Yama is the Hindu god of death, king of ancestors, and final judge on the destination of souls. He is also known as the ‘Restrainer’, Pretaraja or ‘King of Ghosts’, Dharmaraja or ‘King of Justice’, and as Daksinasapati is considered the regent of the South Quarter. Due to his responsibility for good decision-making based on records of a person’s deeds, the god is particularly associated with the rule of law.
Unlike most gods of the dead and the underworld in other cultures or mythologies, Yama is not always described as a punisher of the wicked. The god is feared by some, though, especially because of his two great hounds. These fearsome creatures have four eyes and they guard the path which the dead must take to reach Yama. The dogs are sometimes sent to the world of the living in order to beckon souls to Yama.
In other versions, a bird performs this duty, calling the dead to the god’s city of Yamapura, deep in the murky underworld. In yet another version, Agni, the Hindu god of fire and son of Yama and Yami, leads the dead to Yama.
When souls arrive in Yama’s Kalici palace, they are first met by Yama’s porter Vaidhyata and then two attendants Kalapurusa and Chanda usher them to an audience with the great god. First, their worldly deeds are read out by Yama’s scribe Citragupta, who consults a massive register, the Agrasandhani. Based on this evidence Yama sits on his throne of judgement and considers the three options he has at his disposal.
The first and best is to be given immortality by drinking soma and sent to live forevermore with the wise and saintly pitrs or Manes, to whom Yama is king. Here the good will enjoy eternal happiness and shine as stars in the celestial heavens. The second option is to be sent back into the world and be reborn in order to, as it were, have another go at leading a good life, although not necessarily as a human. The third and worst option is to be sent down into the 21 levels of hell; the lower the level, the worse the punishment.