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AVESTA

 
 

 

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Zoroastrianism is a "Religion of a Book" or rather a religion of Texts. From the beginning, Zarathushtra's prophecies were embodied in words, though they were not written down until more than a millennium later. Zoroastrians have three thousand years of words in their heritage.

Many prayers in the Avesta are in "Avestan Language". During Zarathushtra's time, Avestan was only a spoken language because it did not have a script.

The Avesta, the sacred scripture of Zoroastrianism, is like a great pearl, in which layers and layers of material are added around a central core. The central core of the Avesta, and the oldest truly Zoroastrian part, is the "Gathas", the five hymns of Zarathushtra.

The Gathas, composed by Zarathushtra in Avestan language and memorized by his followers, were passed down orally from generation to generation. Over the centuries new prayers were composed by Zoroastrian priests and "Pahalavi" became the language of Iran. The Avestan prayers along with the prayers composed in Pahalavi language were first written down in Pahalavi script. In the 6th century CE the Avestan script was invented and all scriptures were rewritten in the Avestan script. The rewriting of the Pahalavi scriptures from Pahalavi to Avestan script is called Pazend (Pazand).

The Avesta is the analogue of the Bible for Zoroastrians. It is a collection of many texts from many eras, in different languages. The texts come from times that may be as early as 1700 BC and as late as 400 A.D. Until recently, the Avesta was known in the West as the "Zend-Avesta".

This is a misnomer and was caused by the misinterpretation of the word "Zend." This means "commentary" in middle Persian (Pazand). The word "Avesta" is mysterious in origin. The German scholars of the late 19th century say that it is from the ancient Iranian word "Upasta" meaning "shelter" or "support" but Persian Avesta scholars have a different idea. They say that, it is from the Indo-Iranian word "a" (not) and the root "vid" (know). That is, Avesta means "Unknown", which describes how the language of the Avesta became unknown to the Zoroastrians of later centuries.

We must remember that the Avesta as it has come down to the modern Zoroastrian world is but a collection of fragments and texts preserved from a far greater whole. Zoroastrianism has suffered greatly from the destruction of its texts. First, in the conflagration set by Alexander the invader in 330 B.C. which destroyed the library at Persepolis, and later by invading Muslims/Arabs and then by Mongols.

In the Sassanian era (250-650 AD) the high priests of the state religion re-gathered the surviving texts of the Avesta into a collection of 21 “Nasks” or "volumes". The number 21 comes from the number of words in the “Yatha Ahu” prayer, an easy number for Zoroastrians to remember.

The 21 Avesta volumes contained writings not only on religious matters but on mythology, law, science, medicine, and history. After the Arab/Muslim and Mongol conquests, only the writings on religion (containing much of the current Avesta) and one law-book survived, though there is evidence that much of the other material was translated into Persian and Arabic and became part of the Persian Islamic heritage.

The parts of Avesta which still exists are organized as 5 groups of texts:

1.  YASNA Sacred Liturgy and Gathas/Hymns of Zarathushtra...
2.  KHORDEH AVESTA Book of Common Prayer...
3.  VISPERAD Extensions to the Liturgy...
4.  VENDIDAD Myths, code of purification, religious observances...
5.  FRAGMENTS Non-classified texts...

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