is the primary collection of sacred texts of Zoroastrianism
, composed in the Avestan language
The etymology of the term Avesta
itself is uncertain, but a derivation from Middle Persian abestāg
meaning "praise", is a frequently noted possibility.
Age of the texts
The texts of the Avesta — which are all in the Avestan language
— were collated over several hundred years. The most important portion, the Gathas
, in Gathic Avestan
, are the hymns thought to have been composed by Zarathushtra (Zoroaster)
himself, and date linguistically to around 1000 BCE
. The liturgical texts of the Yasna
, which includes the Gathas, is partially in Older and partially in Younger Avestan. The oldest portions may be older than the Gathas, later adapted to more closely follow the doctrine of Zoroaster. The various Yashts
are in Younger Avestan and thought to date to the Achaemenid era
). The Visprad
, which are also in Younger Avestan, were probably composed even later but this is not certain.
The various texts are thought to have been transmitted orally for centuries before they found written form. The Book of Arda Viraf
, a work composed in the 3rd or 4th century, suggests that the Gathas
and some other texts that were incorporated into the Avesta had previously existed in the palace library of the Achaemenid kings
). According to Arda Viraf
1.4-7 and Denkard
3.420, the palace library was lost in a fire caused by the troops of Alexander the Great
. However, neither assertion can be confirmed since the texts, if they existed, have been lost.
Nonetheless, Rasmus Christian Rask concluded that the texts must indeed be the remnants of a much larger literature, as Pliny the Elder had suggested in his Naturalis Historiae, where he describes one Hermippus of Smyrna having "interpreted two million verses of Zoroaster" in the 3rd century BCE. Peter Clark in Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith (1998, Brighton) suggests the Gathas and older Yasna texts would not have retained their old-language qualities if they had only been orally transmitted.
According to the Dēnkard
, a semi-religious work written in the 9th century, the king Volgash (thought to be the Parthian
king Vologases IV
, c. 147
) attempted to have the sacred texts collected and collated. The results of this undertaking, if it occurred, have not survived.
In the 3rd century, the Sassanian emperor Ardashir I (r. 226-241 CE) commanded his high priest Tonsar (or Tansar) to compile the theological texts. According to the Dēnkard, the Tonsar effort resulted in the reproduction of twenty-one volumes, called nasks, subdivided into 348 chapters, with approximately 3.5 million words in total. One final redaction took place under Shapur II (r. 309-379).
The Avesta, as known today, represents only those parts of the text that are used liturgically, and therefore survived in the memory of the priests; and, as it now consists of all surviving liturgical texts in the Avestan language, it may include material that never formed part of the 21 nasks at all. In that sense, the current Avesta is a "prayer book" rather than a "Bible". The remainder of the 21 nasks has been lost since then, especially after the fall of the Sassanid empire, after which Zoroastrianism was supplanted by Islam. However, some secondary literature in Pahlavi purports to contain paraphrases or lists of contents of the lost books.
The texts became available to European scholarship comparatively late. Abraham Anquetil-Duperron
travelled to India
in 1755, and discovered the texts in Parsi
communities. He published a French translation in 1771, based on a Modern Persian
language translation provided by a Parsi
Several Avesta manuscripts were collected by Rasmus Rask on a visit to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1820, and it was Rask's examination of the Avestan language that first established that the texts must indeed be the remnants of a much larger literature of sacred texts.
Rask's collection now lies in the library of the University of Copenhagen. Other manuscripts are preserved in the East India House, the British Museum in London, the Bodleian library at Oxford, and at various university libraries in Paris.
The word Zend
, literally meaning "interpretation", refers to late Middle Persian
) language paraphrases of / commentaries on the individual Avestan books: they could be compared with the Jewish Targums
. These commentaries - which date from the 3rd to 10th centuries - were not intended for use as theological texts by themselves but for religious instruction of the (by then) non-Avestan-speaking public. In contrast, the texts of the Avesta proper remained sacrosanct and continued to be recited in Avestan, which was considered a sacred language
Manuscripts of the Avesta exist in two forms. One is the Avesta-o-Zand (or Zand-i-Avesta), in which the individual books are written together with their Zand. The other is the Vendidad Sadeh, in which the Yasna, Visprad and Vendidad are set out in alternating chapters, in the order used in the Vendidad ceremony, with no commentary at all.
The use of the expression Zend-Avesta to refer to the Avesta in general is a misunderstanding of the phrase Zand-i-Avesta (which literally means "interpretation of the Avesta").
A related mistake is the use of Zend as the name of a language or script. In 1759, Anquetil-Duperron reported having been told that Zend was the name of the language of the more ancient writings. In his third discourse, published in 1798, Sir William Jones mentions a conversation with a Hindu priest who told him that the script was called Zend, and the language Avesta. This mistake results from a misunderstanding of the term pazend, which actually refers to the use of the Avestan alphabet in writing the Zand and other Middle Persian religious texts, as an expression meaning "in Zend".
The confusion then became too universal in Western scholarship to be reversed, and Zend-Avesta, although a misnomer, is still occasionally used to denote the older texts.
Rask's seminal work, A Dissertation on the Authenticity of the Zend Language (Bombay, 1821), may have contributed to the confusion. N. L. Westergaard's Zendavesta, or the religious books of the Zoroastrians (Copenhagen, 1852-54) only propagated the error.
Structure and content
In its present form, the Avesta is a compilation from various sources, and its different parts date from different periods and vary widely in character. Only texts in the Avestan language
are considered part of the Avesta.
There are strong linguistic and cultural similarities between the texts of the Avesta and those of the early Indian Rigveda; the similarities are assumed to reflect the common beliefs of Proto-Indo-Iranian times, with the differences then assumed to reflect independent evolution that occurred after the pre-historical split of the two cultures.
According to Denkard, the 21 nasks (books) mirror the structure of the 21-word-long Ahuna Vairya prayer: each of the three lines of the prayer consists of seven words. Correspondingly, the nasks are divided into three groups, of seven volumes per group. Originally, each volume had a word of the prayer as its name, which so marked a volume’s position relative to the other volumes. Only about a quarter of the text from the nasks has survived until today.
The contents of the Avesta are divided topically (even though the organization of the nasks is not), but these are not fixed or canonical. Some scholars prefer to place the categories in two groups, the one liturgical, and the other general. The following categorization is as described by Jean Kellens (see bibliography, below).
- The Yasna (from yazišn "worship, oblations", cognate with Sanskrit yajña), is the primary liturgical collection. It consists of 72 sections called the Ha-iti or Ha. The 72 threads of lamb's wool in the Kushti, the sacred thread worn by Zoroastrians, represent these sections. The central portion of the Yasna is the Gathas, the oldest and most sacred portion of the Avesta, believed to have been composed by Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) himself. The Gathas are structurally interrupted by the Yasna Haptanghaiti ("seven-chapter Yasna"), which makes up chapters 35-42 of the Yasna and is almost as old as the Gathas, consists of prayers and hymns in honour of the Supreme Deity, Ahura Mazda, the Angels, Fire, Water, and Earth. The structure of the Yasna, though handed down in prose, may once have been metrical, as the Gathas still are.
- It is believed by some scholars that the Yasna represents the 21st nask (the seventh and last volume in the third and last group). Six of the nasks from the first group of nasks, which are commentaries on the Gathas, may also be regarded as relevant to the Yasna.
- The Yasna, or Izeshne, is primarily the name, not of a book, but of a ceremony in which the entire book is recited and appropriate liturgical actions performed. In its normal form, this ceremony can only be performed in the morning.
- The Visperad (from vîspe ratavo, "(prayer to) all patrons") is a collection of supplements to the Yasna. The Visparad is subdivided into 23 or 24 kardo (sections) that are interleaved into the Yasna during a Visperad service (which is an extended Yasna service).
- The Visperad collection has no unity of its own, and is never recited separately from the Yasna.
- The Vendidad (or Vidēvdāt, a corruption of Avestan Vî-Daêvô-Dāta, "Given Against the Demons") is an enumeration of various manifestations of evil spirits, and ways to confound them. The Vendidad includes all of the 19th nask, which is the only nask that has survived in its entirety. The text consists of 22 Fargards, fragments arranged as discussions between Ahura Mazda and Zoroaster. The first fargard is a dualistic creation myth, followed by the description of a destructive winter on the lines of the deluge of mythology. The second fargard recounts the legend of Yima. The remaining fargards deal primarily with hygiene (care of the dead in particular) [fargard 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 16, 17, 19] as well as disease and spells to fight it [7, 10, 11, 13, 20, 21, 22]. Fargards 4 and 15 discuss the dignity of wealth and charity, of marriage and of physical effort, and the indignity of unacceptable social behaviour such as assault and breach of contract, and specify the penances required to atone for violations thereof. The Vendidad is an ecclesiastical code, not a liturgical manual, and there is a degree of moral relativism apparent in the codes of conduct. The Vendidad's different parts vary widely in character and in age. Some parts may be comparatively recent in origin although the greater part is very old.
- The Vendidad, unlike the Yasna and the Visparad, is a book of laws rather than the record of a liturgical ceremony. However, there is a ceremony called the Vendidad, in which the Yasna is recited with all the chapters of both the Visparad and the Vendidad inserted at appropriate points. This ceremony is only performed at night.
- The Yashts (from yešti, "worship by praise") are a collection of 21 hymns, each dedicated to a particular divinity or divine concept. Three hymns of the Yasna liturgy that "worship by praise" are - in tradition - also nominally called yashts, but are not counted among the Yasht collection since the three are a part of the primary litury. The Yashts vary greatly in style, quality and extent. In their present form, they are all in prose but analysis suggests that they may at one time have been in verse.
- The Siroza ("thirty days") is an enumeration and invocation of the 30 divinities presiding over the days of the month. (cf. Zoroastrian calendar). The Siroza exists in two forms, the shorter ("little Siroza") is a brief enumeration of the divinities with their epithets in the genitive. The longer ("great Siroza") has complete sentences and sections, with the yazatas being addressed in the accusative.
- The Siroza is never recited as a whole, but is a source for individual sentences devoted to particular divinities, to be inserted at appropriate points in the liturgy depending on the day and the month.
The Khordeh Avesta
- The Khordeh Avesta ("little Avesta") is both a selection of verses from the other collections, as well as three sub-collections that do not appear elsewhere. Taken together, the Khordeh Avesta is considered the prayer book for general lay use. In a wider sense, the term Khordeh Avesta includes all material other than the Yasna, the Visparad and the Vendidad, as it is only the ceremonies contained in these three books that are reserved for the priests.
- The Khordeh Avesta is divided into 4 sections:
- Five introductory chapters, accompanied by excerpts from different parts of the Yasna.
- Five Niyayishns "praises," addressed to the sun, Mithra, the moon, the waters, and the fire. In the main, the material overlaps with that of the Yashts. The Niyayishn to fire derives from Yasna 62.
- Five Gahs "moments of the day," addressed to the five divisions of the day.
- Four Afrinagans "blessings," each recited on a particular occasion: the first in honor of the dead, the second on the five epagomenal days that end the year, the third is recited at the six seasonal feasts, and the fourth at the beginning and end of summer.
- All material in the Avesta that is not already present in one of the other categories falls into a "fragments" category, which - as the name suggests - includes incomplete texts. There are altogether more than 20 fragment collections, many of which have no name (and are then named after their owner/collator) or only a Middle Persian name. The more important of the fragment collections are the Nirangistan fragments (18 of which constitute the Ehrbadistan); the Pursishniha "questions," also known as "Fragments Tahmuras"; the Aogemadaeca "we accept," a treatise on death; and the Hadokht Nask "volume of the scriptures" with two fragments of eschatological significance.
Other Zoroastrian religious texts
Only texts preserved in the Avestan language
count as scripture and are part of the Avesta. Several other secondary works are nonetheless crucial to Zoroastrian theology and scholarship.
The most notable among the Middle Persian texts are the Dēnkard ("Acts of Religion"), dating from the 9th century; the Bundahishn ("Primordial Creation"), finished in the 11th or 12th century, but containing older material; the Mainog-i-Khirad ("Spirit of Wisdom"), a religious conference on questions of faith; and the Arda Viraf Namak ("Book of Arda Viraf"), which is especially important for its views on death, salvation and life in the hereafter. Of the post-14th century works (all in New Persian), only the Sad-dar ("Hundred Doors, or Chapters"), and Rivayats (traditional treatises) are of doctrinal importance. Other texts such as Zartushtnamah ("Book of Zoroaster") are only notable for their preservation of legend and folklore.
- The Gathas, the most sacred of the texts of the Zoroastrian faith.
Texts and translations
- Gershevitch, Ilya (1955). "Approaches to Zoroaster's Gathas". Iran 33
- Gnoli, Gherardo (2000). Zoroaster in History. New York: Oxbow.
- Avesta. In Encyclopædia Iranica (3, 35-44). (1983). Routledge and Kegan Paul. .
- Modi, J. J., The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees