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(Information provided by Janine Donnellan)
Yama is the lord of death in Hinduism, first recorded in the Vedas. In Vedic tradition Yama was considered to have been the first mortal who died and espied the way to the celestial abodes, and in virtue of precedence he became the ruler of the departed. In some passages, however, he is already regarded as the god of death. Yama's name can be interpreted as the restrainer, it is he who keeps mankind in check. He is pictured as a green man in read clothing riding either a black bull or a buffalo. He holds a loop with which he pulls the soul from the body of the deceased.
Initially Yama was to preside in heaven, where he ruled over the dead. But toward the close of the Vedic period sinister traits began to appear in him, and they grew stronger with time. Yama then became the god of death and the lord of Hell. Prayers are offered to Yama for longevity and deliverance from recurring deaths. Yama also grants release from asanaya (hunger). In many rituals of ancestor worship, oblations are offered to Yama with prayers for averting recurring deaths. In the Ghyasutras, oblations are offered to Yama's men, presumably his associates, in the realm of the dead.
Yama is assisted by Chitragupta who is assigned with the task of keeping complete records of actions of human beings on the earth, and upon their death, deciding as regards sending them to the heaven or the hell, depending on their actions on the earth (Karma). This aspect of cooperation is very similar to that of the relationship between Thoth and Maat in Egyptian Mythology.
Whenever a person died, he arrived in Yama's kingdom where Yama determined the biology and circumstances of his next life based on the karmic balance sheet maintained by his accountant Chitragupta. According to the myth Yama rides a buffalo, that is moving slowly but surely and single-mindedly towards us from the moment we are born. The distance between the Yama's buffalo and us is determined by the karmic balance sheet in Yama's hand. Ultimately, his noose will claim us. We will die. All of us. King or beggar. Yama carries out his duty so impersonally that he is renowned as Dharma, god of righteous conduct, too.
Yama ensures the cycle of rebirths rotates in a determined rhythm in the Hindu world. Buddhists and Jains also believe in the cycle of rebirths though the details vary. All three believe it is possible to break free from the cycle of rebirths through devotion according to Hindus, meditation according to Buddhists and austerity according to Jains. This leads to the Hindu moksha, the Buddhist nirvana and the Jain kaivalya.
Yama is also the lord of justice and is sometimes referred to as Dharma, in reference to his unswerving dedication to maintaining order and adherence to harmony. It is said that he is also one of the wisest of the devas.