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Yama was the first man to die, a dubious honor for which he received the consolation of being granted dominion over the lands of the dead; he is properly addressed as "Lord Yama". He judges the dead based on the life histories read to him by Chitragupta. He may sentence a soul to one of three fates: the reward of a heavenly afterlife; punishment in one of the twenty one hells; or a return to earthly life, with all its sorrows, sufferings, and struggles towards perfection.

Yama wears red robes, runs in the company of a pair of spotted dogs, and rides a black buffalo with unspeakable tastes for women. Tibetan Buddhists revere him as a Dharmapata (protector of the faith). When visiting these high vallies, Yama sports a bull's head, flaming hair, and a club, presumably for bashing in the skulls of infidels and other unfriendly temple visitors.