Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
to Holy Avesta
Dr A. A. J'afari
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 "nativeness,"
they include "Bengali" spoken in Bangla Desh in the Bay of
Bengal in southeast Asia and Icelandic in extreme northwest 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 and, 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
two 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 On written record, their antiquity is superseded by the Hittite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 ago.
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 Indian
sub-continent. The Iranians remained only to spread all over what is
called the Iranian Plateau. Traditionally the ancient migratory waves took
the Indo-Iranian 1800 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 the Hittite
Avestan & Holy Avesta
Avestan 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 ud zand" mean the
"Knowledge and Commentary."
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 ud zand"
to mean "The Occult and the Commentary." (see my
"The Meaning of Avesta", Ancient Iranian Cultural Society
Bulletin, Tehran, 1965 for details)
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 from the native Elamites and the neighburing
Assyrians and Babylonians.
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 "menok -- mental/spiritual" in
The second category is Dâtik, meaning the "legislative"
part of the collection. It had rules and regulations for socio-religious
matters. It is called "getik -- worldly/material" by the
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, and development.
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 fourth to one third 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:
1.Yasna (literally "Veneration"): 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 boast of.
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 century CE.
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 core.
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 Gâhânbârs 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
3. Yashts (Venerated) 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 deities -- river goddess Aredvi Sûrâ Anâhitâ,
plant deity Haoma, pastoral 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 Dâtic (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
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
5. Herbadistan 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
7. 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 compilation.
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 each of its 33 components, has 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 Haptanghâiti (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. [This is exactly what
the Zrathushtrian Assembly has accomplished since its foundation.]
"May we learn, understand, comprehend, practice, teach, and
preach" the inspiring message of the divinely inspired Mâñthran,
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."
Khordad 3742 ZRE = 19 June 2004 CE
was originally published in the Zarathushtrian Assembly quarterly
"SPENTA, Vol.1, Nos. 3 & 4, August 1991-January 1992. For
more information on the Avesta, please see "THE AVESTA AT A
GLANCE," by Ali A. Jafarey, Books N Bits Publications, 1999.
Address: Books N Bits, Artesia Center, 11829 Artesia Blvd., Artesia,
CA 90701, firstname.lastname@example.org.
is the Light on the Path to Future"
British Institute of Persian Studies