1902 Encyclopedia > Zend Avesta

Zend Avesta

ZEND-AVESTA, the original document of the religion of ZOROASTER (q.v.), and still used by the PARSEES (q.v.) as their bible and prayer book. The name " Zend-Avesta " has been current in Europe since the time of Anquetil Duperron (c. 1771), but the Parsees themselves call it simply Avesta,— Zend (i.e., "interpretation") being specially employed to denote the translation and exposition of a great part of the Avesta which exists in PAHLAVI (q.v.). Text and transla-tion are often spoken of together in Pahlavi books as Avistdk va Zand ("Avesta and Zend "), whence (through a misunderstanding) our word Zend-Avesta. The origin and meaning of the word "Avesta" (or in its older form Avistük) are alike obscure; it cannot be traced further back than the Sasanian period. The language of the Avesta is still frequently called Zend; but, as already implied, this is a mistake. We possess no other document written in it, and on this account modern Parsee scholars, as well as the older Pahlavi books, speak of the language and the writing indifferently as Avesta. As the original home of the lan-guage can only be very doubtfully conjectured, we shall do well to follow the usage sanctioned by old custom and apply the word to both. Although the Avesta is a work of but moderate compass (comparable, say, to the Iliad and Odyssey taken together), there nevertheless exists no single MS. which gives it in its entirety. This circum-stance alone is enough to reveal the true nature of the book : it is a composite whole, a collection of writings as the Old Testament is. It consists, as we shall afterwards-see, of the last remains of the extensive sacred literature in which the Zoroastrian faith was formerly set forth.

Contents and Character.—As we now have it, the Avesta consists of four parts,—the Yasna, the Vispered, the Vendidad, and the Khordah Avesta.

1. The Yasna, the principal liturgical book of the Parsees, in 72 chapters (hditi, hd), contains the texts that are read by the priest at the solemn Yasna (Izeshne) ceremony. The arrangement of the chapters is purely liturgical, although their matter in many cases has nothing to do with the liturgical action. The kernel of the whole book, around which the remaining portions are grouped, consists of the Gdthds or "hymns" of ZOROASTER {q.v.), the oldest and most sacred portion of the entire canon. The Yasna accordingly falls into three sections of about equal length, (a) The introduction (chaps. 1-27) for the most part is made up of long-winded, monotonous, reiterated invocations, (b) The Gäthäs (chs. 28-54) contain the discourses, exhortations, and revelations of the prophet, written in a metrical style and an archaic language, different in many respects from that ordinarily used in the Avesta. As to the authenticity of these hymns, see ZOROASTER. The Gäthäs proper, arranged according to the metres in which they are WTitten, fall into five subdivisions (28-37, 43-46, 47-50, 51, 53). Between chap. 37 and chap. 43 is inserted the so-called Seven - Chapter Yasna (haptanghditi), a number of small prose pieces not far behind the Gäthäs in antiquity, (c) The so-called Later Yasna (Apard Yasnd) (chaps. 54-72) has contents of considerable variety, but consists mainly of invocations.

2. The Vispered, a minor liturgical work in 24 chapters (Jcarde), is alike in form and substance completely dependent on the Yasna ; it is based upon the arrangement of the Yasna in its present form, a circumstance proving its much later date as a whole. The name Vispered, meaning "all the chiefs" (vispS ratavd), has reference to the spiritual heads of the religion of Ormuzd, invocations to whom form the main contents of the book.

3. The Vendidad ( Vidaevo Ddtem), i.e., the law for the "enemies of the devil," contains in 22 chapters (fargard) a kind of dualistic account of creation (chap. 1), the legend of Yima and the golden age (chap. 2), the praises of agriculture (chap. 3), and in the bulk of the remaining chapters the circumstantial precepts of the religion with reference to purification and ecclesiastical penance. It may with propriety be called the " priestly code " of the Parsees.

The Yasna, Vispered, and Vendidad together constitute the Avesta in the stricter sense of that word, and the reading of them appertains to the priest alone. For liturgical purposes the sepa-rate chapters of the Vendidad and the Vispered are sometimes in-serted amongst those of the Yasna so as to form what is known as the Vendidad Sade, which then, accompanied by certain liturgical actions, is publicly read in the Parsee worship. The reading of the Gathas and Vendidad in this case may, when viewed according to the original intention, be taken as corresponding in some sense to the sermon, while that of the Vispered and the rest of the Yasna may be taken as corresponding to the hymns and prayers of Chris-tian worship.

4. In marked contrast to the three already mentioned is the Khordah Avesta, or Little Avesta, which is designed equally for priesthood and laity, and serves rather as a book of private devo-tion. Besides some short prayers, such as the Nyaishes, the favourite daily prayers of the Parsees, it contains the Yashts or songs of praise, twenty-one in number, addressed to the Yazatas (Izads), the deities and angels of the Ormuzd creed.

Over and above the four books just enumerated there are a con-siderable number of fragments from other books, as well as quota-tions, glosses, and glossaries.

In its present form, however, the Avesta is only a frag-mentary remnant of the old priestly literature of Zoroas-trianism, a fact confessed by the learned tradition of the Parsees themselves, according to which the number of Yashts was originally thirty. The truth is that we possess but a trifling portion of a very much larger original Avesta, if we are to believe native tradition, carrying us back to the Sasanian period, which tells of an original Avesta in twenty-one books called naslcs or nosh, as to the names, contents, and chapters of which we have several more or less detailed accounts, particularly in the Pahlavi Dinkard and in the Rivayats. From the same sources we learn that even than a considerable portion of the original Avesta had been . lost: we are told that of a number of nosks only a small portion was found to be extant "after Alexander." For example, of the seventh nosk, which " before Alexander " had as many as fifty chapters, there then remained only thirteen; and similar things are alleged about the eighth, ninth, tenth, and other nosks. But even of the remains of the original Avesta, as these lay before the authors referred to, only a small portion has survived to our time. Of all the nosks one only, the nineteenth, has come down to us unimpaired and intact,—the Vendidad. All the others, with- the exception of slight traces, have disappeared in the o course of centuries.

It would be rash to treat in an offhand way this old tradition about the twenty-one nosks as pure invention. 'The number twenty-one indeed points to an artificial arrangement of the material; for twenty-one is a sacred number, and the most sacred prayer of the Parsees, the so-called Ahun6 Vairyo (Honovar) contains twenty-one words ; and it is also true that in the enumeration of the nosks we miss the names of the books we know—Yasna, Vispered, as well as the Yashts and the Khordah Avesta. But either we must regard them as having been included among the nosks, though under other names, or, what is even more probable, we must assume that even at that early date special liturgical manuals—the Yasna especially—distinct from the nosks had already been compiled for the practical use of the priests. Further, the statements of the Dinkard and other writings leave on one a very distinct impression that the authors actually had before them the text of the nosks, or at all events of a large part of them. And, besides, in other directions there are numerous indications that such books had once really existed. In the Khordah Avesta as we now have it we find two Srosh Yashts; with regard to the first, it is expressly stated in old MSS. that it was taken from the Hadokht nosk (the twentieth, accord-ing to the Dinkard). From the same nosk also a consider-able fragment (Yt., 21 and 22 in Westergaard) has been taken. So also the extensive quotations from Avesta texts in the Niringistdn, a Pahlavi book, are probably the disjecta membra of the seventeenth (or Husparam) nosk. Lastly, the numerous other fragments, the quotations in the Pahlavi translation, the many references in the Bunda-hish to passages of this Avesta not now known to us, all presuppose the existence in the Sasanian period of a much more extensive Avesta literature than the mere prayer book now in our hands. The existence of an original Avesta is far from being a mere myth. But, even granting that a certain obscurity still hangs undispelled over the problem of the old Avesta, with its twenty-one nosks, we may well believe the Parsees themselves, when they tell us that their sacred literature has passed through successive stages of decay, the last of which is represented by the present Avesta. There is evidence of this in the patchwork and fragmentary character of some portions of the present Avesta; and, moreover, in the MS. evidence of recent centuries we are able to observe with our own eyes the actual process of abridgment gradually going on, and to trace the manner in which certain portions of the present Avesta slowly passed out of currency. This holds good, in particular, of the greater Yashts. The transcribers of the Khordah Avesta satisfied themselves for the most part with those prayers which were currently in use, such as the Nyaishes and one or two of the smaller and inter-mediate Yashts. The great Yashts are not of very frequent occurrence : some of them indeed are already met with but seldom, and MSS. containing all the Yashts are of great rarity. Of the fifteenth, seventeenth, and nineteenth Yashts we might even venture to predict that some centuries hence they may perhaps be found defying the tooth of time in not more than a single manuscript copy.

Origin and History.—While all that Herodotus (i. 132) has got to say is that the Magi sang "the theogony" at their sacrifices, Pausanias is able to add (v. 27, 3) that they read from a book. Hermippus in the 3d century B.C. affirmed that Zoroaster, the founder of the doctrine of the Magi, was the author of twenty books, each containing 100,000 verses. According to the Arab historian Tabari, these were written on 1200 cowhides, a statement confirmed by Masudi, who writes, " Zartusht gave to the Persians the book called Avesta. It consisted of twenty-one parts, each containing 200 leaves. This book, in the writing which Zartusht invented and which the Magi called the writing of religion, was written on 12,000 cowhides, bound together by golden bands. Its language was the Old Persian, which no one now understands." These statements suffi-ciently establish the existence and great bulk of the sacred writings. Parsee tradition adds a number of interesting statements as to their history, .\ccording to the Arda-Viraf-Ndma, stated to have been written during the Sasanian period, the religion revealed through Zoroaster had subsisted in its purity for 300 years when Iskander Rumi (Alexander the Great) invaded and devastated Iran, and burnt the Avesta which, written on cowhides with golden ink, was preserved in the archives at Persepolis. According to the Dinkard, there were two copies, of which one was burnt, while the second perished at the hands of the Greeks in some other way. The Rivayats have it that Alexander burnt the greater part of the twenty-one nosks, and go on to say that after his death the Zoroastrian priests met, gathered the scattered fragments which had escaped the ravages of war, and put together the present collection, which is but a small portion of the original book. With regard to this editing the Dinkard gives various details. It tells us that the collecting of the Avesta fragments, so far as these were still extant, whether in writing or in oral tradition, began under the last of the Arsacids at the command of King Vologeses. The first of the Sasanians, Ardeshir Babagan, and his son Shapiir I. resumed and con-tinued the work, and proclaimed the new Avesta thus pro-duced as canonical. Finally, under Shapiir II. (309-380) a new revision and final redaction were made by Adarbad Mahraspand.

It is possible enough for historical criticism to regard this tradition in many of its features as mere fiction, or as a perversion of facts made for the purpose of transferring the blame for the loss of a sacred literature to other shoulders than those really responsible for it. People may, if they choose, absolve Alexander from the charge of vandalism of which he is accused, but the fact nevertheless remains, that he suffered the palace at Persepolis to be burnt (Diod., xvii. 72; Curt., v. 7). Even the statement as to the one or two complete copies of the Avesta may be given up as the invention of a later day. Nevertheless the essential elements of the tradition remain unshaken, viz., that the original Avesta or old sacred literature, divided on account of its great bulk and heterogeneous contents into many portions and a variety of separate works, had an actual existence in numerous copies and also in the memories of priests, that, although gradually diminishing in bulk, it remained extant during the long period of foreign domina-tion and ecclesiastical decay after the time of Alexander, and that it served as a basis for the redaction subsequently made. The kernel of this native tradition—the fact of a late collection of older fragments—appears indisputable. The character of the book is entirely that of a compilation.

In its outward form the Avesta as we now have it belongs to the Sasanian period, the last survival of the compilers' work already alluded to. And it need hardly be said that the collecting and arranging of the scattered fragments often rendered necessary, or at least desirable, certain ad-ditions by the redactors' own hands. But, broadly speaking, the materials out of which the compilers reared their build-ing belonged originally to older structures and are of very various dates. Opinions differ greatly as to the precise age of the original texts brought together by subsequent redactors: according to some, they are pre-Achsemenian; according to Darmesteter, they were written in Media under the Achaemenian dynasty; according to Eduard Meyer, they are on the whole of Sasanian origin ; according to some, their source must be sought in the east, according to others, in the west, of Iran. But to search for a precise time or exact locality is to deal with the question too narrowly; it is more correct to say that the Avesta was worked at from the time of Zoroaster down to the Sasanian period. Its oldest portions, the Gathas, proceed from Zoroaster himself. This conclusion is inevitable for every-one to whom Zoroaster is an historical personality, and who does not shun the labour of an unprejudiced research into the meaning of those difficult texts (comp. ZOROASTER). The rest of the Avesta, in spite of the opposite opinion of learned Parsees, does not even claim to come from Zoroaster. As the Gathas constitute the kernel of the Later Yasna, so they ultimately proved to be the first nucleus of a religious literature at large. The language in which Zoroaster taught, especially a later development of it,—an idiom in-disputably belonging to eastern Iran,—remained as the standard with the followers of Zoroaster, and became the sacred language of the priesthood of the faith which he had founded; as such it became, so to speak, absolved from the ordinary conditions of time and space. Taught and acquired as an ecclesiastical language, it was enabled to live an artificial life long after it had become extinct as a vernacular,—in this respect comparable to the Latin of the Middle Ages or the Hebrew of the rabbinical schools. The various texts themselves enable us to trace its gradual paralysis, decay, and death. It is only from this point of view that the language can be used as a criterion for the relative chronology of these. Any more exact arrangement seems almost impossible ; we have practically no other tests to apply. The priests by whom the texts were edited gave them the form intended to be valid once for all and refrained from any allusion to ephemeral relations. The following conclusions may be stated in a general way.

The language of the Avesta travelled with the Zoroastrian religion and with the main body of the priesthood, in all probability, that is to say, from east to west; within the limits of Iran it became international. The Avesta texts must have passed through a long process of development, which did not reach its close till at a comparatively late period. Many portions are the result of repeated redacting and compiling ; older texts are removed from their original connexion, and worked into new ones or made use of in these. In these operations the revisers of the Sasanian epoch may be presumed to have had only the smallest share; the texts they had before them were already for the most part in a revised form. They were no longer in a position to give a relatively correct text; what they still had in their power to some extent to perform is approxi-mately exhibited in such passages as Yt, 1, 12 sq.; Yt, 2, 11 sq.; Yt, 10, 120 sq.,—perhaps in part translated back from the Pahlavi.

The great Yashts and the Vendidad are the most instructive portions for the history of the text. The original kernel of Yashts 5. 8, 15, 17, 19 consists of the Iranian mythology of gods and heroes which had its origin in the East, and there also was cast into a poetical form. Fragments of it were worked into the framework of the great Yashts at a much later date. The author of Vend., 2 used in a fragmentary way a poetic version of the Yima legend. The redactor of Vend., 3, judging from the monotonous and clumsy style of the opening sections, must have been prosaic enough ; yet from the twenty-fourth paragraph onwards we have a bright and pleasant description of the blessings of agriculture, in a poetical form, that contrasts singularly with wdiat im-mediately precedes it, and must certainly have been borrowed from an older source. In this way alone can we in other instances also account for the numerous verses with, which the prose is often interspersed. Their function often was merely to set off and ornament the later prose. Of' " genuine " and " spurious " there can be in this connexion no question, but only of "older" and "more recent."' However vague and obscure the question may remain after-all has been said, we can at least lay so much down as-fundamentally fixed, namely, that all that is metrical in the Avesta bears the stamp of a higher antiquity than does the prose.

As has been already stated, the Avesta now in our hands is but a small portion of the book as edited under the Sasanians. The large part perished under the devastating wave of persecution which broke over Iran with the Mohammedan invasion, or under the still more fatal influ-ences of the apathy and forgetfulness of its proper guardians. The understanding of the older Avesta texts was far from perfect even at the time when they were being edited and revised. The need for a translation and interpretation became evident; and under the later Sasanians the majority of the books, if not the whole of them, were rendered into the current Pahlavi. A thorough use of this translation will not be possible until we have it in good critical editions, and acquaintance with its language ceases to be the mono-poly of a few privileged individuals. For the interpretation of the older texts it is of great value. The Parsee priest Neryosangh subsequently translated a portion of the Pahlavi version into Sanskrit.

The MSS. of the Avasta are comparatively speaking of recent date. The oldest is the Paniavi Vispered in Copenhagen, of date 1258. Next come the four MSS. of the. Herbad Mihirâpân Kaî Khusro at Cambay (1323 and 1324), two Vendidads with Pahlavi in London and Copenhagen, and two Yasnas with Pahlavi in Copenhagen and Bombay, in the possession of Dastur Jamaspji Minocheherji, who of all the Parsees is richest in old and good MSS. Generally speaking, the MSS. fall off in quality and carefulness in proportion to their lateness ; an honourable exception must be made in favour of those proceeding from Kirman and Yazd in Persia, mostly dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The first European scholar to direct attention to the Avesta was Hyde of Oxford, in his Historia Religionis Veterum Persarum eorumque Magorum (1700), which, however, failed to awaken any lasting interest in the sacred writings of the Parsees. The merit of achieving this belongs to the enthusiastic Orientalist Anquetil Duperron, the fruit of whose prolonged stay in India (from 1754 to 1761) and his acquaintance with the Parsee priests was a translation (certainly very defective) of the Zend-Avesta. The foundation of a scientific exegesis was laid by Burnouf. The interpretation of the Avesta is one of the most difficult problems of Oriental philology. To this very day no kind of agreement has been reached by conflicting schools even upon some of the most important points. The most salient contributions are those of Westergaard, Spiegel, Darmesteter, Roth, and Bartholomae. Opi-nion is divided also as to the significance of the Avesta in the liter-ature of the world. The exaggerated enthusiasm of Anquetil Du-perron has been followed, especially since Spiegel's translation, by an excessive reaction. The future will doubtless be more just with regard to the importance of the book for the history of religion in general and even of Christianity.

Editions.—The first complete editions werethat by Westergaard (Copenhagen, 1852-54) and that of the Avesta in the stricter sense, along with the Pahlavi translation, by Spiegel (Vienna, 1853-58), A new and complete edition by Geldner has been in course of publication since 1885. The best translation is that by Darmesteter and Mills in Sacred Books of the East (3 vols., Oxford, 1880 sq., with an excellent introduction by the first-named).

Literature.—See Anquetil Duperron, Zend-Avesta, Ouvrage de Zoroastre, &c., (Paris, 1771) ; Haug, Essays on the Sacred Language, &c., of the Parsis, especially in the new edition by E. W. West (London, 1878) ; De Harlez, Introduction à l'Étude de I'Avesta (Paris, 1881); Max Duncker, Geschichte des Alterthums, vol. iv.; and Eduard Meyer, Geschichte des Alterthums (Stuttgart, 1884). (K. G.)

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