in which he is the presiding officer. He has another small god to assist him, who is called CHITRAGUPTA. Chitragupta is supposed to keep an account of the actions of men. If the actions of the deceased in his lifetime have been wicked, he is sent to suffer in a particular part of hell, while a man with noble deeds is sent to a part of heaven.
Yama is regent of the south quarter and as such is called DAKSHINASAPATI. His abode is named as YAMALYA on the south side of the earth and has an interesting legend around it. This account is taken from the Mahabharata. The narration is that after Brahma had created the three worlds, viz. EARTH, HEAVEN and PATAL (i.e., subterranean region), he recollected that a place for judgment and punishment of the wicked was wanting. He therefore asked the architect Vishwakarma to prepare a suitable place for this purpose. Vishwakarma prepared a magnificent palace and opposite its south door he created four pits to punish the wicked. Three other doors were reserved for the entrance of the good so that they might not see the place of punishment when they went to be judged. Brahma named this palace SANJEEVANI. Brahma ordered the architect to form a vast trench around and fill it with water, which came to be called VAITAMEE. Brahma next ordered Agni (the fire god) to enter this river so that the water might boil. After the death each person is obliged to swim across this Vaitamee river, which gives harmless passage to good souls but the evil ones have to suffer torments and pangs while crossing this river’s boiling water.
This legendary place of heaven created for Yama by Vishwakarma is 800 miles in circumference. At this place there is no fear of enemies and sorrow of mind and body is non-existent. The climate is mild and salubrious and each one is rewarded in kind according to his deeds. He who has given much in charity receives very many comforts of all kinds.
To the virtuous and to the sinner Yama appears in different forms. To the virtuous he appears to be like Vishnu. He has four arms, a dark complexion and lotus shaped eyes. His face is charming and he wears a resplendent smile. In the case of the wicked, he is seen with limbs appearing three hundred leagues long. His eyes are deep wells. His lips are thin, the color of smoke, fierce. He roars like the ocean of destruction. His hairs are gigantic reeds, his crown a burning flame. The breath from his wide nostrils blows off the forest fires. He has long teeth. His nails are like winnowing baskets. Stick in hand; clad in skins, he has a frowning brow.
Yama has three wives, called HEMA MALA (Golden Garland), SHUSHILA (Good natured one), and VIJYA (Victory). Yama has two ferocious dogs, which were born to SARAMA (The Fleet one) the bitch that guards the herds of Indra. These two dogs have four eyes each and very wide nostrils. They guard the road to Yama’ s abode and which the departed are advised to hurry past with all possible speed. These dogs are said to wander about among men as his messengers.
Numerous stories about Yama are scattered in religious books and especially Puranas abound in them. One that shows Yama in a different light and is known to every Hindu is the story of SAVITRI SATYAVAN. This story from Mahabharata has stirred popular imagination since centuries. It relates to a noble princess who remains faithful to her husband unto death and even beyond it.
There was a beautiful princess named SAVITRI. One day she met in the woods a handsome young man, named SATYAVAN who was the son of an exiled and blind king who had been living in a hut like a hermit. She fell in love with the prince and wanted to marry him. The astrologers of her father’s court warned that Satyavan was destined to die within one year. But the princess was adamant and married him. On the fixed day Yama, the god of death, himself came on the buffalo and took the soul of Satyavan. Savitri, his wife, did not beg for his soul. She was very learned and just recited the beautiful and relevant passages concerning this god from the Holy Scriptures. Yama was pleased and asked Savitri to have any boon except her husband’s life. Savitri requested god Yama to give back eyesight to Satyavan’s father. She still continued her prayers and god agreed to grant another favor. Savitri asked Yama to give back to her father-in-Law the kingdom he had lost. This favor was also granted. Yama went away holding Satyavan’s soul; Savitri too followed him. Yama agreed to grant her the third favor. Savitri replied, ‘I wish to give birth to hundred sons’. Yama, in a hurry, promised this boon without giving a second thought to its implications. Savitri immediately said, "But how can I give birth to them without my husband? ‘. Yama was caught unawares and he could no go back of his promise. He had to grant this boon also to her.
Many other such legends are related concerning this god though the wide spread image of this deity is that of a fearful rod-bearer bent on punishing for deeds or misdeeds committed during life.