It was interesting to watch the Parliamentary debate on TV on March 9, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi likened the Congress party to Death, and wondered aloud why no blame ever accrued to either? Why was it that mortals blamed age, illness or accidents – but never death – for taking away their dear ones? Why indeed?

If the myths in the Rig Veda and Puranas are to be believed (who can dare say now that they can’t?), the prime minister may unknowingly have paid a great compliment to the party of his arch-rivals. You see, the deity Yama, who symbolises death, comes from powerful, Vedically-established parentage. Yama and his twin sister Yami are the children of Vivasvat, the rising sun, and Saranyu, the goddess of clouds, who was the daughter of Tvashtri, the great engineer among the gods.

According to the Vedas, Yami urged her brother to cohabit with her and found the human race. This, we are told, Yama did grudgingly. As the first among fathers, Yama then became an explorer who discovered the path of the fathers (pitri), a secret route that led the dead to heaven.

Yama the explorer

Having discovered the path to immortality in the manner of all great explorers and pioneers, Yama chose to be the first mortal to die and travel the arduous road leading to heaven. As the king of the dead, thereafter, he saw to it that those who followed him did not have to traverse the difficult terrain he had to. For this, he took the help of Agni, the fire god. Agni reduced imperfect and soiled human bodies to ashes, enabling purified souls to easily go up in smoke to be reunited in heaven with those who had preceded them. There, Yama treated them to draughts of soma, a sacred drink that conferred immortality upon all souls, and they lived in perpetual bliss.

However, not all were deemed good enough to be included in the soma drinking party. Death was also an astute judge of mortals. Yama is also known as Dharma Raj or the lord of dharma, whose pet pigeon, owl and dogs roam the earth to sniff out moral flaws to report back to their master. Yama’s assistant Chitragupta and his band of clerks maintain a logbook of all entrants to their realm. Those found guilty of flouting moral law or Ṛta laid down by Varuna are summarily cast into the nether regions, a realm of darkness called Put, or sent to several other chambers of torture that have been immortalised by the print makers of the Gita Press of Gorakhpur with darkness of the kind seen in the bleak works of the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya.

Among holy epics, Death looms large over the saga of the great fratricidal war of the Mahabharata. As Dharma Raj, Death is believed to have sired Kunti’s eldest son Yudhishthir, a symbol of unwavering support of what is right and just during the awesome war and its tragic aftermath. Like his father, Yudhishthir finally quit the throne of blood and led his Pandava brothers to the Himalayas towards penance and death. In the South, popular myths associated with Draupadi, the common wife of the Pandavas, also reveal Yama’s awesome powers of distributing justice to all who have suffered. Death’s boon of dark, lustrous and indestructible hair to Draupadi – who vowed to wash her locks with the blood of relatives who had insulted her in public – launched the 18-day fratricidal war between the Pandavas and Kauravas. In her temples even today, Draupadi is worshipped as a symbol of a wronged woman’s long and unceasing quest for justice and revenge.

Yama has the last word

The ownership of heaven is a tantalising prospect. So in time, several rivals to Yama’s heaven came up. For instance, Indra’s heaven – where his son Arjuna was received with fanfare – was provided additional recreation by beautiful Apsaras or angels, their husbands, the Gandharvas, and other heroes and warriors proficient in martial arts.

As Indra the philanderer and martial arts expert drew souls to his heaven, Yama’s role as lord of justice was slowly overshadowed. Meanwhile sinfulness grew under new regimes. Yama now came to be seen as a figure of terror – shown roaming on the back of a buffalo with a noose or pasha and mace. As moral decay became more pronounced and both jurisprudence and Raj Dharma or the duty of rulers became more complex, the figure of Yama – the philosopher who explained the meaning of life and death to young boy Nachiketa – came to be diluted. Yama was now associated more and more with a somewhat vulgar image of a green-skinned rider of a buffalo, roaming the mortal regions dressed in red and carrying a list of those whose time had come to wake up and smell the fire of hell. With this, the original form of Death as a fearless pathfinder-cum-philosopher, who presided over the abode of the fathers by meting out justice and peace, became obsolete.

But despite the general acceptance of the idea of metempsychosis or rebirth according to karma or the belief that one’s destiny is created by actions in a previous life, several old ideas stayed with Yama. Prime among them was that Yama recorded all sins and made mortals pay for them. Those who have a few good deeds noted against their names may expect Death to permit a temporary respite for them in Indra’s heaven. But ultimately, whether they want to or not, all shall serve the time allotted by Yama’s clerks in hell.

And yes, since Raj Dharma, as a calling, forces humans to commit some injustices, all kings must submit to a vision of hell before being considered worthy of being escorted to heaven. Hence India still prefers to blame not Death, but a result of one’s own karma as unerringly recorded in Yama’s great public register of justice.