King Yama and the Proto Indo-European Yemo

This is a video I found recently by a scholar who studies the earliest Indo-European mythology. In Buddhist studies, we seem often to study our texts as though they exist in a dislocated bubble outside of an historical context. We often think of the later history interfering with our understanding, which has led to early Buddhist studies. But early Buddhism arose out of a prehistory, and this is one small example. The Buddhist King Yama, who functions mainly as the divine judge who consigns sinners to hell, most likely is the vestige of an older mythical figure who was called Yemo. He appears in various sources discussed in the video below.

Lord of the Dead and King of the Underworld - The Indo European God of the Dead in Myth and Folklore


Awesome, thanks so much! He even gives actual references.

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His summary of the Indo-Iranian material is a bit hit-and-miss.
A better presentation (with references) can be read here: JAMŠID i. Myth of Jamšid – Encyclopaedia Iranica


Which EBTs indicate this Buddhist King Yama?

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The most prominent myth of King Yama in Buddhist EBTs that I know of is that of the heavenly messengers in which Yama interrogates a sinner who has recently died. In Pali, this story is found in AN 3.36 and MN 130. This is the Buddhist adaptation of King Yama from the Vedas. It’s very late in terms of mythology, though, after he’s been made the ruler of hell. Originally, the place people went after they died was a paradise, like the way Uttarakuru is described in Buddhist texts. So, he’s been separated from that and made into a judge deity by later Buddhists, IMO. It would be interesting to know when hell as a place of punishment arose as an idea. It’s so grotesque and violent when described by Buddhists that it feels completely out of place. It seems like a later addition borrowed from other traditions to me. But those are just impressions I have as a translator.

There are a few more details about Yama in the Dirgha Agama that I translated this year, in chapter 4 of DA 30. It’s interesting that DA 30 places his palace in the world to the south of Jambudvipa, rather than in the Yama Heaven. That curious detail agrees with some of the non-Buddhist myths described in the video.


Thanks for the early Buddhist myths on Yama.

It may have connection with Mara, which is associated with death, rebirth and desire.