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Languages are the most widely spoken
family of languages in the world. Some
1.6 billion people speak it. Alphabetically, they contain the following
subfamilies: Albanian, Anatolian, Armenian, Baltic, Celtic, Germanic, Greek,
Indo-Iranian, Italic, Slavic, and Tocharic.
They consist of hundreds of languages and dialects.
From the point of "native ness," they include
"Bengali" spoken in Bangla Desh in the Bay of Bengal in south-east
Asia and Icelandic in extreme north-west of Europe. In simpler words it spans
Eurasia. English, Spanish, French
and a few other languages have spread far beyond their native borders through
European colonization during the last four centuries.
English, Spanish, to a lesser extent, French are the dominant languages
in Americas. Once Persian was the
dominant cultural language from Turkey on the Mediterranean Sea to the Chinese
borders in Central Asia and the Indian Sub-continent.
Political setbacks have shrunk its borders to present Iran, Afghanistan,
The Indo-Iranian subfamily, also known by the name "Aryan," has
two branches -- Iranian and Indic (also known as Indo-Aryan).
Its living languages are spoken by 500 million people in and around the
Iranian Plateau and the Indian Sub-continent.
The ancient Indo-Iranian language had twin dialects: Avesta and Vedic.
The too have the oldest literature of the Indo-European languages on
record. In fact, the Gathas of
Zarathushtra are the most archaic form of the family.
On written record, their antiquity is superseded by the Hittite branch of
the Anatolian subfamily. Hittite texts in cuneiform date from 3600 years
The original country of the Indo-Iranian language was somewhere east of
Volga on the steppes. Subsequent
southward migrations took the tribes to what is now known as Central Asia.
Further migrations split the family into two.
What are known as Indics began their trek down through the present-day
Afghanistan to the Indus Valley and into the entire sub-continent.
The Iranian remained only to spread all over what is called the Iranian
Plateau. Traditionally the ancient
migratory waves took the Indo-Iranian 1500 years to settle in Central Asia.
This happened after the ice age cold spell of at least 8000 years ago.
Historical and archeological evidence also gives almost the same time for
the waves but places it about 4000 years ago.
This brings it close to Hittite period.
Avesta is name given to the most ancient language of the Iranian branch.
The word "Avesta" is written in Pahlavi as "apistâk"
or "apastâk". If
the assumption is correct that the word is "avistâk," then,
like the Indic "Veda," it could be derived from "vid"
to know. That is why some opine
that it should mean "wisdom, knowledge." That makes the Pahlavi term
of "avistâk u zand" mean the "Knowledge and
Looking to the fact that Avesta was a dead language by the Parthian
period and that it was only explained by priests through "zand"
and the mysticism that surrounded the text and still surrounds all sacred
scriptures, I render the word to be "a" (negative prefix) +
"vista" (known) = Avistâ, unknown, mysterious sacred text
explained only through "zand" commentary.
For similar examples one should turn to the claims by Christian, Gnostic,
Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim masters who say only they and their relevant
predecessors could "unlock" and explain the mysterious, hidden,
unknown meanings of their scriptures. I render "avistâk u zand"
to mean "The Occult and the Commentary."
THE AVESTA LITERATURE
The general belief prevailing among common people, Zoroastrians or not,
is that the Avesta constitutes the “Sacred Books of the Zoroastrians.”
Looking at the sacred scriptures of other living religions, it should be so.
Baha’ism, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism,
Judaism, and Sikhism, have their relevant sacred books. A closer look would,
however, reveal that the conscious or unconscious founder of each religion or
order had his or her inspired or thought-out message conveyed in person. Later
the successors added much around the nucleus of the founding message and
consequently produced a collection of writings, some of them in a different
dialect or language. Still later, the followers of the successors canonized the
collection—duly collated, edited, and even translated to suit the times—to
form their sacred scriptures. Some went even further. They ascribed the entire
collection to a single author: the revelatory founder, enlightened promulgator,
inspiring gods, or God of Revelation!
The same holds true about the Avesta, “the Sacred Books of the
Zoroastrians.” A linguistical and historical scrutiny of the collection,
however, will reveal several layers of literature which could not but have taken
almost a thousand years to materialize into an oral literature—oral because,
like most of the sacred books of other religions, it was precisely and
meticulously memorized and passed on by word of mouth through generations until
its final reduction in writing. Tradition says that it was put in writing in the
very earliest times. But from what we know of the scripts among the Iranians, it
could have been done during the Achaemenian period (550-330 BCE) when the
Iranians learned how to read and write.
The collection suffered a disaster when Alexander of Macedonia invaded
Iran 2317 years ago in 321 BCE, put an end to the Achaemenian empire, and
devastated the royal treasuries in which the Avesta was reportedly kept. An
effort was begun during the Parthian period (250 BCE-224 CE) to collect what
remained in priestly memories and scattered records. The arduous task was
completed and the collection was collated, screened, augmented, and canonized
centuries later during the reign of the Sassanian King Chosroes I (Khosrow
Anushiravan) in about 560 CE.
It may be noted that during the entire period of collecting, collating,
and canonizing of the Avesta, Jews and Christians were also engaged in a similar
move, and the present forms and orders of all sacred scriptures are the result
of meticulous labor over centuries. Yet critical studies of all them continue to
find new and sometimes startling points about their original texts, volumes,
languages, styles, and the hands of those who have edited, at times
interpolated, adulterated, added, and deducted to give the final forms to the
scriptures before their canonizations.
The Sassanian canon of the Avesta was divided into 21 volumes, called nasks
in the Pahlavi language. The nasks were put into three categories of seven each.
The first category, called Gathic, had the first nask named after two Gathic
terms to read Stoata Yesnya (Pahlavi Stot
Yasn), meaning “Reverential Praises.” It consisted of the seventeen
songs of the Gathas of Zarathushtra and certain subtle addenda of his close
companions—a total of 33 sections, all in, more or less, the same dialect.
This was considered the core, the foremost of the nasks. The remaining six nasks
of this category, in a slightly different dialect now conventionally called the
“Younger” or “Later” Avesta, perhaps the dialect spoken by the priests
in control, were later commentaries and supplementaries concerning the first
nask. This category is recognized as the “spiritual” in Pahlavi books.
The second category is Dâtik, meaning
the “legislative” part of the collection. It had rules and regulations for
socio-religious matters. It is called “material” by the Pahlavi writings.
The third, Hadha-mânthra, meaning
“With the Thought-provoking [Words]” was a mixture of both, a kind of
miscellanea. This encyclopedic collection covered the then known subjects,
Avestan as well as alien, on religion, mythology, epic, history, geography,
astronomy, hygiene, healing, medicine, agriculture, judicial law, government,
Every piece of the Avestan text had a Pahlavi translation, commentary,
and supplementary following. It was the Pahlavi renderings on which the latter
priests relied to expound the religion, because Avesta, as the name “a+vista”
reveals, had become an “unknown” and mystical divine language no more
understood by the people, including the Sassanian and post-Sassanian
The collapse of the theocratic Sassanian empire in 651 CE left the
Zoroastrian church without its dominating royal support, and the whole system,
including the Avestan and Pahlavi scriptures, began to fall apart. Nevertheless
much of the collection survived as late as the 10th century CE, a period during
which many of the Pahlavi scriptures were written—also revised to suit
the times—in a rather salvage operation. It is estimated that between one
third to one fourth of the entire collection has been salvaged. The extant
Avesta, mostly religious, has been reshaped, somewhat casually, sometimes
after the 10th century, to make a little more than six books. They are:
“Reverence”): It has 72 chapters, each called a hâiti,
meaning “section.” It has the Gathic Staota
Yesnya intact, placed, a little haphazardly, in the middle of the Yasna.
Every priest, literate or not, modest or great, had it well in memory. It could
not be lost! The Gathas have, therefore, very miraculously suffered no loss. We
have the entire divine message of Zarathushtra—fresh and inspiring—in the
very words of the Teacher, a feature none of the ancient religions can
Besides the Staota
Yesnya, the remaining 42 haitis, most
probably salvaged, from the Hadhamanthra nasks, are, more or less, monotonous
and repetitive praises of the Creator and the created. Many of the haitis are
but different versions of a single section. Some are mere announcements about
what the priest is doing or going to perform. They have been obviously put
before and after the Staota Yesnya because the priests used them as preparatory
or complementary parts of their Gathic rituals. This explains why the bulk of
the Gathic texts are placed in the middle of the 72-chapter Yasna.
Let it be emphasized again that the present form and order of the Yasna
of the 72 chapters is not the Sassanian canon, and in all its probabilities, is
a reshaped order after most of the nasks were lost, sometime after the 9th
One more point. There are four haitis, 9th to 11th, known as the Hom
Yasht, dedicated to the deity of the Haoma plant and its intoxicating juice used
by the pre-Zarathushtrian priests in their rituals, and 57th, called Sarosh
Yasht, in honor of Seraosha, the Gathic abstract for the “guiding divine voice”
personified by the latter priesthood. They should not have been included in this
collection because of their context and style, and should have gone to the Yasht
collection, but for obvious reasons better known to the priestly authorities,
they have been included in the Yasna collection. The Yasna has approximately
24,000 words, about 7,600 of them in the Gathic dialect, the Staota Yesnya
2. Vispered ( All-Festivals)
is related to the original seasonal occasions and the intercalary days at the
end of the then lunisolar year of the earliest Zarathushtrian calendar. Called Gahanbars
in Pahlavi and Persian, they are thanksgiving ceremonies and feasts at the close
of each agricultural season corresponding to the climate of the Iranian Plateau.
Vispered is definitely older than its corresponding Yasna section, because the
non-Gathic Yasna speaks about a purely solar calendar. Vispered has 24 fragards,
a later Pahlavi term meaning “chapter” and approximately 4,000 words.
(see Spenta No.1-2 for Gahanbars).
3. Yashts (Revered) are either
fully poetical or prose-poetry pieces in praise of deities. They fall into two
categories: (1) The martial in honor of pre-Zarathushtrian Aryan gods—water
goddess Anahita, plant deity Haoma, contract god Mithra, sun god Hvare, rain god
Tishtrya, victory god Verethraghna, wind god Vayu and a few others who were
reintroduced or deified later under the new term of yazatas
(venerable). They have an epical air about them. They sing of the heroic feats
of the deities who grant boons only
to their relevant sacrificing devotees. (2) The clerical ones are composed by
post-Zarathushtrian temple priests in honor of Ahura Mazda and certain Gathic
concepts personified to form, along with the reintroduced deities, a divine
pantheon. They are incantational in nature. The number of Yashts varies
from 21 to 30 according to various reckonings. Originally more in number, they
belonged to the Datic (legislative) category because being non-Gathic, epical in
nature and easy to chant, they were more popular among the people attached to
the ruling class. The Yashts have a total of about 35,800 words. They constitute
a highly interesting part of the Avesta.
4. Vendidad (Vi-Daeva
Dâta = Law against the Daevas [evil deities]) has mostly rules and
regulations governing pollution and purification in a remote age of primitive
and crude hygiene and few disinfectants. Although of very late composition in
the Avestan language, the contents show that it might well have its roots in
pre-Aryan Iran of the temple-cult of priests and priestesses. Its laws are
harsh, laborious, intricate, and time-consuming. It does not correspond with
what we know about the free and buoyant ancient Indo-Iranians. In addition to
its main subject of pollution and purification, it has a few chapters on spells,
religion, legends, history, geography,
and animals. It is an important source of ancient anthropology. It has 24 fragards
and a total of 19,000 words.
and Nirangistan, Books of Priests and Rites, guide people in learning to
become a priest or priestess and in performing and/or leading rituals. The
contents show that the books were compiled at an early age when the Staota
Yesnya constituted the only “canon,” rituals were not fully
institutionalized, priesthood constituted only a part-time profession, and the
priestly class had not become powerful or hereditary. The two as twins have, in
their salvaged shape, 17 brief parts and approximately 3,000 words. They have an
elaborate Pahlavi commentary which reflects the gradual ascendancy of the
hereditary priestly class.
6. Miscellaneous consists of pieces and fragments of varying lengths,
some in good condition and some mutilated, that make a total of approximately
Khordeh Avesta (Smaller Avesta),
the popular book of daily prayers since the printing press came into vogue, is
neither an independent book, nor a salvage of the wrecked nasks, nor a standard
scripture of specific chapters and length. Each manuscript and printed edition
has its own number of contents. It has not been mentioned in any of the Pahlavi
writings which supply us with the names and contents of the Avestan scriptures.
It is a digest of selected prayers from the nasks, mostly outside the Stoata
Yesnya—evidently meant to serve as an easy and handy supplement to the Gathas
and their associate prayers.
However, its gradual popularity, especially among the simple folks, has
made it the only prayer book so much so that many of the faithful believe
it to be the Avesta as revealed to Zarathushtra! Originally consisting of
no more than 4,000 words, it may, in its augmented editions, contain as many as
20,000 words. But whether it has less than 4,000 or more than 20,000 words, all
it has are 183 words from the Gathas
of 6,000 words! It is, indeed, a very non-Gathic selection from the Avesta. Ashem
Vohu and Yatha Ahu are repeated
so often that one loses their dynamic, thought-provoking message. Moreover,
Khordeh Avesta has many of its Avestan prayers supplemented by late Middle
Persian pieces. It is, therefore, a bi-lingual prayer book and of a recent
The extant Avesta has a round total of 98,000 words. As already said, it
is estimated to be less than one third of the original collection of twenty-one
nasks of the Sassanian theocracy.
It may be pointed out that only the Staota Yesnya, the part in the Gathic
dialect, has been mentioned in the Avesta. Staota Yesnya as well as its 33
components have been revered by name. Other parts of the Avesta are either
mentioned in Pahlavi writings, or are recognized by their Pahlavi/Persian titles
in their respective manuscripts.
That is why their names are in the Pahlavi style. Furthermore, the Staota Yesnya
proper—the Gathas and the Haptanghaiti
(Seven Chapters)—are the only prayers prescribed by the Avesta, whether
performed individually, collectively, ritually, or casually.
The Zarathushtrian Assembly holds the Gathas as the only doctrinal
documents and other parts of the Staota Yesnya as their supplements of
explanatory and devotional importance. The remaining parts of the extant Avesta
and Pahlavi writings, as already stated in Spenta
1-2 of July-August 1991, have their ethical, historical, geographical, and
anthropological values. They are, nevertheless, of significant help in better
understanding the Staota Yesnya from philological and sometimes philosophical
points of view.
This does not mean that The Assembly advocates the often-heard slogan of
“Back to the Gathas.” The Gathas are not the past to go back to them. They
are the guide and as such, they are the present and the future. The
slogan or motto, if any, should be: “Forward with the Gathas!”
What, therefore, is needed is neither revision nor modification nor
reformation, but restoration. We must resort to the Gathas, so far
unconsciously kept above the reach of people,
in order to restore ourselves to the Good Conscience, the true Zarathushtrian
religion. The restoration of the pure and pristine Gathic principles in every
wake of life—both mental and physical—would automatically mean
modernization, rather continuous modernizing process. It shall keep us always
abreast of time, abreast with a foresight.
"May we learn, understand, comprehend, practice, teach, and preach”
the inspiring message of the divinely inspired Mâńthran, the thought-provoking
Teacher Zarathushtra, because according to Yasna 55, the Gathas, Our Guide are
“the Primal Principles of Life ... [and] we wish to maintain our lives fresh
as is the will of God Wise.”
* * * * * *
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