Now unto eager listeners will I speak
Of the Two Spirits Mazda did create:
This for the Wise;-to Ahura my hymns
I'll offer, and my chants to Vohu-Man';
And Asha's Sacred Lore will I expound,
That ye, grown perfect, may attain His Light.
at ta vakhshya ishento
ya mazdatha hyatchit vikushe
yesnyacha vang-heush manang-ho
humanzdra asha yecha
ya raochebish daresata urvaza
I.J.S. Taraporewala, The Gathas of Zarathushtra, Bombay, 1947
3) Contests, Arrangement, Extent, and Character
The Avesta, as we now have it, is but a remnant of a once great literature. It has come down in a more or less fragmentary
condition; not even a single manuscript contains all the texts that we now have; whatever we possess has been collected together
from various codices. All that survives is commonly classed under the following divisions or books:
1. Yasna, including the Gathas
4. Minor texts, as Nyaishes, Gahs etc.
6. Fragments, from Hadhokht Nask etc.
In the first five divisions two groups are recognized. The first group comprises the Vendidad, Vispered, and Yasna; these as used
in the service of worship are traditionally classed together for liturgical purposes and from the Avesta proper. In the manuscripts,
moreover, these three books themselves appear in two different forms, according as they are accompanied, or not, by a Pahlavi version.
If the books are kept separate as three divisions, each part is usually accompanied by a rendering in Pahlavi. On the contrary, however,
these three books are not usually recited each as a separate whole, but with the chapters of one book mingled with another for liturgical
purposes, on this account the MSS. often present them in their intermingled form, portions of one inserted with the other, and arranged
exactly in the order in which they are to be used in the service. In this latter case the Pahlavi translation is omitted, and the collection
is called the Vendidad sadeh or 'Vendidad pure' i.e. text without commentary. The second group comprising the minor prayers and the Yashts
which the MSS. often include with these, is called the Khordah Avesta or 'small Avesta'. Of the greater part of the latter there
is no Pahlavi rendering. The contents and character of the several divisions, including the fragments, may now be taken up more in detail.
(1) The Yasna, 'sacrifice, worship', is the chief liturgical work of the sacred canon. It consists principally of ascriptions of praise
and prayer, and in it are inserted the Gathas, or 'hymns', verses
from the sermons of Zoroaster, which are the oldest and most sacred part of the Avesta. The Yasna comprises 72 chapters, called Ha,
Haiti. These are the texts recited by the priests at the ritual ceremony of the Yasna. The book falls into three
nearly equal divisions. The first part begins with an invocation of the god, Ormazd, and the other divinities of the religion; it gives texts
for the consecration of the holy water, zaothra, and the baresma, or bundle of sacred twigs, for the preparation and dedication of the Haoma
the juice of a certain plant -the Indian Soma- which was drunk by the priests as a sacred rite, and for the offering of blessed cakes, as well as
meat-offering, which likewise were partaken of by the priests. Interspersed through this portion, however, are a few chapters that deal only indirectly
with the ritual; these are Ys.12, the later Zoroastrian creed, and Ys. 19-21, catechetical portions. Then follow the Gathas
lit. 'songs', 'psalms' (chap. 28-53), metrical selections or verses containing the teachings, exhortations, and revelations of Zoroaster. The prophet exhorts men to eschew
evil and choose the good, the kingdom of light rather than that of darkness. These Gathas
are written in meter, and their language is more archaic and somewhat different from that used elsewhere in the Avesta. The Gathas,
strictly speaking, are five in numbers; they are arranged according to meters, and are named after the opening words, Ahunavaiti, Ushtavaiti etc. The Gathas
comprise 17 hymns, and, like the Psalms, they must later have been chanted during the service. They seem originally to have been the texts or metrical headings
from which Zoroaster, like the later Buddha, preached. In their midst is inserted the so-called Yasna of the Seven Chapters (Yasna Haptanghaiti). This is written
in prose, and consists of a number of prayers and ascriptions of praise to Ahura Mazda, or Ormazd, to the archangels, the souls of the righteous, the fire, the waters,
and the earth. Though next in antiquity to the Gathas, and in archaic language,
the Haptanghaiti represents a somewhat later and more developed form of the religion, than that which in the Gathas
proper was just beginning. Under the Gathas also are included three or four specially
sacred verses or formulas. These are the Ahuna Vairya or Honovar, Ashem Vohu, Airyama Ishyo and also the Yenghe Hatam,
so called from their first words, like the Pater Noster, Gloria Patri, etc. to which in a measure they answer. The third part or the 'latter Yasna' consists
chiefly of praises and offerings of thanks-giving to different divinities.
(2) The Vispered consists of addition to portions of the Yasna wich it resembles in language and in form. It comprises 24 chapters, and it is about a seventh as long as the Yasna.
In the ritual the chapters of the Vispered are inserted among those of the Yasna. It contains invocations and offerings of homage to 'all the lords'. Hence the name Vispered.
(3) The Yashts consist of 21 hymns of praise and adorations of the divinities or angels, Yazatas (Izads), of the religion. The chief Yashts are those in praise of Ardvisura,
the godess of waters (Yt. 5), the star Tishtrya (Yt. 8), the angel Mithra, or divinity of truth (Yt. 10), the Fravashis, or departed souls of the righteous (Yt. 13), the genius of victory,
Verethraghna (Yt. 14), and of the Kingly Glory (Yt. 19). The Yashts are written mainly in meter, they have poetic merit, and contain much mythological and historical matter that may be illustrated
by Firdausi's later Persian epic, The Shah Namah.
(4) The minor texts, Nyaishes, Gahs, Sirozahs, Afringans, consist of brief prayers, praises, or blessings to be recited daily or on special occasions.
(5) The Vendidad, or 'law against the daevas, or demons' is a priestly code in 22 chapters (called Fargard), corresponding to the Pentateuch in the Bible. Its parts very greatly in time and in style
of composition. Much of it must be late. The first chapter is a sort of an Avestan Genesis, a dualistic account of creation. Chap. 2 sketchesthe legend of Yima, the golden age, and the coming of a destructive
winter, an Iranian flood. Chap. 3 teaches, among other things, the blessings of agriculture; Chap. 4 contains legal matter-breaches of contract, assaults,punishments; Chap. 5-12 relate mainly to the impurity
from the dead; Chap. 13-15 deal chiefly with the treatment of the dog; Chap. 16-17, and partly 18, are devoted to purification from several sorts of uncleanness. In Chap. 19 is found the temptation of Zoroaster,
and the revelation; Chap. 20-22 are chiefly of medical character. In the ritual, the chapters of the Vendidad are inserted among the Gathas.
(6) Besides the above books there are a number of fragments, one or two among them from the Hadhokht Nask. There are also quotations or passages from missing Nasks, likewise glosses and glossaries. Here belong
pieces from the Nirangistan, Aogemadaecha, Zand-Pahlavi glossary, and some other fragments. These are all written in the Avesta language, and are parts of a once great literature. Under the Zoroastrian religious
literature, however, though not written in Avesta, must also be included the works in Pahlavi, many of which are translations from the Avesta, or contain old matter from the original scriptures.
From the above contents, it will be seen that our present Avesta is rather a Prayer-Book than a Bible. The Vendidad, Vispered, and Yasna were gathered together by the priests for liturgical purposes. It was the duty of the
priests to recite the whole of these sacred writings every day, in order to preserve their own purity, and be able to perform the rites of purification, or give remission of sins to others. The solemn recital of the Vendidad,
Vispered, and Yasna at the sacrifice might be compared with our church worship. The selections from the Vendidad would correspond to the Pentateuch when read; the preparation, consecration, and presentation of the holy waters,
the Haoma-juice, and the meat-offering, described in the Yasna and Vispered would answer to our communion service; the metrical parts of the Yasna would be hymns; the intoning of the Gathas would somewhat resemble the lesson and
the Gospel, or even the sermon. In the Khordah Avesta, the great Yashts might perhaps be comparable to some of the more epic parts of our Bible; But as they are devoted each to some divinity and preserve much of the old mythology,
they really have hardly a parallel, even in the apocryphal books.
Such, in brief outline, is the contents of the books known to-day as the Avesta; but, as implied above, this is but a remnant of a literature once vastly greater in extent. This we can judge both from internal and from historical-
evidence. The character of the work itself in its present form, sufficiently shows that it is a compilation from various sources. This is further supported by the authority of history, if the Parsi tradition, going back to the time
of the Sassanide, be trustworthy. Pliny tells of 2,000,000 verses composed by Zoroaster. The Arab historian, Tabari, describes the writings of Zoroaster as committed to 12,000 cowhides (parchments); other Arabic reference by Masudi,
and Syriac allusions to an Avesta, which must have been extensive, have been noted above 2,3. The Parsi tradition on the subject is contained in the Rivayats, and in a Pahlavi book, the Dinkard. The Dinkard (Bk. 3) describes two complete
copies of the Avesta. These each comprised 21 Nasks, or Nosks (books). The one deposited in the archives at Persepolis, as The Arda Viraf says, perished in the flames when Alexander burned the palace in his invasion of Iran. The other
copy, it is implied, was in some way destroyed by the Greeks. From that time the scriptures, like the religion under the Graeco-Parthian away, lived on, partly in scattered writings and partly in the memories of the priests, for nearly 500 years.
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