From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article
|Part of a series on|
|Angels and demons|
|Scripture and worship|
|Accounts and legends|
|History and culture|
The texts of the Avesta, also known as the Zend Avesta, — which are all in the Avestan language — were composed over the course of several hundred years. The most important portion, the Gathas, in older (before the works of Johanna Narten 'Gathic') Avestan, are the hymns thought to have been composed by Zoroaster himself. The liturgical texts of the Yasna, which includes the Gathas, is in Older Avestan, with short, later additions in Younger Avestan. The Yasnas' 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 (559–330 BC). The Visprad and Vendidad, which are also in Younger Avestan, were probably composed even later but this is not certain. The Vendidad were written primarily for ritual purification. The Visparat, another group of writings in the 'Avesta', were believed to be made for the honor and prayer of the celestial lords.
The various texts are thought to have been transmitted orally for centuries before they found written form. According to legend preserved in the Book of Arda Viraf, a 3rd or 4th century work, a written version of the religious texts had existed in the palace library of the Achaemenid kings (559–330 BC), but which was then supposedly (Arda Viraf 1.4-7 and Denkard 3.420) lost in a fire caused by the troops of Alexander. 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 BC. 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 I, c. 51–78 AD) attempted to have the sacred texts collected and collated. The results of this undertaking (the so-called "Arsacid archetype"), if it occurred, have not survived.
All texts known today derive from a single master copy, now lost but known as the "Sassanian archetype", most likely a product of the 3rd or 4th century. According to tradition, in the 3rd century, the Sassanian emperor Ardashir I (r. 226-241 AD) 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 or may not 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, including the Chihrdad, 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 origin of the term Avesta is uncertain. One possibility is that the term derives from Middle Persian abestāg, meaning "praise."
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 Royal Danish Library, 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 or Zand, literally meaning "interpretation", refers to late Middle Persian (see Pazend and Pahlavi) language paraphrases of and 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, Visperad 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 is considered 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.
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 Vedas; 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).
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.