Encounters with Yama, the Deity of Death

The 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen said once, “birth and death are the everyday practice of the Buddhist Way.” Today, someone dies every 15 seconds from Covid 19, that is 250 people per hour and 5,900 per day, according to Reuters Press. The statistical evidence is staggering. On our hand-held screens, laptops, and desktops the sheer numbers show up daily. But Dogen’s maxim is not an invitation toward data driven calculation, nor to remain an aloof witness to the parade of birth and death, but rather, whole-heartedly, to experience it directly.

For students of yoga and anyone who inquires into the magnum mysterium, a brush with death through some circumstantial event, in a dream, or standing at a hospital bedside, serves to amplify the experience of living. Bearing witness to death heightens appreciation for life.

The sister science of yoga, Ayurveda, is used to help vivify and sustain life. Ayur means life and veda means knowledge, and thus Ayurveda with its tinctures, herbal concoctions, and dietary regulation is medicine to prolong life. If Ayurveda is the study of life, then yoga is the discipline of death. This is most evident in the story of Nachiketas, the protagonist in the narrative of the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, a young boy around age 14, who is sent to the Deity of Death, Yama, to receive instruction on yoga. In the way that the profound quiescence gained through śavāsana guides the yogi toward letting go, death becomes the teacher. Śavāsana is the last pose, outside all other poses. For those who make a spiritual pilgrimage in this lifetime, the guru, the guide, the shaman, the witch, stands on the margin outside the city gates and direct encounter with a borderline figure is essential for transformation on the path. Nachiketas is sent to death and finds himself in a liminal bardo, akin to the Roman Catholic purgatory, and he is made to wait on the threshold of death’s door for three days, because Yama is busy out on the town making his rounds (surely Yama today, like the remarkable, “diehard” frontline pandemic workers face-to-face with Covid 19, is working OT). 

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