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16th century Japanese depiction of Yama.

Yama (Sanskrit: यम) the name of the Buddhist dharmapala and judge of the dead, who presides over the Buddhist Narakas (Pāli: निरय Nirayas), "Hells" or "Purgatories". Although ultimately based on the god Yama of the Hindu Vedas, the Buddhist Yama has developed different myths and different functions from the Hindu deity. He has also spread far more widely, and is known in every country where Buddhism is practiced, including China and Japan.

Yama in Theravāda Buddhism

Yama was understood by Buddhists as a god of the dead, supervising the various Buddhist "hells". His exact role is vague in canonical texts, but is clearer in extra-canonical texts and popular beliefs, which are not always consistent with Buddhist philosophy.

In the Pali canon, the Buddha states that a person who has ill-treated their parents, ascetics, holy persons and elders is taken upon his death to Yama.[1] Yama then asks the ignoble person if he ever considered his own ill conduct in light of birth, aging, sickness, worldly retribution and death. In response to Yama's questions, such an ignoble person repeatedly answers that he failed to consider the kammic consequences of his reprehensible actions and as a result is sent to a brutal hell "so long as that evil action has not exhausted its result."[2]

In extra-canonical Pali texts, the great Theravāda scholar, Buddhaghosa, described Yama as a vimānapeta, a being in a mixed state, sometimes enjoying celestial comforts and at other times receiving the more unpleasant fruits of his kamma; however, as a king, his rule is considered just.[3]

In popular belief in Theravādin Buddhist countries, Yama sends old age, disease, punishments and other calamities among humans as warnings to behave well. When they die, they are summoned before Yama, who examines their character and dispatches them to their appropriate rebirth, whether as a human, to a heaven, or to one of the hells that Yama presides over. Sometimes there are thought to be several Yamas, each presiding over a distinct Hell. Theravāda sources sometimes speak of two Yamas or four Yamas.[4]

Yama in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese mythology

In Chinese mythology, Yan Wang (Traditional Chinese: 閻王; Simplified Chinese:阎王; Pinyin: Yán Wáng), also called Yanluo (Traditional Chinese: 閻羅; Simplified Chinese: 阎罗; Pinyin: Yánluó; Wade-Giles: Yen-lo), is the god of death and the ruler of Di Yu (Jp. Jigoku, ko. Jiok, "hell" or the underworld). The name Yanluo is a shortened Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit term Yama Rājā (Japanese: 閻魔羅社) "King Yama". In Korean, the same characters are pronounced Yomra and the deity is usually referred to as the Great King Yomra or 염라대왕 (閻羅大王). In Japan Yanluo is referred to as Emma (older Yemma) Enma 閻魔, or Emma-ō (閻魔大王 Enma Dai-Ō, "Great King Yama"). In both ancient and modern times, Yanluo is portrayed as a large man with a scowling red face, bulging eyes and a long beard. He wears traditional robes and a crown on his head that usually bears the kanji 王, which stands for "king."

Yanluo is not only the ruler but also the judge of the underworld and passes judgment on all the dead. He always appears in a male form, and his minions include a judge who holds in his hands a brush and a book listing every soul and the allotted death date for every life. Ox-Head and Horse-Face, the fearsome guardians of hell, bring the newly dead, one by one, before Yanluo for judgement. Men or women with merit will be rewarded good future lives, or even revival in their previous life. Men or women who committed misdeeds will be sentenced to torture and/or miserable future lives. The second level of Diyu was ruled by king Chiu Jang and reserved for thieves and murderers.[5]

The spirits of the dead, on being judged by Yanluo, are supposed to either pass through a term of enjoyment in a region midway between the earth and the heaven of the gods, or to undergo their measure of punishment in Naraka, the nether world, situated somewhere in the southern region. After this time they may return to Earth in new bodies.

Yanluo is considered to be an office or bureaucratic post, rather than an individual god. There were said to be cases in which an honest mortal was rewarded the post of Yanluo, and served as the judge and ruler of the underworld.

In his capacity as judge, Yanluo is normally depicted wearing a Chinese judge's cap in Chinese and Japanese art. Yanluo sometimes appears on Chinese Hell Bank Notes.

Yama in Tibetan Buddhism

In Tibet, Yama (Tibetan gshin.rje) was both regarded with horror as the prime mover of saṃsāra, and revered as a guardian of spiritual practice. In the popular mandala of the Bhavacakra, all of the realms of life are depicted between the jaws, or in the arms of a monstrous Yama. Yama is sometimes shown with a consort, Yami.

Another elaboration of the concept of Yama in Tibetan Vajrayāna Buddhism was as Yamāntaka – i.e. Yama-Antaka, meaning Yama-Death or "Death's Death".

The following story describes the relationship between Yama and Yamāntaka:

A holy man was told that if he meditated for the next 50 years, he would achieve enlightenment. The holy man meditated in a cave for 49 years, 11 months and 29 days, until he was interrupted by two thieves who broke in with a stolen bull. After beheading the bull in front of the hermit, they ignored his requests to be spared for but a few minutes, and beheaded him as well. In his near-enlightened fury, this holy man became Yama, the god of Death, took the bull's head for his own, and killed the two thieves, drinking their blood from cups made of their skulls. Still enraged, Yama decided to kill everyone in Tibet. The people of Tibet, fearing for their lives, prayed to the bodhisattva |Mañjuśrī, who took up their cause. He transformed himself into Yamāntaka, similar to Yama but ten times more powerful and horrific. In their battle, everywhere Yama turned, he found infinite versions of himself. Mañjuśrī as Yamāntaka defeated Yama, and turned him into a protector of Buddhism. He is generally considered a wrathful deity.

Yama in culture

  • "Enma face" (閻魔顔 Enma-gao) is a Japanese idiom used to describe someone with a fearsome face.
  • "If you lie, Lord Enma will pull out your tongue" (嘘をつくと閻魔さまに舌を抜かれる) is a superstition often told to scare Japanese children into telling the truth.
  • A Japanese kotowaza states "When borrowing, the face of a jizō; when repaying (a loan), the face of Enma" (借りる時の地蔵顔、返す時の閻魔顔). Jizō is typically portrayed with a serene, happy expression whereas Enma is typically portrayed with a thunderous, furious expression. The kotowaza alludes to changes in people's behaviour for selfish reasons depending on their circumstances.
  • Saimyō-ji, a Shingi Shingon Buddhist temple in Mashiko, Tochigi, Tochigi Prefecture, Japan, is the only temple where one can see a statue of a laughing Enma.


  1. See, for example, MN 130 (Nanamoli & Bodhi, 2001, pp. 1029-36) and AN 3.35 (Nyanaponika & Bodhi, 1999, pp. 51-3), both of which are entitled, "Devaduta Sutta" (The Divine Messengers).
  2. Nanamoli & Bodhi (2001), p. 1032.
  3. Buddhaghosa states this in his commentary to the Majjhima Nikaya (Nanamoli & Bodhi, 2001, p. 1341, n. 1206).
  4. According to Nanamoli & Bodhi (2001), p. 1341 n. 1206, the Majjhima Nikaya Atthakatha states that "there are in fact four Yamas, one at each of four gates (of hell?)." [The paranthetical expression is by Bodhi.]


  • Nanamoli, Bhikkhu & Bodhi,Bhikkhu (2001). The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-072-X.
  • Nyanaponika Thera & Bodhi, Bhikkhu (1999). Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. ISBN 0-7425-0405-0.
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Yama (Buddhism and Chinese mythology). The list of authors can be seen in the page history.