Avesta :

The Avesta is a collection of sacred texts authored in a language which is very close to the Vedic-Sanskrit. This language, for want of terminology, is called Avestan. While the Veds focused on Indra and Agni whom the later texts like the Epics and Purans describe as the Devs, the Avesta focuses on the teachings of the Asurs (or Ahuras as per Avestan terminology). A certain Ahura named Ahura Mazda is considered to be the supreme being. The equivalence of Asur to Ahura is often vehemently denied by certain sections of European scholarship for reasons known only to them, but anybody with a Vedic background can easily identify the equivalence of the Epic-Puranic Asur with the Avestan Ahura. However this equivalence breaks down in the Veds, since the Veds were authored before historical emergence of the Dev-Asur ideological split.

Avesta and the Veds :

Asur and Ahura :

Avesta is in agreement with the Veds in certain parts of its philosophy while in most other cases it is in opposition to the teachings of the Veds. The word Asur/ Ahura is used in a positive sense both in the Veds and in the Avesta. Older parts of Rig Ved describes its patron gods like Indra and Varun as Asurs. However in the younger parts of Rig Ved as well as in other Veds, Asurs were considered as enemies of the gods. This situation (Asurs as opposed to the Devs or the gods) is continued into the post-Vedic literature like the epics (Mahabharat and Ramayan) and the Puranas.

Dev and Daeva :

Similar is the case of the words Dev / Daeva. The word Dev is used to denote the gods like Indra, Agni and Varuna in the post Vedic literature like the epics and Puranas. In the Veds, the gods are addressed by their name and hence the word Dev is seldom used. In the Avesta thw word 'Daeva' is used to denote the demonic forces. The epic-puranic word Dev and the Avestan Daeva denotes the same people. But the epics and Puranas use the word 'Dev' in a positive sense, considering the Devs as benevolent gods, where as the Avesta use the word 'Daeva' in a negative sense, considering Daevas as malicious gods or as demons. The is is also the crux of the Dev-Asur ideological split and the historical core behind the mythological concept of the Dev-Asur war.

Mutual separation and influences :

It won't be wrong if we conclude that the patrons of the epics and the Puranas, were in favor of the Devs while the patrons of the Avesta were against the Devs. Consequently, the followers of the epic-puranic traditions were opposed to the Asurs while the followers of the Avestan traditions were in favor of the Asurs. This inversion of patronage and this opposition in concepts was never very clear since these people lived separately in India and Iran, developing their culture and traditions separately. However this isolation was never perfect. Often there were exchange of ideas between India and Iran. Consequently there were Asurs described in the Epics and Puranas in good light such as Mahabali and Vrishaparvan and there were narrations in the epics and Puranas were the Devs, especially their leader Indra, described in a bad light.

The survival of Avesta :

Alexander's Invasion :

The oldest parts of Avesta (3000 -2500 BCE) corresponds to the latest parts of the Veds (4000 - 2500 BCE), in antiquity. It was transmitted through oral traditions for centuries, but were written down subsequently. Some of the written documents met with destruction during Alaxander's invasion (330 BCE) of Persia. All texts of Avesta known today derive from a single master copy, now lost but known as the "Sassanian archetype". This copy was the result of the effort of the Sassanian emperor Ardashir I ( 226-241 CE) and his priest Tonsar who collected and compiled the remnant texts.

Islamic Invasions :

In its current form, Avesta contains 21 BOOKS called nasks subdivided into 348 chapters, with approximately 3.5 million words in total. However most of these books are only partially available. A major portion of the text of Avesta is missing. Thus we cannot expect any continuity or completeness in the study of Avesta, unlike in the study of the four Veds, the two epics and the 18 Puranas of Indian tradition, which were preserved with great effort and determination by its adherents against all odds like Islamic invasions and European rule. What ever information we have about Avesta was derived from the accounts preserved by the Parsis who got refuge in India, after fleeing from Iran fearing Islamic persecution.

In the words of James Darmesteter, who was among the pioneers to study and translate Avesta, ".. Avesta is the sacred book of the Parsis, i.e., of the few remaining followers of that religion which feigned over Persia at the time when the second successor of Mohammed overthrew the Sassanian dynasty, and which has been called Dualism, Mazdeism, Magism, Zoroastrianism or Fire-worship. In less than a century after their defeat, nearly all the conquered people were brought over to the faith of Islam, either by force, or policy, or the attractive power of a simpler form of creed. But many of those who clung to the faith of their fathers, went and sought abroad for a new home, where they might freely worship their old gods, say their old prayers, and perform their old rites. That home they found at last among the tolerant Hindus, on the western coast of India and in the peninsula of Gujarat. There they throve and there they live still, while the ranks of their co-religionists in Persia are daily thinning and dwindling away."

Structure and Comparisons :

As we have seen, Avesta is often compared to the Veds. Comparison of Avesta with the Veds could be misleading, since its scope is wider (lesser in size, though), as it contains liturgical texts similar to the Veds, narrative dialogs like in the epics like Mahabharat and Ramayan, creation-myths like in the Puranas and moral-laws like in Manu-Smriti and Dharmasastras. However it would be interesting to note its similarities and differences with the Veds.

Similarities with Veds :

The Veds are not a single text but a collection of multiple texts. So is Avesta. The Veds, as we know today, are divided into Rig, Sam, Yajur and Atharv texts. So is Avesta divided into different texts. It contains hymns dedicated to specific gods (Ahuras), creation myths, invocations, spells against enemies and in favor of friends etc similar to what is found in the Veds. Much like the Veds, Avesta too is a composition that emerged taking several centuries. Hence it contains older and younger parts within it. The different texts of Avesta sometimes overlap, i.e. they contain repetitions; portions of one text may be found in another text. This too is a situation similar to the Veds. Hymns of Rig Ved is repeated in Sama Ved and Yajur Ved.

Differences with Veds :

All of the four Veds are in metrical form. However only the oldest portions of Avesta is in metrical form and the rest are in prose. Whatever Avesta is now available as prose once had their metrical form. It was lost due to damages to the Zoroastrian traditions, effected by the Greek and Islamic invasions. Krishna Dwaipayan Vyas is credited with dividing the Veds into four, indicating that the fourfold division of the Veds occurred in remote antiquity. However the division of Avesta into constituent texts is much more recent, as recent as the days of 18th century European scholarship of Avesta. Most widely accepted division of Avesta is based on the European scholar Jean Kellens' s classification. It is a classification based on topics or subject matter. This topical division has no correlation with the division of Avesta into 21 BOOKS or nasks.

Jean Kellen's Classification :

Based on the classification of Jean Kellen, Avesta is topically divided into the Yasna, the Visperad, the Vendidad, the Yashts, the Siroza, the Khordeh Avesta and the Fragments.

Yasna (Yajna / Yagna) :

72 Chapters :

Yasna is the Avestan form of Vedic-Sanskrit word Yajna. It means sacrifices or oblations offered in the form of worship. It is the primary liturgical collection of Avesta. It consists of 72 Chapters (Ha-iti or Ha). This number 72 is imprinted on the Zoroastrian culture, so that they never forget it. The 72 threads of lamb's wool in the Kushti, the sacred thread worn by Zoroastrians, represent these 72 sections of Yasna.

Gathas :

17 Chapters of Yasna :

The core of the Yasna is the Gathas, the oldest and most sacred portion of the Avesta. It is believed to be composed by Zaratushtra (the chief priest of Ahura Mazda) himself. The Gathas are in verse, metrical in nature. The meter of the hymns is historically related to the Vedic Tristubh-Jagati family of meters. The 17 hymns of the Gathas consist of 238 verses, of about 1300 lines or 6000 words in total. They were later incorporated into the 72-chapter of Yasna.

The 17 hymns corresponds to 17 chapters of Yasna. They are identified by their chapter numbers in the Yasna, and are divided into five major sections:

Comment, Meaning
2834 Ahunavaiti Gatha For Ahuna Vairya 100 stanzas 3 verses 7+9 syllable meter
4346 Ushtavaiti Gatha 'Having Happiness' 66 stanzas 5 verses 4+7 syllable meter
4750 Spenta Mainyu Gatha 'Bounteous Spirit' 41 stanzas 4 verses 4+7 syllable meter
51 Vohu Khshathra Gatha 'Good Dominion' 22 stanzas 3 verses 7+7 syllable meter
53 Vahishto Ishti Gatha 'Best Beloved', 9 stanzas 4 verses two of 7+5 and two of 7+7+5 syllables

Vohu Kshathra = Vasu Kshatra; Vahishto Ishti = Vasishta Ishti;

Some of the verses of the Gathas are directly addressed to the Ahura named Mazda, considered as the Omniscient Creator. These verses, devotional in character, expound on the divine essences of truth (Asha), the good-mind (Vohu Manah), and the spirit of righteousness (Spenta Mainyu).

Vohu Manah = Vasu Manas; Mainyu = Manyu;

Yasna Haptanghaiti :

7 Chapters of Yasna

Another part as old as the Gathas, found in the Yasna is the Yasna Haptanghaiti (Yasna-Hapt-ang-ha-iti: Yajna-Sapt-ang-iki: the seven part Yajna). The seven parts refers to the seven chapters 35 to 41 of Yasna. It contains hymns in honour of Ahura Mazda, the Immortals, Fire, Water, and Earth. Yasna Haptanghaiti is in prose form.

The Yasna Haptanghaiti are placed (and recited) between Ahunavaiti Gatha and Ushtavaiti Gatha.

Yasna Chapter
1 35 10 verses "Praise to Ahura and the Immortals (Amesha Spentas); Prayer for the practice and diffusion of the faith"
2 36 6 "To Ahura and the Fire (Atar)"
3 37 5 "To Ahura, the holy Creation, the Fravashis of the Just (Ashavan), and the Bountiful Immortals (Amesha Spentas)
4 38 4 "To the earth and the sacred waters (Apo)"
5 39 5 "To the soul of the Kine"
6 40 4 "Prayers for Helpers"
7 41 6 "Prayer to Ahura as the King, the Life, and the Rewarder"

The last verse (41.6) of the last chapter suggests that the seven chapters represent the ancient Yasna liturgy, around which the other chapters of the present-day Yasna were later organized. In that verse, the Yasna Haptanghaiti is personified as "the brave Yasna" and as "the holy ritual chief".

Other Parts :

Chapter 42 of Yasna that comes after Yasna Haptanghaiti is considered as a minor hymn much younger in age. Similarly Chapter 52 that comes in between, the Gathas viz. Vohu Khshathra Gatha and Vahishto Ishti Gatha is considered as a minor hymn of much later origin. All the chapters other than the 17 chapters of Gathas and the 7 chapters of the Haptanghaiti are composed either in a younger form of Avestan language or in a language that imitates the old Avestan language.

Gathic Avestan Language :

The language in which Gathas and Yasna Haptanghaiti are composed, for want of terminology, is called old Avestan or Gathic-Avestan or simply Gathic. This language is much close to Vedic-Sanskrit. Thus the Gatha and Yasna Haptanghaiti are as old as the later part of the development of Veds (especially Atharva Ved).

Visperad (Upa-Yajna) :

23 to 24 Chapters :

The Visperad is a collection of supplements to the Yasna. The name 'Visperad' is a contraction of Avestan vispe ratavo with an ambiguous meaning. It could mean prayers to all patrons. The patrons here refers to Ahura Mazda and the Amesha Spentas (Amesha:immortals; Spentas: bounteous:- bounteous immortals), the divinites that are identified with specific aspects of creation, and through whom Ahura Mazda realized the creation, with his thought. The hymns of Visperad are always recited along with that of Yasna and never independently. It is especially recited as part of the six seasonal celebrations called Gahambars. An assistant priest, (the Raspi or Upa-Yaja) is required in a recitation of Yasna with Visperad. the chapters of Visperad are called Kardos or Kandas like in Krishna Yajur Ved.

Vendidad (Vi-Dev-Datta) :

22 Chapters :

The Vendidad or Videvdaat, a corruption of Avestan Vi-Daevo-Daata. It means Given Against the Daevas which in Sanskrit can be termed as Vi-Dev-Datta or as Prati-Dev-Datta. It is an enumeration of various manifestations of Daevas, and ways to confound them. The Vendidad includes all of the 19th nask, which is the only nask that has survived in its entirety. The text consists of 22 chapters called Fargards. These are fragments arranged as dialogs between Ahura Mazda and Zoroaster. The first Fargard is a dualistic creation myth, followed by the description of a destructive winter. The second fargard recounts the legend of Yima (the Vedic Yama). Fargard 19 relates the temptation of Zoroaster, who, when urged by Angra Mainyu to turn from the good religion, turns instead towards Ahura Mazda.

Other Fargards deals with various subjects like :

  • Hygiene (in particular care of the dead) [3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 16, 17, 19] and cleansing [9,10];

  • Disease, its origin, and spells against it [7, 10, 11, 13, 20, 21, 22];

  • Mourning for the dead [12], the Towers of Silence [6], and the remuneration of deeds after death [19];

  • The sanctity of, and invocations to, Atar (fire) [8], Zam (earth) [3,6], Apas (water) [6, 8, 21] and the
    light of the stars [21];

  • The dignity of wealth and charity [4], of marriage [4, 15] and of physical effort [4]

  • Statutes on unacceptable social behaviour [15] such as breach of contract [4] and assault [4];

  • On the worthiness of priests [18];

  • Praise and care of the bull [21], the dog [13, 15], the otter [14], the Sraosha bird [18], and the
    Haoma tree [6].

In some instances, the description of prescribed behaviour is accompanied by a description of the penances that have to be made to atone for violations thereof. Such penances include :

  • Payment in cash or kind to the aggrieved;

  • Corporal punishment such as whipping;

  • Repeated recitations of certain parts of the liturgy such as the Ahuna Vairya invocation.

The Vendidad's different parts vary widely in character and in age. Some parts may be comparatively recent in origin although the greater part is very old. Vendidad's language attempts to mimic Old Avestan. This language is otherwise called artifical-Gathic language.

The Vendidad, unlike the Yasna and the Visparad, is a book of moral laws rather than a book of liturgical ceremony. Thus it can be compared to Manu Smriti or to the Dharmasastras of the Indic school.

Yashts (Yeshti) :

21 Chapters :

The Yashts (from yeshti, "worship by praise") are a collection of 21 hymns, each dedicated to a particular divinity or divine concept. Three hymns in the Yasna too are used for "worship by praise". Traditionally, they too are called Yasts, but are not counted among the Yasht collection.

The Yashts vary greatly in style, quality and extent. In their present form, they are all in prose The verse form is lost due to disruptions in tradition. The language of Yashts is Younger Avestan.

Below is the table describing the 21 Yashts. The possible connection with the Veds and terms in Mahabharata is shown in the column - Sanskritization.

n Title Praise to Sanskritization Verses
1 Ohrmazd-Yasht Ahura Mazda Asur Mazda 33 verses
2 Hapt-Amahraspand Yasht the seven Amesha Spentas The sevan Bountiful Amaras (Immortals) 15 verses
3 Ardawahisht-Yasht Asha Vahishta of "Best Truth" Arta / Rta Vasistha 19 verses
4 Hordad-Yasht Haurvatat of "Wholeness" and "Perfection"   11 verses
5 Apan-Yasht Aredvi Sura Anahita of the waters Apa = water 132 verses
6 Hwarshed-Yasht Hvare-khshaeta of the "Radiant Sun" Surya Kshetra 7 verses
7 Mah-Yasht Maonghah of the "Moon"   7 verses
8 Tishtar-Yasht Tishtrya, the star Sirius Tisya constallation 62 verses
9 Drvasp-Yasht Drvaspa, guardian of horses Dhruva Aswa 33 verses
10 Mihr-Yasht Mithra of "Covenant" Mitra 145 verses
11 Srosh-Yasht Sraosha of "Obedience"   23 verses
12 Rashn-Yasht Rashnu of "Justice"   47 verses
13 Fravardin-Yasht the Fravashis   158 verses
14 Warharan-Yasht Verethragna, "Smiter of resistance" Virtraghna (slayer of Vritra:- Indra) 64 verses
15 Ram-Yasht the "good" Vayu Ram = Rama ; Vayu = wind 58 verses
16 Den-Yasht Chista, "Wisdom"   20 verses
17 Ard-Yasht Ashi of "Recompense" Rta 62 verses
18 Ashtad-Yasht khvarenah, the "(divine) glory"   9 verses
19 Zam-Yasht For Zam (Earth), but little to do with Earth   97 verses
20 Hom-Yasht Haoma Soma 3 verses
21 Vanant-Yasht Vanant, the star Vega Vana, Vanya, Vanayu 2 verses

Yasht 15 is nominally to Raman (Rama Kshathra) but praises the "good" Vayu

Yashts 11 and 12 are respectively hymns to Sraosha and Rashnu, but are to some extent also an extension of Yasht 10, the hymn to Mithra. Sraosha and Rashnu are both attendants of Mithra.

Hidden Yashts :

The hymns of Yasna that serve as Yashts (worship by praise) are called hidden Yashts. They are:-

  1. The Barsom Yasht (Yasna 2), another Hom Yasht in Yasna 9-11

  2. The Bhagan Yasht of Yasna 19-21

  3. A hymn to Ashi in Yasna 52

  4. Another Sarosh Yasht in Yasna 57

  5. The praise of the (hypostasis of) "prayer" in Yasna 58

  6. A hymn to the Ahurani in Yasna 68

Siroza (Thirty Days) :

The Siroza meaning thirty days is an enumeration and invocation of the 30 divinities presiding over the days of the month as per the Zoroastrian calenda). The Siroza exists in two forms, the shorter ("little Siroza") is a brief enumeration of the divinities with their epithets in the genitive. The longer ("great Siroza") has complete sentences and sections.

Khordeh Avesta (Little Avesta) :

The Khordeh Avesta ("little Avesta") is both a selection of verses from the other collections, as well as three sub-collections that do not appear elsewhere. Taken together, the Khordeh Avesta is considered the prayer book for general laymen use.

Fragments :

All material in the Avesta that is not already present in one of the other categories falls into a "fragments" category. This includes incomplete texts. There are altogether more than 20 fragment collections, many of which have no name. These are then named after their owner/collator or have only a Middle Persian name. Examples are the Nirangistan fragments, the Pursishniha "questions", the Aogemadaeca "we accept" a treatise on death; and the Hadokht Nask "volume of the scriptures".

The Associated Languages :

The Avesta, as we have seen, is authored in different languages, the oldest of them being Gathic Avestan. Then comes the Artificial Avestan and finally the Younger Avestan. These three are counted generally as Avestan language. Only texts preserved in the Avestan language count as scripture and are part of the Avesta. Several other secondary works are but crucial to Zoroastrian theology and scholarship. These languages involve Middle Persian languages and Pahlavi and finally the New Persian language.

The most notable among the Middle Persian texts are the Denkard (Acts of Religion), dating from the 9th century; the Bundahishn (Primordial Creation), finished in the 11th or 12th century, but containing older material and the Mainog-i-Khirad (Spirit of Wisdom), a religious conference on questions of faith. The Arda Viraf Namak (Book of Arda Viraf), is especially important for its views on death, salvation and life in the hereafter. Of the post-14th century works in New Persian, only the Sad-dar (Hundred Doors, or Chapters), and Rivayats (traditional treatises) are of doctrinal importance. Texts such as Zartushtnamah (Book of Zoroaster) had preserved many legend and folklore.