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AVESTA


152


AVESTA


(ancient Persia) that the Vedas do in India. The designation Zend-Avesta, which is often employed to denote the sacred code, is not strictly correct. It owes its origin to a mistaken inversion of the Pahlavi designation Avistak- u Zand, a term which probably means "Text and Commentary"; for the word Zand (in the Avesta itself, Zainti) signifies "explanation", and even in the Avesta is appHed to the exegetical matter in the text. It is similarly used by the Parsee priests to denote the Pahlavi ver- sion and commentarj", but not tlie original scriptures. Whether the term .4 vistak, which is the Pahla%-i form of the word Avesta, has the meaning of "text", " law ", is not absolutely certain. Some scholars in- terpret it as "wisdom", "knowledge".

Little was known concerning the religion and customs of ancient Persia before the Avesta was brought to Europe in the eighteenth century. From the allusions in Greek and Roman writers, like Herodotus, Plutarch, Pliny, and others, it had long been surmised tliat such a body of scriptures existed. Scattered allusions in Arabic and SjTiac wTiters strengthened this conviction. But the information to be extracted from these references was vague and meagre. The first scholar to make the language and the contents of the sacred books of the Parsees known to Europe was a young Frenchman, Anquetil du Perron, who in 1754 went to India for this very purpose. His enthusiasm and perseverance over- came the many obstacles he encountered on his journey to Hindustan and the difficulties he met during his stay in Surat. Success at last crowned his efforts, and on his return in 1771 he was able to give to the world the first translation of the Avesta. From the moment of its publication a bitter con- troversy arose concerning the authenticity of the work. Some scholars, like Sir William Jones, de- clared that it was a clumsy forgen,- of modem Parsee priests, and the question was disputed for half a century until the advance made in the study of Sanskrit and comparative philologj' decided the matter and vindicated the genuineness of the scrip- tures and the value of Anquetil's work, although his translation, as a first attempt, was necessarily imperfect in many respects.

Content .\nd Di\asiONS. — Originally, the sacred scriptures of the Parsees were of far greater extent than would appear from the Avesta in the form in which we now possess it. Only a relatively small portion of the original has in fact been preserved, and that is collected from several manuscripts, since no single codex contains all the texts now known. In its present form, therefore, the Avesta is a compilation from various sources, and its dif- ferent parts date from different periods and vary widely in character. Tradition tells us that the Zoroastrian scriptures consisted originally of twenty- one nasks (books); but only one of tliese, the Ven- dldad, had been completely preserved. The loss of the sacred books is attributed by the followers of Zoroaster to the invasion of Alexander, "the accursed Iskandar", as they call him, who burned the palace library at Persepolis, thus destroying one archetype copy of the text, and threw the other into the river near Samarkand, according to the statement of the Pahla\-i records (Dinkard, bk. Ill; West, "Sacred Books of the East", XXXVH, pp. XXX, xxxi; and Shatrolha-i Airan, 2-5), For weUnigh five hundred years after the Macedonian invasion the Parsee scriptures remained in a scattered condition, much being preserved only by memory, until the great Zoroastrian revival under the Sas- sanian djmasty (.\. D. 226-651), when the texts were again collected, codified, translated into Pah- la\n, and interpreted. A beginning in this direction had already been made under the last of the Par- thian kings, but the great final redaction took


place in Sassanian times, under Shahpuhar II (309-379). Our present Avesta is essentially the work of this redaction, although important sections of the text have been lost since then, especially after the Arabs conquered Persia. This conquest (637-651) was fatal to the Iranian religion, and caused Zoroastrianism to be supplanted by ilo- hammedanism and the Avesta bj' the Koran. As already mentioned, great portions of the scriptures have since disappeared entirely; out of the original twenty-one nasks, the nineteenth alone (the Ven- didad) has survived. Portions of other nasks are preserved, interspersed here and there among the Yasna and Vispered, or have come down to us as scattered fragments in Pahla\n works, or have been rendered into Pahlavi, like the Bilndahishn (Book of Creation) and the Shaiiast-la-Shai/ast (Treatise on the Lawful and Unlawful). In this way we are able to make good some of our losses of the old scriptures; enough has been said, how- ever, to explain the lack of coherence noticeable in certain parts of the Avestan code.

The Avesta, as we now have it, is usually di- \-ided into five sections, relating to the ritual, hymns of praise, the liturgj-, and the law. These sections are: (1) the Yasna, including the Gathas, or hj-mns; (2) Vispered; (3) Yashts; (4) minor texts, such as the Xyaishes (favourite prayers in daily use among the Parsees); and (5) Vendidad. Besides this there are some independent fragments preserved in Pahla\T books (Hadhokt Xask, etc). The main divisions, when taken together, again fall into two groups, the one liturgical, comprising Vendidad, Vispered and Yasna. or the Avesta proper, the other general, called Khorda Avesta (Abridged Avesta) and comprising the minor texts and the Yashts. A brief characterization of the five di- visions will now be given,

(1) The Yasna (Skt, yajna), "sacrifice", "wor- ship", the chief liturgical portions of the sacred canon. It consists principally of prayers and hymns used in the ritual, and is divided into seventy- two ha or haiti (chapters), sjinbolized by the sev- enty-two strands of the knshti, or sacred girdle with which the young Zoroastrian is invested on his being received into the Church. The middle third of the Yasna (Ys., 28-53), however, is not directly connected with the ritual, but contains the Gathas, the holy psalms, songs which preserved the metrical saj-ings of Zoroaster himself as used in his sermons. Tliis is the oldest portion of the Avesta and de- scends directly from the prophet and his disciples. These canticles are metrical in their structure and are composed in the so-called Gatha-dialect , a more archaic form of language than is used in the rest of the Avesta. There are seventeen of these hymns, grouped into five divisions, each group taking its name from the opening words; thus Ahiinavaiti. Ushtaraiti, etc. Inserted in the midst of the Gathas is the Yasna HaptanohSiti (the Seven-chapter Yasna) consisting of prayers and hymns in honour of the Supreme Deity, Ahura Mazda, the Angels, Fire, Water, and Earth. This selection also shows a more archaic tjT)e of language, and stands next to the Gathas in point of antiquity. Its structure, though handed do^\Ti in prose, may once have been metrical.

(2) The Vispered (vispc ratai-o, "all the lords") is really a short liturgj-. very similar in style and form to the Yasna, which it supplements in a briefer form. It owes its name to the fact that it contains invocations to "all the lords".

(3) The Yashts (iiefhti, "worship by praise"), of which there are twenty-one, are hymns in honour of various divinities. These hj-mns are for the most part metrical in structure, and they show considerable poetic merit in certain instances.