Samjna, the wife of Vivasvan, the sun-god, gave birth to the Manu named Sraddhadeva, and the same fortunate wife also gave birth to the twins Yamaraja and the River Yamuna.
Yamaraja is one of the mahajanas, the twelve persons authorized to properly maintain the human civilization, including Brahma, Narada, Lord Siva and Kumara, Manu and Lord Kapila, Bhisma and Prahlada, Janaka, Bali, and Sukadeva Gosvami (Vaiyasaki).
Yamaraja is also dharma-vit. His name is Dharmarajam because he knows how to punish a person on religious principles. He is also called Antaka and Mrtyu.
Yamaraja, or Dharmaraja, as the superintendent of death, has to judge the criminal living entities who have committed sinful activities throughout their lives. Consequently Yamaraja is expected to be most expert in judicial matters. Although Yamaraja is a controller, he is only a departmental controller of a few living entities. There are other demigods who control many other departments, but above them all is one supreme controller, Krsna.
The omnipotent Yamaraja is as good as Lord Brahma, for while situated in his own abode or in everyone's heart like the Paramatma, he mentally observes the past activities of a living entity and thus understands how the living entity will act in future lives. He has the complete cooperation of the Supreme Lord, who is situated in everyone's heart, and therefore, by the grace of the Supersoul, he can see the past, present and future of a living being from within.
Yamaraja, the King of the pitas, resides in Pitrloka with his personal assistants, the Yamadutas. He has been given jurisdiction on the southern, or lower, portion of the universe, called Patala. South of Sumeru Mountain is Samyamani, the abode of Yamaraja, the superintendent of death. It is said that there is an everlasting belt of water called the River Vaitarani at the entrance of the plutonic planet (Pluto) of Yamaraja. The abode of Yamaraja is called Yamasadana. Vaitarani is the river which lies in front of the doorway of Yamaraja. Samyamani is the residence of Yamaraja.
Maharaja Yudhisthira was the son of Dharmaraja (Yamaraja). Maharaja Yudhisthira's mother, Kunti, had the power to call any demigod. She got this benediction from Durvasa Muni. So he (she) had his (her) three sons, means Maharaja Yudhisthira, Bhima, and Arjuna. She got Maharaja Yudhisthira from Dharmaraja, Arjuna from Indra, and Bhima from Varuna...
Maharaja Marutta, a great devotee of the son of the sun-god known as Yamaraja, was one of the great emperors of the world. He reigned over the world long before the reign of Maharaja Yudhisthira.
At the request of Lord Brahma, Prajapati Daksa, who is known as Pracetasa, begot sixty daughters in the womb of his wife Asikni. All the daughters were very affectionate toward their father. Ten of these daughters were given in charity to Dharmaraja [Yamaraja]. Their names were Bhanu, Lamba, Kakud, Yami, Visva, Sadhya, Marutvati, Vasu, Muhurta and Sankalpa.
The brahmanas and Vedic knowledge come from the mouth of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the ksatriyas and bodily strength come from His arms, the vaisyas and their expert knowledge in productivity and wealth come from His thighs, and the sudras, who are outside of Vedic knowledge, come from His feet. May that Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is full in prowess, be pleased with us. Greed is generated from His lower lip, affection from His upper lip, bodily luster from His nose, animalistic lusty desires from His sense of touch, Yamaraja from His eyebrows, and eternal time from His eyelashes.
Yama-danda is the scepter of Yamaraja. Yavanesvara is the emblem of death, Yamaraja. Before going to the place of Yamaraja, the living entity accepts Jara, old age, the sister of Yamaraja. One is subjected to the influence of Yavana-raja and his sister due to impious activity.
Generally Yamaraja is portrayed in a fearful way and so is often pictured as black. That is all right. But actually he is a demigod and must be fair complexion. He is a mahajana and a Vaisnava as well and he is also very good looking.
Yamaraja is a great devotee of the Lord, and he likes to be invited to kirtanas and sacrifices by the pure devotees, who are constantly engaged in the devotional service of the Lord. Thus the great sages, headed by Saunaka and others, invited Yamaraja to attend the sacrifice performed at Naimisaranya. This was good for those who did not want to die.
Yavana is the servant of Yamaraja. The Yamadutas are the assistants, or messengers, of Yamaraja. When Yamaraja and his assistants take a living entity away to the place of judgment, the life, life air and desires, being followers of the living entity, also go with him... When the living entity and the life air are gone, the lump of matter produced of five elements -- earth, water, air, fire and ether -- is rejected and left behind. The living entity then goes to the court of judgment, and Yamaraja decides what kind of body he is going to get next. This process is unknown to modern scientists. Every living entity is responsible for his activities in this life, and after death he is taken to the court of Yamaraja, where it is decided what kind of body he will take next. Although the gross material body is left, the living entity and his desires, as well as the resultant reactions of his past activities, go on. It is Yamaraja who decides what kind of body one gets next in accordance with one's past actions.
Vidura is the incarnation of Yamaraja. He was conceived by Vyasadeva in the womb of the maidservant of Ambika, mother of Maharaja Pandu. During the pastime of Manduka Muni, the muni cursed Yamaraja to become a sudra, and this sudra incarnation of Yamaraja was known as Vidura, the sudra brother of Dhrtarastra and Maharaja Pandu. But this sudra son of the Kuru dynasty was equally treated by Bhismadeva, along with his other nephews, and in due course Vidura was married with a girl who was also born in the womb of a sudrani by a brahmana. Although Vidura did not inherit the property of his father (the brother of Bhismadeva), still he was given sufficient state property by Dhrtarastra, the elder brother of Vidura. Vidura was very much attached to his elder brother, and all along he tried to guide him on the right path. During the fratricidal war of Kuruksetra, Vidura repeatedly implored his elder brother to do justice to the sons of Pandu, but Duryodhana did not like such interference by his uncle, and thus he practically insulted Vidura. This resulted in Vidura's leaving home for pilgrimage and taking instructions from Maitreya.
Vidura is one of the administrative demigods in charge of the Pitrloka planet. When Yamaraja thus incarnated himself as Vidura, his post was officiated by Aryama, one of the many sons of Kasyapa and Aditi. The Adityas are sons of Aditi, and there are twelve Adityas. Aryama is one of the twelve Adityas, and therefore it was quite possible for him to take charge of the office of Yamaraja during his one hundred years' absence in the form of Vidura. The conclusion is that Vidura was never a sudra, but was greater than the purest type of brahmana.
Yamaraja is deputed by the Lord to a particular planet, some hundreds of thousands of miles away from the planet of earth, to take away the corrupt souls after death and convict them in accordance with their respective sinful activities. Thus, Yamaraja has very little time to take leave from his responsible office of punishing the wrongdoers. There are more wrongdoers than righteous men. Therefore Yamaraja has to do (more) work than other demigods who are also authorized agents of the Supreme Lord. But he wanted to preach the glories of the Lord, and therefore, by the will of the Lord, he was cursed by Manduka Muni to come into the world in the incarnation of Vidura and work very hard as a great devotee."
Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. Excerpted from various sources, including text and Purport of HDG A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada.
Painting is from the collection of St. Petersburg Institute of Oriental Studies.