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There are many countries where Buddhism is predominantly practiced by people including Japan, China, Korea, Bhutan, Vietnam, Myanmar, Mongolia, Taiwan, and Thailand. This religion encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs, philosophies, and spiritual practices that are largely based on the teachings of Lord Buddha. Some of them have their roots connected to the principles of Sanatan Dharma or Hinduism.

According to the concept of Buddhism, there is an authoritative person, known as Yama, who is the king of hell and represents death. He is described as a fierce and wrathful man having a scowling red face, long and sharp teeth, and bulging eyes. It is believed that when a person dies in this material world, he is summoned before Yama who then examines his karmas, and based on that, he either sends him to the heavenly planet or punishes him in the hell where he personally presides. In Hinduism, a similar concept is believed in by practitioners. In the Vedic tradition, ‘Yamaraja’ is revered as a powerful lord responsible for the dispensation of punishment of sinners in his abode known as ‘Yamaloka’. Different people have different views and interpretations of Yama according to their traditional beliefs.

Yama In Chinese and Japanese Mythology

In Chinese Mythology, Yama is known by the name ‘Yanluo’ or ‘Yanluo Wang’, while in Japan, he is known as ‘Enma’, which means “Great King Yama”. He is revered as the lord of death and the ruler of Di Yu (hell or the underworld). Yanluo is portrayed as a large man having horrifying features. He wears traditional robes, has a long beard and mustache, and has a Chinese judge’s cap or a crown on his head which represents the position of a king. He always appears in a male form and is accompanied by several ministers working under his dictatorship. One of them is a judge who holds a brush and a book in his hands listing every soul with their allotted time of death. All the guardians of hell bearing an Ox-Head and Horse-Face bring the souls who have left their bodies before Yanluo for judgment one by one. The spirits of the dead, on being judged by Yanluo Wang, are either elevated to a region between the earth and heavens of Gods to enjoy or are transferred to hell to undergo severe punishments according to their past misdeeds. Both locations are temporary, and after having enjoyed or punished, the souls get new bodies and return to Earth.


In the Japanese concept, Enma is described as a powerful person with a face having a furious expression. Japanese children are often scared into always speaking the truth by telling them “If you lie, Lord Enma will put out your tongue”. He is regarded as one of the twelve deities or Devas, a group of protective Dharmapalas. The other eleven Deities are Indra (Taishaku-ten), Agni (Ka-ten), Yama (Emma-ten), Nirrti (Rasetsu-ten), Vayu (Fu-ten), Ishana (Ishana-ten), Kubera (Tamon-ten), Varuna (Sui-ten), Brahma (Bon-ten), Prithvi (Chi-ten), Surya (Nit-ten), Chandra (Gat-ten).

Yama In Tibetan Buddhism

In Tibetan Buddhism, Yama, also known as Kalarupa, is revered as the defender of Dharma (Dharmapala) and although he appears frightening, he is not evil. He is often depicted in a variety of poses as having a Bull’s face, bulging three red eyes, two sharp horns on his head entwined with fire and a crown of skulls, and his face filled with wrath. In his right hand, he holds a stick with a skull on top, while in his left hand, he has a lasso (a loop of rope). He is also conceptualized as the prime mover of repeated birth and death. In many depictions, he is shown with his consort Chamundi, or his sister Yami. He stands on a recumbent bull crushing a man. He is considered a righteous and fair king whose role is to frighten people of this world to be careful in their thoughts, desires, and deeds. Thus, he is the guardian of spiritual practice and the judge and ruler of the underworld. He imposes decisions on the dead who indulge in misdeeds. According to Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, his main duty is to watch over the purgatorial aspects of hell and has no relation to rebirth.


Yama In The Pali Canon

Pali Canon is the collection of scriptures of the oldest Buddhist tradition (Theravada Buddhism) compiled in the Pali language. According to the description of Yama in the Pali Canon, he does not judge the souls brought before him, rather, it is the reactions of their own karmas that decide their next destination after death. Lord Buddha states that a person who ill-treats their parents, elders, holy persons, or elders and does not consider the consequences of such acts is sent to a brutal hell. The punishable souls reside there for a finite length of time until the result of their accumulated karma is exhausted. In the Majjhima Nikaya, a Buddhist scripture, Yama is described as a Vimanpeta, a being who sometimes enjoys the comforts of celestial planets and at other times is punished for his own karma.


In many Buddhist traditional arts, Yama is depicted as a wrathful being holding the wheel of life or Samsara, known as “Bhavachakra” in his hands and between the jaws. It represents the cycle of birth and death and the impermanence of this world. The innermost circle of the wheel has a pig, a rooster, and a snake that represent the three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and envy. The second layer represents Karma. The third layer represents the six realms of samsara. The fourth layer represents twelve links of dependent origination indicating how the three poisons and Karma are the sources of sufferings in material existence. Yama holding the wheel represents the impermanence of this world; it is constantly changing. The moon above the wheel represents liberation from the cycle of birth and death, and the Buddha pointing to it indicates that liberation from this existence is possible.


The King of the underworld, Yama, remains a revered deity in Buddhism. His chief role is to capture the souls who have sinned. Described and depicted as a wrathful god, he is the enlightened protector of Dharma. He sends different calamities among humans to warn them to pay attention to their actions. Yama plays an important role in reminding us that this world is a temporary place and that everyone should endeavor to come out of the cycle of repeated births and deaths. As long as we remain in this samsara, we will always be conditioned to diseases, old age, and death. Due to ignorance and attachment, we are misled by worldly desires and being engaged in materialistic activities, the living entity entangles himself in the cycle of fruitive reactions or results. However, after attaining liberation, we are no longer subject to the miseries of this world. Those who are engaged in spiritual practices are not approached by Yama when they leave their body.

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