The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW


Zoroastrian Literature

ZoroastrianThe religion of India and that of Persia started from a common stock of ideas and usages. A fire-god, wind- and rain-gods, and the serpent hostile to man, on whom these made war, are common to both countries. The institution of sacrifice, in which the deities are served with offerings and with hymns, is markedly alike in both countries. In both alike sacrifice is at first the affair not of a priesthood but of laymen, especially of princes, and is not confined to temples but is performed in the open air, on a spot judged to be suitable. The most imposing sacrifice is that of the horse, and an offering of constant occurrence is that of the intoxicating liquor, in India Soma, in Persia by a recognised transliteration Homa.

The sacred books of Persia are known by the name of "Zend-Avesta," which is an incorrect expression ; one ought to say Avesta and Zend. "Avesta," like the kindred word "Veda," signifies knowledge, and the word "Zend" denotes here not the language of that name, but the "commentary" afterwards added to the original knowledge or text. The origin of the term Avesta is unclear, but could probably be translated with 'foundation' or 'texts of praising'. The proper form is " Avesta-Zend," which is the order always used in the Pehlevi books. This word, "Avesta-Zend," is a contraction of Avesta u Zend, "Avesta and Zend" - "Text and Comment." The commentary is not written in the Zend language, but in Pahlavi or Persian. The Avesta, which is written in the older Zend, the sacred language of Persia, is, like other Bibles, a collection of books written in different ages, and even, it may be, in different lands. The books were brought together into one only at some period after the Christian era.

For a long time the texts of Avesta was orally transmitted, and came not to be written down before 6th century BC, which is about 1,000 years after they first started to be used. Later sources claim that the Avesta was originally written in gold on prepared ox-hides and stored at Istakhr, and that it was destroyed by Alexander. Although parts of the sacred text are assumed to have been written down again during the Parthian period, in the first and second centuries AD, the Avesta did not exist in its complete form until perhaps the sixth century AD, under the Sasanians. Unfortunately, this version has not survived. The present Avesta dates back to the thirteenth or fourteenth century and contains only a fraction of the original. The original Avesta was made up of 21 sections, nasks. Only one nask is intact to the full extent the Vendidad.

The present Avesta, edited during the Sassanian era, is composed of the Avesta proper and the Little Avesta. The former includes the Vendidad, a Book of Laws with interpolated mythical fragments; the Yasna, or litanies, to be recited during the offering of sacrifice, with suplications to the divinities, mixed with fragments of traditional lore; next, a collection of Gathas, or verses arranged in strophes; and finally the Vispered, likewise composed of sacrificial litanies. In some of the manuscripts these pieces stand by themselves, are divided into chapters and verses according to the plan inintroduced into the Syrian schools, and are accompanied by the translation into the Parthian or Sassanian tongue (the Pahlavi). In other manuscripts they come as they are to be read during the liturgy, without regular sequence; and then they have no accompanying translation.

This arrangement, with the first twenty-seven chapters of the Yasna and the first twelve of the Vispered commingled, and then followed by the first four chapters of the Vendidad and then by the first Gatha, is called the Vendidad sadeh, ('the pure,' or unaccompanied by the translation). The Little Avesta, however, is that portion of the Holy Scriptures which the laity may read at any time, and is therefore not connected with sacrifices and liturgy. It contains many short treatises, as for example, the Nosk-Hadokht on the fate of the soul after death, and eighteen of the original thirty Yasht, or laudatory prayers to the Yazatas, who were divine beings especially designated to preside as gemi over the days of the month. From quotations in the language of the Avesta, which are found in later Pahlavi writings, it may be concluded that the Avesta was once larger.

The Gathas, are the part of the Avesta which is believed to be the work of Zarathustra himself. The gathas, the work and teaching of Zarathustra, are poems written in meters which occur also in the Vedas, and intended, like the Indian hymns, to be used in worship. The account which they furnish of the mission and the teaching of the sage are thus clothed in a poetical dress, and do not narrate bare facts as they occurred, but the facts as interpreted and treated for religious use. They are in the mouth of Zarathustra himself; he writes them for use at sacrifice, and remembering how they are to be rendered, he sometimes puts in the mouth of the celebrants the words, "Zarathustra and we."

The hymns give a vivid picture of that early world in which the prophet lived. It was a world distracted with conflict. On one side there is an agricultural community bent on industry, and, like the Hindus, even at this day, valuing as most sacred the cattle which forms their chief substance. On the other hand, there are men who dwell on the outskirts between the tilled land and the wilderness, who are constantly making raids on the farms, driving off and killing the cattle for sacrifice and for food, and ruining the fields by destroying the irrigating works on which their fertility depends. And there is a religious difference as well as a difference in culture between these two sets of people. The agriculturists are worshippers of Ahura; the contemners of the cattle worship beings called in the Gathas "daevas." This schism was not of Zarathustra's making, he found it going on, and being a priest was entitled to come forward and seek to guide others with regard to it.

The world is filled with a great struggle. On the one side is Ahura, the only god worshipped by name in the Gathas. Ahura is a heaven-god, he is, in fact, the bright heaven, and then the good and beneficent being who dwells in brightness. In the hymns he is losing his definite character and becoming an abstraction, a god of dogmatics rather than of history. He is the good principle personified, and as becomes a god of such transcendent character, he does not act directly, but through his satellites. His attributes personified, do his bidding, aid the saints in spiritual ways, and prepare for the better order of things. On the other hand are the Daevas with the demon of wrath, who propagate everywhere lies and mischief, and heap up vengeance for themselves against the final judgment.

As it happens in every such reform, the new teaching is not quite consistent with itself; old views are taken up into the new teaching, although they do not harmonise with it; the spiritual way of looking at things alternates with a more worldly way. As an examples of this, the great doctrine of Heaven and Hell as inner states, as being simply the best and the worst state of mind, is clearly announced; but the traditional view of future abodes of happiness and misery also appears.

After the Gathas proper there are other hymns written in the Gathic dialect, from which the history of the religion after its foundation may be to some extent inferred. In these works there is not one religious system only but several. In one place there is a worship of one god, as if there were no others to be considered; some of the litanies on the other hand contain lengthy and elaborate lists of objects of worship. In some parts the religion is personal and immediate; in others it is priestly. Iran in fact had not one religion but several, and thus the problem is to trace how these successively entered into contact with Mazdeism or Zoroastrianism, which is the religion most native to Iran, and were embodied in it.

In its outward form the Avesta belongs to the Sassanian period the last survival of the compilers' work. 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.

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.

Join the mailing list

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 11-12-2015 17:01:41 ZULU