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The Avesta

Raphaele Dechirante

The religious and historical importance of the Avesta, the sacred books of Parseeism, which derives from the Iranian prophet Zoroaster, is not reflected by the present position of the numerically extremely small Parsee community. After the conquest of the Persian motherland by the Arabs in the seventh century A.D. only comparatively few Zoroastrians resisted the invasion of Islam. Their descendants have maintained themselves to this day in Iran (in Teheran, Szhirah, Yezd and Kerman), but to a far greater extent they are the descendants of emigrants who found a new home in the Bombay district and they number about 100,000 souls there today. The importance of their sacred book does therefore not derive from the size of the Parsee community but from the quality of a message the spread of which was considerably promoted by the Persian Empire and which continues to exert an influence to the present day. It had its origin in the work of Zoroaster. "Something extraordinary occurred in the mountains of Bactria. The history of a single soul became the decisive factor in the spiritual development of a people and a great empire. A spiritual, moral and social renaissance is connected with the name of Zoroaster" (Soderblom).

The West acquired indicted knowledge of the sacred books and religion of Zoroaster at an early period through Greek and Latin accounts and the reports of Arabic and Syrian writers. It was not until a much later period that original Iranian sources reached Europe. The first to arrive - probably at the beginning of the 18th century - was a partial manuscript of the Avesta which was acquired by the Bodleian Library of Oxford. Illegible to begin with, and unintelligible, it remained fastened to the wall by an iron chain. In 1754 the Frenchman Anquetil du Perron, who was also the first to introduce the Upanishads to the West, was stimulated by the copy of a few leaves of this Oxford manuscript, to study the wisdom of the Parsees at the source. His efforts to fathom the meaning of the Avesta which he made with the aid of Zoroastrian priests in India itself, finally resulted in the publication in Paris in 1771 of the first European translation of the Avesta: "Le Zend-Avesta, ouvrage de Zoroastre."

The way which Anquetil du Perron trod was the only practicable one for the investigation of the Avesta; taking as his basis the modern interpretation of the Avesta by the faithful Parsees, he tried to fathom the meaning of the sacred texts. About fifty years later a second and equally necessary method came to be used. It was first explored by the Dane Rask and the Frenchman Burnouf, who concentrated on the philological study of the Avestan language on the basis of its close affinity to Sanskrit.

Since the pioneering days of Avestan philology the study of the language and content of the texts has been further promoted by many scholars including Christian Bartholomae and Karl Geldner who was responsible for a monumental edition of the text. But in spite of all the work whcih has been devoted to Avestan matters there is probably no field of religious history where we are still so much in the early stages of knowledge, and which is so involved in controversy.

The early history of the Iranian religion and the personality of the prophet Zoroaster are still matters of dispute. It may be inferred from Zoroaster's own statement (in Yasna 33, 6) that the prophet was a member of the priestly caste. It is thought that his homeland was in Eastern Iran, possibly in the Afghan mountains. The prophet's dates are still much disputed. The older view was that he lived circa 1000 B.C. but according to more recent opinion, which is steadily increasing in favour, he lived at the beginning of the Achaemenid period: this is based on a reference to a prince and patron of Zoroaster in the Gathas who was called Vishtaspa (Hystaspes). From the identity of the name with that of the father of Darius I it is inferred that they were one and the same person.

The most complicated problems are those connected with the translation of the Avesta and with the interpretation of its contents. It is probably true to say that it is the most difficult religious document in existence, that every attempt at translation also involves an interpretation, and that nowhere is the saying "traduttore - traditore" so applicable as here. It is certainly an exaggeration to say that in many places in the Avesta we are still at the stage of spelling out the letters and that some translations are no more intelligible than the original text.

These difficulties are due to the state in which the language of the Avesta has come down to us. With this in mind the French philologist Meillet has called the Avesta "un champ de ruines."

The Avestan language was written in a phonetic script running from right to left which was probably developed from Aramaic characters. It is an old Iranian dialect the local name for which is not known and which scholars have called (Old) Bactrian, Old Median, Zend and finally Avestan. It is quite distinct from Old Persian, the language of the Achaemenid inscriptions, which was written in a simplified cuneiform script. Of the modern Iranian dialects Afghan is probably the nearest to Avestan. As an old Iranian language Avestian is a member of the Indo-European family and represents the most difficult language in the group - we are referring to the form in which it has come down to us. It is clearly divided into two periods, an erlier, that of the Gatha dialect, and later. As already mentioned, Old Indian or Sanskrit is a considerable help towards the understanding of it. The affinity between the two languages is so close that it may be taken for granted that a man of the Gatha community could have made himself understood by a man from the circles in which the Rig Veda came into being. The relationship between Sanskrit and Avestan has sometimes been compared with that which exists between French and Italian. Since Sanskrit is incomparably better known, modern philologists treat Avestan as a dialect of Sanskrit.

The difficulties afforded by the Avestan texts certainly result to a large extent from the complicated textual history of these sacred writings. According to a Persian tradition a final canon of Avestan writings was already in existence under the Achaemenids, the production of which has been instituted by Darius III or even by Vishtaspa. It was said to have consisted of 21 Nasks (bundle or collection of sacred texts comprising a thousand chapters in all). It was written with liquid gold on ox-hides; Arabic writers maintain that this original text covered as many as 12,000 ox-hides. Two copies were made. One of these, which was preserved in the archives of the Persian kings in Persepolis, was destroyed when Alexander had the royal palace burnt down. The second copy was said to have been stolen by the victorious Greeks and a translation of it was alleged to have supplied them with all the scientific knowledge they possessed. In very recent years it has been questioned whether it is possible to regard even the nucleus of this legend as trustworthy, or whether the truth is not rather that in the early period the Avesta was transmitted entirely by word of mouth.

The second period in the textual history of the Avesta is that of the Sassanian dynasty (226-642), which was marked by a revival of Zoroastrian religion leading to a desire for an authoritative canon of the Avesta. The very first Sassanian king Ardashir (236-246) gave instructions for the scattered parts of the Avesta and probably the purely oral traditions as well, to be collected. He commissioned the high priest Tansar to produce a uniform text and this was put into circulation. His son Shapur I (246-272) extended this canon, and under Shaput II (309-379) the chancellor Atarpat carried out a uniform numbering of the Nasks. The Sassanian redaction included twenty-one Nasks, though they were not all complete. This Sassanian canon was seriously damaged during the Mohammedan invasion of Persia so that the present text, the earliest manuscript of which dates from the year 1323, represents a mere fraction of the canon: the fragmentary tradition of a once great literature, representing about a quarter only of the original contents. Furthermore, none of the surviving manuscripts contains all the available texts.

The term "Avesta" (from the Middle Persian apastak) probably means "text" or "basic text," possibly with special reference to its liturgical use. The term "Zend" (explanation) means the translations, paraphrases and interpretations of the sacred texts in the Pahlavi language - the Persian current at the time of the Parthians and Sassanians, which was superseded by the neo-Persian literary language in the ninth century. The very extensive fragments of the originally far larger Avestan literature have been classified in various ways. Pride of place is usually given to the Yasna (service, sacrifice, cf.skr. yajna) which contains the main texts of the Zoroastrian liturgy. The Yasna is also important because it contains the Gathas (Yasna 28:34; 43:51; 53). The Gathas represent the oldest constituents of the Avesta and derive from Zoroaster himself. In view of the fact that they contain the prophet's own words it is not surprising that they are the best preserved of the Avestan texts. At the same time, however, they represent, linguistically, the most archaic and difficult sections. In the original canon they formed a special Nask of their own. The term Gatha (cf. Sanskrit gita) means a special kind of aphoristic saying in verse. The Gathas are "sermons in verse" (Bartholomae), which derive from Zoroaster himself. Unlike the quantitative measure of Vedic verse, the metre is based on stress. The Gathas are our main source of information on the original form of Zoroaster's religion and the intentions of the founder. It is clear from the "Gatha of the Kine" (Yasna 29) that the estimation of peaceful labour which culminated in a plea for the protection of the ox, became the ethical foundation of the whole of Zoroaster's activity:

"Upon this the Soul of the Kine lamented (: Woe is unto me) since (I have obtained for myself) in my wounding a lord who is powerless to effect (his) wish, the (mere) voice of a feeble and pusillanimous man. Whereas I desire one who is lord over his will (and able as one of royal state to bring what he desires to effect). Aye, when shall he ever appear who may bring to her help strong-handed. "

But this social ethic has a religious basis: in the previous verse of the same Gatha, Zoroaster was described as the prophet of a divine order which is called asha in the Avesta. As the impassioned champion of this order, Zoroaster attacks all anti-god behaviour. Metaphysically this ethical dualism is founded on the antithesis between the good God, the "wise Lord" Ahuro Mazdao, and the evil spirit Angro Mainyush. This antithesis is expressed most forcibly in Yasna 45, 2:

"Yes, I will declare the world's two first spirits, of whom the more bountiful this spake to the harmful: Neither our thoughts, nor commands, nor our understanding, nor our beliefs, nor our deeds, nor our consciences, nor our souls are at one."

It is important to remember that this Zoroastrian dualism also had an influence on the language. It was not only transferred to the language but the breach, which according to Zoroaster's prophecy splits the whole cosmos, led to everyday things being strictly divided according as to whether they are good or bad creatures (ahuras or daevas).

The prophect of a final judgement flows directly from Zoroaster's dualism: he was therefore the first to establish a theory of the consummation of history.

The final verse (II) of Yasna 30 contains a reference to this eschatological conception:

"Wherefore, O ye men! Ye are learning these religious incitations which Ahura gave in our happiness and our sorrow. And ye are also learning what is the long wounding for the wicked companions of Drug; and the blessings which are in store for the righteous. And when these (shall have begun their course), salvation shall be (your portion)!"

The Gathas also contain a few references to Zoroaster's life and personality. Yasna 53 was written on the occasion of his youngest daughter's wedding. In Yasna 51, 12 there is a brief reference to an apparently shattering experience which came to the prophet:

"Paederast never gained his ear, nor Kavi - follower on this (temptation) - bridge of earth, when his body was (maturely) grown, when they both hasten(ed) to him with the bosom's impure power."

Above all, the Gathas reveal Zoroaster's seriousness as a prophet, the struggle against false doctrines and his insight into the difficulty of his prophetic task:

"An evil teacher, he will destroy the doctrines and by his teaching he will pervert the true understanding of life, seizing away (from me) my riches, the choice and real wealth of (Thy) Good Mind. To you and to Asha, O Ahura Mazda! am I therefore crying with the voice of my spirit's need!"

The rest of the Avesta differs from the Gathas both in language and subject-matter. The priestly language of the later Avesta is a dialect which evolved out of the language of the Gathas and is called "Younger Avestan." Priestly speculations are also the main content of these writings. They contain the church law, extensive liturgical texts and invocations of the Numina which, dating from pre-Zoroastrian times, were gradually incorporated in Zoroastrian theology.

The Videvdat (vidaeva data, "book of laws against the demons") also transcribed as Vendidad) is the only text of the Avesta that survives in its original complete state - it formed the 19th Nask of the Avesta described in the Denkart (Acts of the Religion). It comprises 22 chapters. Chapters 3-21 form the main part; they contain the priestly law of Parseeism. The last chapter is devoted mainly to medical themes. Preceding the main part are two chapters which represent a kind of Genesis of Zoroastrianism. Chapter I deals with the creation of the sixteen lands of Ahuro Mazdao and Angro Mainyush's attempt to destroy them by plagues. Chapter 2 contains the story of Yima (Sanskrit Yama) who is first described as King of a Golden Age and then as the leader of those who are saved from a "fatal winter" which Ahuro Mazdao ordered against "evil, materialistic humanity"; this represented an Iranian version of the story of the Flood. Sacrificial formulae and prayers with invocations to numerous saints are contained in the Vispered (vispe ratabo "all Lords") and the Khorda Avesta (Small Avesta) with the Yashts (Songs of Praise). Some of the Yashta are especially important because in them gods and powers are invoked, the worship of which reaches back far into the period before Zoroaster.

In the Ardvisur Yasht (Yasht 5) the goddess of the waters and fertility, Ardvi Sura Anahita, is invoked. She is very important in the incipient syncretism of the Achaemenid period. Various heroes of the legendary age turn to her with their requests: in Yasht 5, 37ff., for example, we read as follows:

"To her did Keresaspa, the manly-hearted, offer up a sacrifice behind the Vairi Pisanah, with a hundred male horses, a thousand oxen and ten thousand lambs. He begged of her a boon, saying: 'Grant me this, O good, most beneficent Ardvi Sura Anahita! That I may overcome the golden heeled gandarswa, though all the shores of the sea Voura-Kasha are boiling over; and that I may run up to the stronghold of the fiend of the wide, round earth, whose end lied afar. Ardvi Sura Anahita granted him that boon."

Yasht 10 appeals to Mirhra (Sanskrit Mitra) the god of truth and patron of loyalty. Yasht 13 glorifies the Fravashis, the manes of the faithful.

Verethraghna (Sanskrit Vritrahan), a god of martial victory, who also appears in the form of the wind, (Vata. Vayu) is glorified in Yasht 14. The intoxicating drink Haoma (Sanskrit Soma) and the glory of the kings are also celebrated in the Yashts.