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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
The original document of the religion of Zoroaster, still used by the Parsees as their bible and prayer-book. The name " Zend-Avesta " has been current in Europe since the time of Anquetil Duperron (c. 1771), but the Parsees themselves call it simply Avesta, Zend (i.e. " interpretation ") being specially employed to denote the translation and exposition of a great part of the Avesta which exists in Pahlavi. Text and translation are often spoken of together in Pahlavi books as Avistak va Zand (" Avesta and Zend "), whence - through a misunderstanding - our word Zend-Avesta. The origin and meaning of the word " Avesta " (or in its older form, Avistak ) are alike obscure; it cannot be traced further back than the Sasanian period. The language of the Avesta is still frequently called Zend; but, as already implied, this is a mistake. We possess no other document written in it, and on this account modern Parsee scholars, as well as the older Pahlavi books, speak of the language and writing indifferently as Avesta. As the original home of the language can only be very doubtfully conjectured, we shall do well to follow the usage sanctioned by old custom and apply the word to both.
Although the Avesta is a work of but moderate compass (comparable, say, to the Iliad and Odyssey taken together), there nevertheless exists no single MS. which gives it in entirety. This circumstance alone is enough to reveal the true nature of the book: it is a composite whole, a collection of writings, as the Old Testament is. It consists, as we shall afterwards see, of the last remains of the extensive sacred literature in which the Zoroastrian faith was formerly set forth.
As we now have it, the Avesta consists of five parts - the Yasna, the Vispered, the Vendidad, the Yashts, and the Khordah Avesta.
1. The Yasna, the principal liturgical book of the Parsees, in 72 chapters ( hait-i, ha ), contains the texts that are read by the priests at the solemn yasna (Izeshne) ceremony, or the general sacrifice in honour of all the deities. The arrangement of the chapters is purely liturgical, although their matter in part has nothing to do with the liturgical action. The kernel of the whole book, around which the remaining portions are grouped, consists of the Gathas or " hymns " of Zoroaster (q.v.), the oldest and most sacred portion of the entire canon. The Yasna accordingly falls into three sections of about equal length: - (a) The introduction (chaps. 1 -27) is, for the most part, made up of long-winded, monotonous, reiterated invocations. Yet even this section includes some interesting texts, e.g. the Haoma (Horn ) Yasht (9, i i) and the ancient confession of faith (12), which is of value as a document for the history of civilization. (b ) The Gathas (chaps. 28-54) contain the discourses, exhortations and revelations of the prophet, written in a metrical style and an archaic language, different in many respects from that ordinarily used in the Avesta. As to the authenticity of these hymns, see Zoroaster. The Gathas proper, arranged according to the metres in which they are written, fall into five subdivisions (28 -34, 43-4 6, 47-5 0, 51, 53). Between chap. 37 and chap. 43 is inserted the so-called Seven-Chapter Yasna (haptanghaiti ), a number of small prose pieces not far behind the Gathas in antiquity. (c ) The so-called Later Yasna (A paro Yasno ) (chaps. 54-72) has contents of considerable variety, but consists mainly of invocations. Special mention ought to be made of the Sraosha (Srosh ) Yasht (57), the prayer to fire (62), and the great liturgy for the sacrifice to divinities of the water (63-69).
2. The Vispered, a minor liturgical work in 24 chapters ( karde ), is alike in form and substance completely dependent on the Yasna, to which it is a liturgical appendix. Its separate chapters are interpolated in the Yasna in order to produce a modified - or expanded - Yasna ceremony. The name Vispered, meaning " all the chiefs " (vispe ratavo ), has reference to the spiritual heads of the religion of Ormuzd, invocations to whom form the contents of the first chapter of the book.
3. The Vendidad, the priestly code of the Parsees, contains in 22 chapters ( fargard ) a kind of dualistic account of the creation (chap. 1), the legend of Yima and the golden age (chap. 2), and in the bulk of the remaining chapters the precepts of religion with regard to the cultivation of the earth, the care of useful animals, the protection of the sacred elements, such as earth, fire and water, the keeping of a man's body from defilement, together with the requisite measures of precaution, elaborate ceremonies of purification, atonements, ecclesiastical expiations ,and so forth. These prescriptions are marked by a conscientious classification based on considerations of material, size and number; but they lose themselves in an exaggerated casuistry. Still the whole of Zoroastrian legislation is subordinate to one great point of view: the war - preached without intermission - against Satan and his noxious creatures, from which the whole book derives its name; for " Vendidad " is a modern corruption for vi-daevo-datem - " the antidemonic Law." Fargard 18 treats of the true and false priest, of the value of the house-cock, of the four paramours of the she-devil, and of unlawful lust. Fargard 19 is a fragment of the Zoroaster legend: Ahriman tempts Zoroaster; Zoroaster applies to Ormuzd for the revelation of the law, Ahriman and the devils despair, and flee down into hell. The three concluding chapters are devoted to sacerdotal medicine.
The Yasna, Vispered and Vendidad together constitute the Avesta in the stricter sense of the word, and the reading of them appertains to the priest alone. For liturgical purposes the separate chapters of the Vendidad are sometimes inserted among those of the Yasna and Vispered. The reading of the Vendidad in this case may, when viewed according to the original intention, be taken as corresponding in some sense to the sermon, while that of the Yasna and Vispered may be said to answer to the hymns and prayers of Christian worship.
4. The Yashts, i.e. " songs of praise," in so far as they have not been received already into the Yasna, form a collection by themselves. They contain invocations of separate Izads, or angels, number 21 in all, and are of widely divergent extent and antiquity. The great Yashts - some nine or ten - are impressed with a higher stamp: they are cast almost throughout in a poetical mould, and represent the religious poetry of the ancient Iranians. So far they may be compared to the Indian Rig-Veda. Several of them may have been cemented together from a number of lesser poems or songs. They are a rich source of mythology and legendary history. Side by side with full, vividly coloured descriptions of the Zoroastrian deities, they frequently interweave, as episodes, stories from the old heroic fables. The most important of all, the 19th Yasht, gives a consecutive account of the Iranian heroic saga in great broad lines, together with a prophetic presentment of the end of this world.
5. The Khordah Avesta, i.e. the Little Avesta, comprises a collection of shorter prayers designed for all believers - the laity included - and adapted for the various occurrences of ordinary life. In part, these brief petitions serve as convenient substitutes for the more lengthy Yashts - especially the so-called Nyaishes. Over and above the five books just enumerated, there are a considerable number of fragments from other books, e.g. the Nirangistan, as well as quotations, glosses and glossaries.
The Larger Avesta and the Twenty-one Nasks
In its present form, however, the Avesta is only a fragmentary remnant of the old priestly literature of Zoroastrianism, a fact confessed by the learned tradition of the Parsees themselves, according to which the number of Yashts was originally thirty. The truth is that we possess but a trifling portion of a very much larger Avesta, if we are to believe native tradition, carrying us back to the Sassanian period, which tells of a larger Avesta in twenty-one books called nasks or nosks, as to the names of which we have several more or less detailed accounts, particularly in the Pahlavi Dinkard (9th century A.D.) and in the Rivayats. From the same sources we learn that this larger Avesta was only a part of a yet more extensive original Avesta, which is said to have existed before Alexander. We are told that of a number of nasks only a small portion was found to be extant " after Alexander." For example, of the seventh nask, which " before Alexander " had as many as fifty chapters, there then remained only thirteen; and similar allegations are made with regard to the eighth, ninth, tenth and other nasks. The Rivayats state that, when after the calamity of Alexander they sought for the books again, they found a portion of each nask, but found no nask in completeness except the Vendidad. But even of the remains of the Avesta, as these lay before the author of the 9th century, only a small residue has survived to our time. Of all the nasks one only, the nineteenth, has come down on us intact - the Vendidad. All else, considered as wholes, have vanished in the course of the centuries.
It would be rash summarily to dismiss this old tradition of the twenty-one nasks as pure invention. The number twenty-one points, indeed, to an artificial arrangement of the material; for twenty-one is a sacred number, and the most sacred prayer of the Parsees, the so-called Ahuno Vairyo (Honovar) contains twenty-one words; and it is also true that in the enumeration of the nasks we miss the names of the books we know, like the Yasna and the Yashts. But we must assume that these were included in such or such a nask, as the Yashts in the seventeenth or Bakan Yasht; or, it may be that other books, especially the Yasna, are a compilation extracted for liturgical purposes from various nasks. Further, the statements of the Dinkard leave on us a very distinct impression that the author actually had before him the text of the nasks, or at all events of a large part of them: for he expressly states that the eleventh nask was entirely lost, so that he is unable to give the slightest account of its contents. And, besides, in other directions there are numerous indications that such books once really existed. In the Khordah Avesta, as we now have it, we find two Srosh Yashts; with regard to the first, it is expressly stated in old MSS. that it was taken from the Hadokht nask (the twentieth, according to the Dinkard). From the same nask also a considerable fragment ( Yts. 21 and 22 in Westergaard) has been taken. So, also, the Nirangistan is a portion of the seventeenth (or Husparam ) nask. Lastly, the numerous other fragments, the quotations in the Pahlavi translation, the many references in the Bundahish to passages of this Avesta not now known to us, all presuppose the existence in the Sassanian period of a much more extensive Avesta literature than the mere prayer-book now in our hands. The existence of a larger Avesta, even as late as the 9th century A.D., is far from being a mere myth. But, even granting that a certain obscurity still hangs undispelled over the problem of the old Avesta, with its twenty-one nasks, we may well believe the Parsees themselves, when they affirm that their sacred literature has passed through successive stages of decay, the last of which is represented by the present Avesta. In fact we can clearly trace this gradual process of decay in certain portions of the Avesta during the last few centuries.' The great Yashts are not of very frequent occurrence in the manuscripts: some of them, indeed, are already met with but seldom, and MSS. containing all the Yashts are of extreme rarity. Of the fifteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth Yashts the few useful copies that we possess are derived from a single MS. of the year 1591 A.D.
Origin and History
While all that Herodotus (i. 132) has to say is that the Magi sang "the theogony " at their sacrifices, Pausanias is able to add (v. 27.3) that they read from a book. Hermippus, in the 3rd century B.C., affirmed that Zoroaster, the founder of the doctrine of the Magi, was the author of twenty books, each containing ioo,000 verses. According to the Arab historian, Tabari, these were written on 12,000 cowhides, a statement confirmed by Masudi, who writes: Zartusht gave to the Persians the book called Avesta. It consisted of twenty-one parts, each containing 200 leaves. This book, in the writing which Zartusht invented and which the Magi called the writing of religion, was written on 12,000 cowhides, bound together by golden bands. Its language was the Old Persian, which now no one understands." These assertions sufficiently establish the existence and great bulk of the sacred writings. Parsee tradition adds a number of interesting statements as to their history. According to the Arda-Viraf--Nama the religion revealed through Zoroaster has subsisted in its purity for 300 years, when Iskander Rumi (Alexander the Great) invaded and devastated Iran, and burned the Avesta which, written on cowhides with golden ink, was preserved in the archives at Persepolis. According to the Dinkard, there were two copies, of which one was burned, while the second came into the hands of the Greeks. One of the Rivayato relates further: " After the villainy of Alexander, an assemblage of several high-priests brought together the Avesta from various places, and made a collection which included the sacred Yasna, Vispered, Vendidad and other scraps of the Avesta." As to this re-collection and redaction of the Avesta the Dinkard gives various details. One of the Arsacid kings, Vologeses (I. or III.?), ordered the scattered remnants of the Avesta to be carefully preserved and recorded. The first of the Sassanian kings, Ardashir Babagan (226-240), caused his high-priest, Tanvasar, to bring together the dispersed portions of the holy book, and to compile from these a new Avesta, which, as far as possible, should be a faithful reproduction of the original. King Shapur I. (241-272) enlarged this re-edited Avesta by collecting and incorporating with it the non-religious tractates on medicine, astronomy, geography and philosophy. Under Shapur II. (309-380) the nasks were brought into complete order, and the new redaction of the Avesta reached its definitive conclusion.
Historical criticism may regard this tradition, in many of its features, as mere fiction, or as a perversion of facts made for the purpose of transferring the blame for the loss of a sacred literature to other persons than those actually responsible for it. We may, if we choose, absolve Alexander from the charge of vandalism of which he is accused, but the fact nevertheless remains, that he ordered the palace at Persepolis to be burned (Diod., xvii. 72; Curt., v. 7). Even the statement as to the one or two complete copies of the Avesta may be given up as the invention of a later day. Nevertheless the essential elements of the tradition remain unshaken, viz. that the original Avesta, or old sacred literature, divided on account of its great bulk and heterogeneous contents into many portions and a variety of separate works, had an actual existence in numerous copies and also in the memories of priests, that, although gradually diminishing in bulk, it remained extant during the period of foreign domination and ecclesiastical decay after the time of Alexander, and that it served as a basis for the redaction subsequently made. The kernel of this native tradition - the fact of a late collection of older fragments - appears indisputable. The character of the book is entirely that of a compilation.
In its outward form the Avesta, as we now have it, belongs to the Sassanian period - the last survival of the compilers' work already alluded to. But this Sassanian origin of the Avesta must not be misunderstood: from the remnants and heterogeneous
fragments at their disposal, the diasceuast or diasceuasts composed a new canon - erected a new edifice from the materials of the old. In point of detail, it is now impossible to draw a sharp distinction between that which they found surviving ready to their hand and that which they themselves added, or to define how far they reproduced the traditional fragments with verbal fidelity or indulged in revision and remoulding. It may reasonably be supposed, not only that they constructed the external framework of many chapters, and also made some additions of their own - a necessary process in order to weld their motley collection of fragments into a new and coherent book - but also that they fabricated anew many formulae and imitative passages on the model of the materials at their disposal. In this consisted the " completion " of Tanvasar, expressly mentioned in the account of the Dinkard. All those texts in which the grammar is handled, now with laxness and want of skill, and again with absolute barbarism, may probably be placed to the account of the Sassanian redactors. All the grammatically correct texts, together with those portions of the Avesta which have intrinsic worth, especially the metrical passages, are indubitably authentic and taken ad verbum from the original Avesta. To this class, above all, belong the Gathas and the nucleus of the greater Yashts. Opinions differ greatly as to the precise age of the original texts brought together by subsequent redactors: according to some, they are pre-Achaemenian; according to Darmesteter's former opinion, they were written in Media under the Achaemenian dynasty; according to some, their source must be sought in the east, according to others, in the west of Iran. But to search for a precise time or an exact locality is to deal with the question too narrowly; it is more correct to say that the Avesta was worked at from the time of Zoroaster down to the Sassanian period. Its oldest portions, the Gathas, proceed from the prophet himself. This conclusion is inevitable for every one to whom Zoroaster is an historical personality, and who does not shun the labour of an unprejudiced research into the meaning of those difficult texts (cf. Zoroaster). The rest of the Avesta, in spite of the opposite opinion of orthodox Parsees, does not even claim to come from Zoroaster. As the Gathas now constitute the kernel of the most sacred prayer-book, viz. the Yasna, so they ultimately proved to be the first nucleus of a religious literature in general. The language in which Zoroaster taught, especially a later development of it, remained as the standard with his followers, and became the sacred language of the priesthood of that faith which he had founded; as such it became, so to speak, absolved from the ordinary conditions of time and space. Taught and acquired as an ecclesiastical language, it was enabled to live an artificial life long after it had become extinct as a vernacular - in this respect comparable to the Latin of the middle ages or the Hebrew of the rabbinical schools. The priests, who were the composers and repositories of these texts, succeeded in giving them a perfectly general form. They refrained from practically every allusion to ephemeral or local circumstances. Thus we search vainly in the Avesta itself for any precise data to determine the period of its composition or the place where it arose. The original country of the religion, and the seat of the Avesta language, .ought perhaps to be sought rather in the east of Iran (Seistan and the neighbouring districts). But neither the spiritual literature nor the sacred tongue remained limited to the east. The geography of the Avesta points both to the east and the west, particularly the north-west of Iran, but with a decided tendency to gravitate towards the east. The vivid description of the basin of the Hilment ( Yasht 1 9, 65-69) is peculiarly instructive. The language of the Avesta travelled with the Zoroastrian religion and with the main body of the priesthood, in all probability, that is to say, from east to west; within the limits of Iran it became international.
As has been already stated, the Avesta now in our hands is but a small portion of the book as restored and edited under the Sassanians. The larger part perished under the Mahommedan rule and under the more barbarous tyranny of the Tatars, when through XXVIII. 31 a conversion and extermination the Zoroastrians became a mere remnant that concealed its religion and neglected the necessary copying of manuscripts. A most meagre proportion only of the real religious and ritual writings, the sacerdotal law and the liturgy, has been preserved to our time. The great bulk - over threef ourths of the Sassanian contents - especially the more secular literature collected, has fallen a prey to oblivion. The understanding of the older Avesta texts began to die away at an early period. The need for a translation and interpretation became evident; and under the Later Sassanians the majority of the books, if not the whole of them, were rendered into the current Pahlavi. A thorough use of this translation will not be possible until we have it in good critical editions, and acquaintance with its language ceases to be the monopoly of a few privileged individuals. For the interpretation of the older texts it is of great value where they are concerned with the fixed, formal statutes of the church. But when they pass beyond this narrow sphere, as particularly in the Gathas, the Pahlavi translator becomes a defective and unreliable interpreter. The Parsee priest, Neryosangh, subsequently translated a portion of the Pahlavi version into Sanskrit.
The MSS. of the Avesta are, comparatively speaking, of recent date. The oldest is the Pahlavi Vispered in Copenhagen, dated 1258. Next come the four MSS. of the Herbad Mihirapan Kai Khusro at Cambay (1323 and 1324), two Vendidads with Pahlavi in London and Copenhagen, and two Yasnas with Pahlavi in Copenhagen and formerly in Bombay (now Oxford). Generally speaking, the MSS. fall off in quality and carefulness in proportion to their lateness; though an honourable exception must be made in favour of those proceeding from Kirman and Yazd in Persia, mostly dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The first European scholar to direct attention to the Avesta was Hyde of Oxford, in his Historia Religionis Veterum Persarum eoramque Magorum (1700), which, however, failed to awake any lasting interest in the sacred writings of the Parsees. The merit of achieving this belongs to the enthusiastic orientalist Anquetil Duperron, the fruit of whose prolonged stay in India (1755-1761) and his acquaintance with the Parsee priests was a translation (certainly very defective) of the Zend-Avesta. The foundation of a scientific exegesis was laid by Burnouf. The interpretation of the Avesta is one of the most difficult problems of oriental philology. To this very day no kind of agreement has been reached by conflicting schools, even upon some of the most important points. The value of the Pahlavi interpretation was overrated by Spiegel„ Darmesteter, but wholly denied by Roth. The truth lies between. these two extremes. Opinion is divided also as to the significance of the Avesta in the literature of the world. The exaggerated. enthusiasm of Anquetil Duperron has been followed, especially since Spiegel's translation, by an excessive reaction. Upon the: whole, the Avesta is a monotonous book. The Yasna and many Yashts in great part consist of formulae of prayer which are as poor in contents as they are rich in verbiage. The book of laws ( Vendidad ) is characterized by an arid didactic tone; only here and there the legislator clothes his dicta in the guise of graceful dialogues and tales, or of poetic descriptions and similitudes; and then the book of laws is transformed into a didactic poem. Nor can we deny to the Yashts, in their depiction of the Zoroastrian angels and their presentment of the old sagas, a certain poetic feeling, at times, and a pleasant diction. The Gathas are quite unique in their kind. As a whole, the Avesta, for profundity of thought and beauty, stands on a lower level than the Old Testament. But as a religious book - the most important document of the Zoroastrian faith, and the sole literary monument of ancient Iran - the Avesta occupies a prominent position in the literature of the world. At the present day its significance is decidedly underrated. The future will doubtless be more just with regard to the importance of the book for the history of religion in general and even of Christianity.
. - Zend-Avesta, ed. by N. L. Westergaard (Copenhagen, 1852-54), complete; F. Spiegel, Avesta (Vienna, 1853-58), only Vendidad, Vispered and Yasna, but with the Pahlavi translation; K. Geldner (Stuttgart, 1886-96). Translations. - Anquetil Duperron, Zend-Avesta, Ouvrage de Zoroastre (Paris, 1771); Fr. Spiegel, 3 vols. (Leipzig, 1852-63), both completely antiquated. Avesta traduit par C. de Harlez, ed. 2 (Paris, 1881); The Zend-Avesta, Part I. Vendidad, Part II. Sirozahs, Yashts and Nyayish, tr. by J. Darmesteter, Part III. Yasna, Visparad, &c., by L. H. Mills (Oxford, 1880-87), in the Sacred Books of the East; Le Zend-Avesta, traduction nouvelle par J. Darmesteter, 3 vols. (Paris, 1892-93) ( Annales du Musee Guimet) - a most important work.
LITERATURE. - Anquetil Duperron (see above); Haug, Essays the Sacred Language, &c., of the Parsis, especially in the new edition by E. W. West (London, 1878); De Harlez, Introduction a l'etude de l'Avesta (Paris, 1881); Max Duncker, Geschichte des Altertums, vol. iv.; Eduard Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums, vol. i. (Stuttgart,. 1884); J. Darmesteter, in the Introduction to his translation. (see above); K. Geldner, Avesta-Litteratur in the Grundriss der iranischen Philologie, by Geiger and Kuhn (Strassburg,, 1896), vol. 2, 1 f.; E. W. West, Contents of the Nasks, S. B. E. 37 (Oxford, 1892). (K. G.)
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Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Zend-Avesta'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/bri/z/zend-avesta.html. 1910.