Thursday, February 10, 2011

King Yama

Color Ink Painting of King Yama

According to popular religious tradition, the Birthday of King Yama (閻羅王聖誕 Yanluo Wang Shengdan) is observed on the 8th day of the first Chinese lunar month. King Yama (閻羅王 Yanluo Wang) is a deity well known in both the Buddhist and Taoist traditions. His origin comes from Indian Vedic mythology where he is known as the lord and judge of the dead who decides the future rebirths of deceased beings based on their previous good and bad deeds while they were still alive.

King Yama of the Indian Vedic tradition, forerunner of Hinduism
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

His name and title in the Indian Sanskrit language, Yama Raja (Yama King), was phonetically transliterated into Chinese as Yanmo Luoshe (閻魔羅社), and later shortened to Yanmoluo (閻魔羅) or just Yanluo (閻羅). The Chinese character for raja (king) is wang () and it was awkwardly re-appended to the already abbreviated name resulting in his Chinese name Yanmoluo Wang (閻魔羅王), Yanluo Wang (閻羅王), or sometimes just Yan Wang (閻王).

The Buddhist tradition adopted Yama from the Indian Vedic tradition where his role was similar although the stories concerning him are different. He is mentioned in early Pali Buddhist scriptures where he is a judge of the dead and ruler of the hell realms. He is also considered a Dharmapala (protector of the Buddhist Law) and a son of heaven (天子 tianzi) in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition as well. Although it is written that those that have committed non-virtuous deeds will go to meet Yama after death to be judged by him, it is of course one’s own good and bad karma that is really the ultimate determining factor. The transmission of Indian Buddhism across East Asia introduced the concept of Yama to China where it became a belief that later became entrenched in the native Taoist religion and also popular religious culture.

The exact whereabouts of Yama’s court is admittedly a bit ambiguous and might differ slightly according to the different religious traditions in China. Originally, in the Buddhist tradition, the word “hell” was generally used to translate the original Indian Sanskrit word naraka which was rendered into Chinese as diyu (地獄 earth prison). But over time and after much inter-religious engagement in China, the Buddhist, Taoist, and popular religious concepts of hell, purgatory, the netherworld, and the afterlife have all combined to become a somewhat blurry picture in popular religious thought of where King Yama actually dwells.

In the Buddhist tradition, there are many different numbers and schemes of hells that are mentioned in different texts. However, the actual nature of the hell realms is perhaps best expressed in the Mahayana scripture called Sutra of the Fundamental Vows of Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha (地藏菩薩本願經 Dizang Pusa Benyuan Jing) which teaches the idea that the number of hells is actually endless and uncountable because all the infinite hells are merely karmic transformations that come into existence for all the different types of sinners and the immoral and negative deeds that they commit.     

Notwithstanding the teachings of traditional mainstream Buddhism, a scheme of the Ten Courts of Hell was later evolved in popular religious culture. Each court was ruled by a different “Yama King” (the name being a bureaucratic position in this case) and was for judging a different category of misdeed. The kings of the ten courts were known collectively as the Yamas of the Ten Courts/Palaces (十殿閻王 Shidian Yanwang) and they are listed as follows:

1. King Qin Guang of the 1st Court (第一殿 秦廣王)             
2. King Chu Jiang of the 2nd Court (第二殿 楚江王)
3. King Song Di of the 3rd Court (第三殿 宋帝王)
4. King Wu Guan of the 4th Court (第四殿 五官王)
5. King Yan Luo (also called Sen Luo) of the 5th Court (第五殿 閻羅王/森羅王)
6. King Bian Cheng of the 6th Court (第六殿卞城王)
7. King Tai Shan of the 7th Court (第七殿 泰山王)
8. King Du Shi of the 8th Court (第八殿 都市王)
9. King Ping Deng of the 9th Court (第九殿 平等王)
10. King Zhuan Lun of the 10th Court (第十殿 轉輪王)
It should be noted that the king of the 5th court, King Yan Luo (Yanluo) is the original King Yama at the beginning of our discussion. There is also an alternate tradition that says King Yama is the leader of all the ten kings, and not just the king of the fifth court.

King Yama (Yanluo Wang) of the 5th Court
(Image: Diagrams of the Transformation Scenes of Hell 地獄變相圖) 

May all living beings practice virtue so that they do not have to be judged by King Yama!

Text © 2011 Harry Leong

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