Yama: The First Man

Yama is one of the most enigmatic gods known to man. He is venerated in various religious traditions across the Asian continent, from Iran all the way to Japan. To Hindus he is king of the Underworld. According to Buddhists he judges the dead. The Persians know him as one of their first kings and the Nuristani people see him as the Creator of the world and mankind. Who is this mysterious Yama? In this post I will highlight the role of Yama in various religious traditions in an attempt to trace the ultimate origin of this deity.

A Hindu depiction of Yama riding on a buffalo --- British Museum, London
A Hindu depiction of Yama riding on a buffalo — British Museum, London

Yama in Hinduism
Yama is first attested in the Rigveda. The Rigveda is a collection of ceremonial texts composed among the Indo-Aryan tribes living in the Punjab region around 1400 to 1200 BC. According to the Rigveda Yama was the son of the sun god Vivasvat. He was the first mortal man and he had a twin sister/lover named Yami (Rigveda 10.10). It is said that Yama leads men to ‘lofty heights’, that he ‘shows the way to many’, and that he ‘first found a place for us to dwell in, a pasture that can never be taken from us’ (Rigveda 10:14). All these phrases are ways of saying that he was the first man to die and cross over to the spirit realm. Since he was the first one to make the Great Journey, the Vedic Aryans used to pray to Yama, asking him to guide their beloved departed to a peaceful abode in the Otherworld. Yama’s cult in the Rigveda appears to be very close to ancestor worship, which is an ancient religious practice that can be found all around the world. In later Hindu tradition Yama became a ‘regular’ king of the Underworld; a role similar to Greek Hades and Egyptian Osiris. In later Hinduism the Underworld is presented as an underground realm where spirits await their reincarnation, but during the Rigvedic period concepts like an underground realm of the dead and reincarnation may not have been fully developed yet.

Yama in Zoroastrian tradition
Yama also appears in the Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrians. To be precise, he is mentioned in the Yashts, a collection of ceremonial texts highly similar to the Rigveda. The Yashts were composed among the Eastern Iranian tribes of present day Afghanistan somewhere between 1000 and 400 BC. In the Yashts Yama is known as Yima Xshaeta, which means ‘radiant Yima’. The epithet ‘radiant’ hints at his identity as son of the sun god. He is again described as being the son of Vivanhat (compare Vivasvat), but Vivanhat’s original identity as a sun god is not articulated in the Yashts. In the Yashts Yima Xshaeta is literally referred to as a ‘good shepherd’ who ‘ruled over daeva’s and men’ and who ushered in a Golden Age with plenty of food and a pleasant climate. However, eventually the divine Glory departed from him and he, along with the Golden Age that he had brought about, died. In later Persian tradition Yima Xshaeta is presented more and more as a mighty earthly king, a shahanshah comparable to the Sasanids or the Achaemenids. From the Sasanid period on Yima Xshaeta, whose name had been bastardized to Jamshid, was seen as a fully human king. He was also considered to be the builder of Persepolis, which is named Takht-e Jamshid (Throne of Jamshid) to this day.

Yama in Buddhist tradition
In Hindu tradition Yama became more godlike. He too was a king, but he ruled over the Underworld. In many religious traditions the Underworld is seen as a place where departed spirits are judged for their actions in life. The Hindus believed in a natural order known as the Dharma and whosoever would transgress against this Dharma with his actions would bring about corrective reactions, known as Karma. Initially it was believed that most Karma would be meted out in this life. However, since there are obviously many evil actions that go unpunished in this life, the Hindus developed the idea that spirits would have to be purified in one of seven hells (Naraka) before they could be reborn into another body. This idea was also adopted by Buddhism and eventually became canonized. Because of this belief in judgement after dead the king of the underworld, Yama, became the judge of mankind. In Buddhist tradition Yama is presented as a wrathful god who demands retribution for every transgression. He is ofter depicted as a terrifying monster with blue or green skin who oversees the torture of lost spirits. Along with Buddhism, the veneration of Yama spread all the way to East and Southeast Asia.

A Buddhist depiction of Yama from Tibet --- Metropolitan Museum of Art
A Buddhist depiction of Yama from Tibet — Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Yama in Nuristani tradition
Although not much is known about the pre-Islamic religion of the Nuristani people, we do know that their most important deity was named Imra, which is cognate to Sanskrit Yama Raja. Imra is venerated as the Creator of this world and mankind. He also has a darker counterpart named Mara, or Death. Imra-Mara thus appears to represent the cycle of creation and destruction. Rather than presenting creation and destruction as opposing forces, like the Zoroastrians do, the Nuristani present the two as an organic whole. Like Rigvedic Yama, Imra is associated with Death and he too has a twin counterpart. However, Imra’a obviously has a much more important role in the religion of the Nuristanis than Yama has in the Rigveda. The question to be answered is: “Is the veneration of Yama as the Creator a reflection of his role in proto-Indo-Iranian religion, or is it a Nuristani innovation?”

The ultimate origins of Yama
Let us now put together the pieces of the puzzle. We will focus on the Rigveda and the Avesta, since these are the oldest independent texts in which Yama is mentioned, and on Nuristani tradition. We will disregard later Hindu, Buddhist and Persian traditions, since they contain many innovations. As stated earlier, the Rigvedic cult of Yama appears to be a form of ancestor worship. Yama’s task is to guide spirits to a peaceful abode in the spirit realm. Note that the Rigveda does not depict the spirit realm as a huge cave beneath the earths crust filled with lava lakes, but more like another dimension that exists alongside this one. This idea of the Otherworld is also current in Celtic mythology and even in early Greek mythology. Odysseus, for instance, doesn’t descend into the Underworld, as is often claimed, but crosses a river at the western edge of the world and performs a ritual to summon the spirits of departed heroes. All in all, Yama’s cult appears to have ancient proto-Indo-Iranian and maybe even proto-Indo-European roots. The Rigveda sheds light on the almost shamanistic nature of proto-Indo-Iranian religion, with its ancestor worship, its use of psychedelic drugs (soma) and its veneration of natural elements like fire, water, the sky and the earth. In Avestic tradition Yama, or Yima, was still venerated as a noble ancestor, but his association with the spirit realm had diminished. Instead, the focus was more on his actions in life. As for the Nuristani tradition, it appear that their Imra has preserved more elements of the original, proto-Indo-Iranian Yama than the Avestic tradition. However, the depiction of Imra’a as the Creator of the world and mankind is not known among other Indo-Iranian peoples and since we cannot be sure how old this belief is, it is safest to assume that it was an innovation. The ancestors of the Nuristani’s probably did hold Yama in high regard and over time more and more attributes were ascribed to him until he was promoted to the position of Creator.

Further reading
An interesting but almost antique book on Yama and the ‘First Man’ archetype in general is Arthur Christensen’s Les Types Du Premier Homme Et Du Premier Roi (1917). For more information on Nuristani religion I recommend this article by Nick Allen. If you want to read the Vedic and Avestic texts themselves, you can order them here and here.