The Avesta 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 " _pa. 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 "Yasht"s are in Younger Avestan and thought to date to the Achaemenid era (559–330 BCE). The "Visprad" and "Vendidad", which are also in Younger Avestan, were probably composed even later but this is not certain.

Early transmission

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 (559–330 BCE). 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.

Later redaction

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." 147191 CE) 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 "nask"s, 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 "nask"s at all. In that sense, the current Avesta is a "prayer book" rather than a "Bible". The remainder of the 21 "nask"s 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.

European scholarship

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 priest.

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 "Zend"

The word "Zend" or "Zand", literally meaning "interpretation", refers to late Middle Persian (see Pazend and Pahlavi) 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.

tructure 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 "nask"s (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 "nask"s 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 "nask"s has survived until today.

The contents of the Avesta are divided topically (even though the organization of the "nask"s 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"

: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 "nask"s from the first group of "nask"s, 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"

: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"

: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 "Fargard"s, 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 "fargard"s 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] . "Fargard"s 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 "Yasht"s

:The "Yasht"s (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 "yasht"s, but are not counted among the "Yasht" collection since the three are a part of the primary litury. The "Yasht"s 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"

: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 "yazata"s 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 "Niyayishn"s "praises," addressed to the sun, Mithra, the moon, the waters, and the fire. In the main, the material overlaps with that of the "Yasht"s. 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 "Rivayat"s (traditional treatises) are of doctrinal importance. Other texts such as "Zartushtnamah" ("Book of Zoroaster") are only notable for their preservation of legend and folklore.

ee also

* The Gathas, the most sacred of the texts of the Zoroastrian faith.



Texts and translations

*There is a three-volume text of the Avesta, in its original script, edited by Karl Friedrich Geldner.
*Reichelt, "Avesta Reader", contains extracts, some in the original script and some in Bartholomaean transcription.
*A full translation by James Darmesteter and L. H. Mills forms part of the Sacred Books of the East series, but is now regarded as obsolete.

econdary works

* Modi, J. J., "The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees"

Further reading

* [http://www.avesta.org/ avesta.org: Translations of the Avesta texts]
* [http://www.avesta-archive.com Avestan Digital Archive]
* [http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02151b.htm The Avesta] (Catholic Encyclopedia)
* [http://www.livius.org/au-az/avesta/avesta.html The Avesta at LIVIUS]

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