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The Avesta

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The sacred books of Parsees, or Zoroastrians, and the main source of our knowledge concerning the religious and spiritual life the ancient Persians. This collection of writings occupies the same place in the literature of Iran (ancient Persia) that the Vedas do in India. The designation Zend-Avesta, which is often employed to denote the sacred code, is not strictly correct. It owes its origin to a mistaken inversion of the Pahlavi designation Avistak u Zand, a term which probably means "Text and Commentary"; for the word Zand (in the Avesta itself, Zainti) signifies "explanation" and even in the Avesta is applied to the exegetical matter in the text. It is similarly used by the Parsee priests to denote the Pahlavi version and commentary, but not the original scriptures. Whether the term Avistak, which is the Pahlavi form of the word Avesta, has the meaning of "text", "law", is not absolutely certain. Some scholars interpret it as "wisdom", "knowledge".

Little was known concerning the religion and customs of ancient Persia before the Avesta was brought to Europe in the eighteenth century. From the allusions in Greek and Roman writers, like Herodotus, Plutarch, Pliny, and others, it had long been surmised that such a body of scriptures existed. Scattered allusions in Arabic and Syriac writers strengthened this conviction. But the information to be extracted from these references was vague and meagre. The first scholar to make the language and the contents of the sacred books of the Parsees known to Europe was a young Frenchman, Anquetil du Perron, who in 1754 went to India for this very purpose. His enthusiasm and perseverance overcame the many obstacles he encountered on his journey to Hindustan and the difficulties he met during his stay in Surat. Success at last crowned his efforts, and on his return in 1771 he was able to give to the world the first translation of the Avesta. From the moment of its publication a bitter controversy arose concerning the authenticity of the work. Some scholars, like Sir William Jones, declared that it was a clumsy forgery of modern Parsee priests, and the question was disputed for half a century until the advance made in the study of Sanskrit and comparative philology decided the matter and vindicated the genuineness of the scriptures and the value of Anquetil's work, although his translation, as a first attempt, was necessarily, imperfect in many respects.

Content and divisions

Originally, the sacred scriptures of the Parsees were of far greater extent than would appear from the Avesta in the form in which we now possess it. Only a relatively small portion of the original has in fact been preserved, and that is collected from several manuscripts, since no single codex contains all the texts now known. In its present form, therefore, the Avesta is a compilation from various sources, and its different parts date from different periods and vary widely in character. Tradition tells us that the Zoroastrian scriptures consisted originally of twenty-one nasks (books), but only one of these, the Vendidad, had been completely preserved. The loss of the sacred books is attributed by the followers of Zoroaster to the invasion of Alexander "the accursed Iskandar", as they call him, who burned the palace library at Persepolis, thus destroying one archetype copy of the text, and threw the other into the river near Samarkand, according to the statement of the Pahlavi records (Dinkard, bk. III, West, "Sacred Books of the East", XXXVII, pp. xxx, xxxi, and Shatroiha-i Airan, 2-5). For wellnigh five hundred years after the Macedonian invasion the Parsee scriptures remained in a scattered condition, much being preserved only by memory, until the great Zoroastrian under the Sassanian dynasty (A.D. 226-651), when the texts were again collected, codified, translated into Pahlavi, and interpreted. A beginning in this direction had already been made under the last of the Parthian kings, but the great final redaction took place in Sassanian times, under Shahpuhar II (309-379). Our present Avesta is essentially the work of this redaction, although important sections of the text have been lost since then, especially after the Arabs conquered Persia. This conquest (637-651) was fatal to the Iranian religion, and caused Zoroastrianism to be supplanted by Mohammedanism and the Avesta by the Koran. As already mentioned, great portions of the scriptures have since disappeared entirely; out of the original twenty-one nasks, the nineteenth alone (the Verdidad) has survived. Portions of other nasks are preserved, interspersed here and there among the Yasna and Vispered, or have come down to us as flattered fragments in Pahlavi works, or have been rendered into Pahlavi, like the Bundahishn (Book of Creation) and the Shayast-la-Shayast (Treatise on the Lawful and Unlawful). In this way we are able to make good some of our losses of the old scriptures enough has been said, however, to explain the lack of coherence noticeable in certain parts of the Avestan code.

The Avesta, as we now have it, is usually divided into five sections, relating to the ritual, hymns of praise, the liturgy, and the law. These sections:

Besides this there are some independent fragments preserved in Pahlavi books (Hadhokt Nask, etc). The main divisions, when taken together, again fall into two groups, the one liturgical comprising Vendidad, Vispered and Yasna, or the Avesta proper, the other general, called Khorda Avesta (Abridged Avesta) and comprising the minor texts and the Yashts. A brief characterization of the five divisions will now be given.

(1) The Yasna (Skt. yajna), "sacrifice", "worship", the chief liturgical portions of the sacred canon. It consists principally of prayers and hymns used in the ritual, and is divided into seventy-two ha or haiti (chapters), symbolized by the seventy-two strands of the kushti, or sacred girdle with which the young Zoroastrian is invested on his being received into the Church. The middle third of the Yasna (Ys., 28-53), however, is not directly connected with the ritual, but contains the Gathas, the holy psalms, songs which preserved the metrical sayings of Zoroaster himself as used in his sermons. This is the oldest portion of the Avesta and descends directly from the prophet and his disciples. These canticles are metrical in their structure and are composed in the so-called Gatha-dialect, a more archaic form of language than is used in the rest of the Avesta. There are seventeen of the hymns, grouped in five divisions, each group taking its name from the opening words; thus Ahunavaiti, Ushtavaiti, etc. Inserted in the midst of the Gathas is the Yasna Haptanghaiti (the Seven-chapter Yasna) consisting of prayers and hymns in honour of the Supreme Deity, Ahura Mazda, the Angels, Fire, Water, and Earth. This selection also shows a more archaic type of language, and stands next to the Gathas in point of antiquity. Its structure though handed down in prose, may once have been metrical.

(2) The Vispered (vispe ratavo, "all the lords") is really a short liturgy, very similar in style and form to the Yasna, which it supplements in a briefer form. It owes its name to the fact that it contains invocations to "all the lords".

(3) The Yashts (yeshti, "worship by praise"), of which there are twenty-one, are hymns in honour of various divinities. These hymns are for the most part metrical in structure, and they show considerable poetic merit in certain instances, which is not common in Avesta. They are of especial interest historically on account of the glimpses they afford us of the great mythological and legendary material in the folklore of ancient Iran used so effectively by Firdausi in his great epic of the Persian kings, the "Shah Namah". Among the divinities to whom special yashts are devoted we find Ardvi Sura the goddess of waters; Tishtrya, the star Sirius; Mithra, the divinity of light and truth; the Fravashis, or departed souls of the righteous, Verethragna, the genius of Victory and the Kavaya Hvarenah, "kingly glory", the divine light illuminating the ancient kings of Iran.

(4) The fourth division (minor texts) comprises brief prayers, like the five Nyaishes (to the Sun, Moon, Mithra, Water, and Fire), the Gahs, Siruzas and Afringans (blessings). These selections form a manual of daily devotion.

(5) The fifth division, Vendidad (from vi daeva data, "law against the demons"), is the religious law code of Zoroastrianism and comprises twenty-two fargards (chapters). It begins with an account of Creation in which Ormuzd, the god, is thwarted by Ahriman, the devil; then it describes the occurrence of a destructive winter, a sort of Iranian deluge. The remainder of the book is largely devoted to elaborate prescriptions with regard to ceremonial purification, especially the cleansing from defilement incurred by contact with the dead, and to a list of special penances imposed as a means of atoning for impurity. The Vendidad is an ecclesiastical code, not a liturgical manual. Its different parts vary widely in character and in age. Some parts may be comparatively recent in origins although the greater part is very old.

The Avesta does not represent the whole of the sacred scriptures of the Parsees. It is supplemented by an extensive Pahlavi literature, consisting in part of translations from the sacred canon and in part of original matter. The most notable Pahlavi works belonging here are the Dinkard (Acts of Religion), dating from the ninth century of the Christian Era; Bundahishn, "Original Creation", finished in the eleventh or twelfth century of the Christian Era, but containing material as old as the Avesta itself, being in part a version of one of the original nasks; the Mainog-i-Khirad (Spirit of Wisdom), a religious conference on questions of faith, and the Arda Viraf Namak, a sort of Zoroastrian "Divina Commedia", which is especially important because of its account of the Persian ideas concerning the future life. There is also some later Zoroastrian literature in modern Persian, comprising works like the Zartushtnamah (Book of Zoroaster), the Sad-dar (Hundred Doors, or Chapters), the Rivayats (traditional treatises).

Language

The language of the Avesta is best designated simply as Avestan, not as Zend, for the reasons given in the beginning of this article. Nor is Old Bactrian a desirable term, since it is by no means proved that the language of the Avesta was spoken in ancient Bactria. The Avestan language is an Indo-Germanic tongue and belongs more specifically to the Iranian group, the other members being the Old Persian of the cuneiform inscriptions, the Pahlavi, and Pazend (or Middle Iranian), and the later dialects, New Persian, Kurdish, Afghan, etc. The Avestan speech is very closely related to Sanskrit; in fact, we are able to transpose any word from one language into the other by the application of special phonetic laws. The script employed in the Avestan texts, as five have them, is not so old as the language itself, but dates from the Sassanian period. It is read from right to left and can be traced ultimately to a Semitic sources. It is not known in what script the original Avesta was recorded.

Zoroaster

It can no longer be doubted that Zoroaster was a real historical personage. The attempts of some scholars to represent him as a mythical being have failed, even though much that is related about his life is legendary, as in the case of Buddha. The man Zoroaster in the original texts appears as Zarathushtra, from which Zoroaster, our present form of the prophet's name, is derived through the Greek and Latin. The Avesta always writes Zarathushtra; the Pahlavi has Zartusht; the modern Persian, Zardusht. What the meaning of the name is, cannot be stated positively. All that we know is that the name is a compound, and that the second element, ushtra, means "camel", the first part has been variously rendered as "old", "lively", "golden", "ploughing", etc. There has been much discussion as to the date when the prophet lived. The traditional date in the Pahlavi books places his era between the earlier half of the seventh and the sixth century B. C., or, more specially, 660-583 B. C.; but many scholars assign him to a century, or even several centuries, earlier. There is much uncertainty regarding his birthplace and the details of his life. He was undoubtly born in Western Iran. From Western Iran, more specifically Azerbaijan (the ancient Atropatene) he seems to have gone Ragha (Rai) in Media, and even his mission did not meet with success in that region he turned to the East, to Bactria. There a certain king named named Vishtaspa became converted to his creed, the generous patronage of this powerful defender of the faith the new religion soon gained a firm footing. Presumably the faith was carried from Bactria to Media, whence it spread into Persia and was accepted in all probability by the great Achaemenian kings. In the case of Cyrus there is some doubt whether he was adherent of Zoroastrian law, but Darius was a pronounced Mazda-worshipper and presumably, therefore, a true Zoroastrian, as we know that the last kings of the Achaemenian dynasty were genuine followers of the religion. If tradition can be believed, Zoroaster began his ministry at the age of thirty, made a convert, when he was forty-two, of King Vishtaspa, and was slain at the age of seventy-seven, when the Turanians stormed Balkh. This account of the prophet's death is given, at least, by Firdausi.

Under the kings of the Achaemenian line the religion founded by Zoroaster became one of the great religions of the ancient East. But it shared the fate of the Persian monarchy, it was shattered, though not overthrown, by the conquest of Alexander and fell consequently into neglect under the Seleucid and Parthian dynasties. With the accession of the Sassanian dynasty it met with a great revival. The kings of the house of Sassan were zealous believers and did everything in their power to spread the faith as a national creed, so that its prosperity rose again to the zenith. Sectarian movements, to be sure, were not lacking. The heresy of Mazdak for a moment imperilled the union of the Zoroastrian Church and State, and Manichaeism, that menace of early Christian orthodoxy, also threatened the ascendancy of the Iranian national faith, which was really its parent. These dangers, however, were only temporary and of minor importance as compared with the Arab conquest, which followed in the seventh century (651) and dealt the fatal blow from which Zoroastrianism never recovered. The victorious followers of Mohammed carried on their proselytizing campaign with relentless vigour. The few Zoroastrians who stood firmly by their faith were oppressed and persecuted. Some remained, and were scattered throughout their native land; but the majority took refuge in India, where their descendants, the Parsees, are found even at the present day. About 10,000 are here and there throughout Persia, chiefly at Yazd and Kirman, but the bulk of the Zoroastrians, upwards of 90,000 souls, constitute a prosperous community in India, chiefly at Bombay.


About this page

APA citation. Remy, A.F.J. (1907). The Avesta. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02151b.htm

MLA citation. Remy, Arthur F.J. "The Avesta." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02151b.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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