Avesta – Language & Texts

Avesta is the name generally applied to the oldest texts of the Zoroastrians. The same term is used also for the language in which the religious texts and scriptures are composed. This language is no more used for purposes of day to day communication, and hence is referred to as a ‘dead language.’

The term apastāk is used in the Pahlavi literature for the earliest Zoroastrian scriptures. The word ‘Avesta’ is derived from this term. The term occurs in Pazand and Persian as Avasta. It literally means “original texts, foundation texts”

It is the oldest extant language of the Indo-Iranian and Indo-European family of languages and the mother of other Iranian languages. Avesta heads the Iranian branch of Indo-Iranian language, just as Vedic Sanskrit is the source for the Indian branch. The striking similarity between Vedic Sanskrit and Avestan is on account of their common origin. Though it is the oldest Iranian language, it did not have a script of its own. The script to write the Avestan language was developed in the 6th century AC.

A Brief Historical Account of the Avestan texts

The Avesta texts which were in existence in Sasanian times were handed down by oral tradition from generation to generation since very ancient times. The Avesta verbs used in connection with the sacred texts indicate that they were generally memorized, recited, chanted, studied, commented upon and versified. There is no particular word for “to read” and “to write” in Avesta. It is reasonable to conclude that the Avesta was composed during the time when the art of writing was in its infancy.

There were two copies of the written Avesta in the Achaemenian times. After Alexander’s invasion and conquest of Iran in 330 B.C., the Avestan texts were partly destroyed and scattered. The Parthian Emperor Vologases I (51–77 A.C.) ordered to collect the same.

Under the Sasanian Emperor Artakhshir Pāpakān (226-241 A.C.), Dastur Tansar collected the Avesta texts and prepared a standard edition of 21 books called Nasks “collections.” These Nasks were translated into Pahlavi, probably during the reign of Shahpur II (309-379 A.C.), and commentaries were added during the reign of Khusro I (531-579 A. C.).

21 Nasks

21 Nasks are the 21 Volumes which prophet Zarathushtra brought with him and presented to king Vishtaspa. It is reported that the king had two copies made of the Nasks on tablets in an ancient script and deposited it in the Royal archives. These copies were transmitted in the royal till the time of Achaemenian king Darius III.

We get the information about the 21 Nasks from Denkard Bk. VIII & IX, Persian Revayat of Bahman Punjia, Vichitakiha i Zadsparam and Vazrakard-i-Denig. They contained 1200 Chapters having about 2 million lines, having about 4,39,700  words. Out of these the extant Avesta has only about 83,000 words. Vendidad is the only Nask which has survived in its entirety.

A summary of the contents of 19 Nasks, and their Pahlavi translation is found in the VIII and IX books of the Denkart. On the basis of Vendidad’s summary, we can conclude that the rest of the summaries are trustworthy.

Each Nask is connected to a word of Ahunavar, which is regarded as the source and basis of Zoroastrian teachings (Dnk. Vol. XV, p.4, Vol. XVIII, p. 2)

No. Ahunavar Word Pahlavi name / Popular name / Group Chs. Words
1 Yathā Studgar / Sudgar – G2 22 4,700
2 Ahu Vahisht-mansar/Warsht-mansar– G3 22 8,300
3 Vairyo Bag/Bagho-G4 21 9,500
4 Athā Dāmdād – H1 32 8,900
5 Ratush Nādar- H2 35 6,800
6 Ashāt Pāzag – H3 22 9,100
7 Chit Ratushtaiti / Ratu-dād-hāitig – H4 50 10,5000
8 Hachā Barish – H5 60 4,400
9 Vangheush Kishsrub / Kashkisrub  -H5 60 5,000
10 Dazdā Gustāspad/ Vishtāsp-sāsto – H7 60 2,200
11 Manangho Dād / Washtag – G5 22 8,900
12 Shyaothananām Chidrasht / Chithradāsht 22 2,600
13 Angheush Spenta / Spand – G7 60 9,900
14 Mazdāi Baghān Yasht – D7 17 22,000
15 Khshathremchā Nigadum / Nikadum – D1 54 62,600
16 Ahurāi Dusrujid / Dwāsrud – D2 65 28,000
17 Ā Husparam – D3 64 44,900
18 Yim Sakadum – D4 52 53,000
19 Dregubyo Vendidad – D5 22 23,000
20 Dadat Hādokht – G6 30 8,400
21 Vāstārem Staot Yasn – G1 33 12,500
TOTAL 4,39,700

The 21 Nasks are further sub-divided into three groups Gathik (G), Datik (D), Hadha-manthrik (H). The Gathik group of Nasks dealt with subjects leading to the spiritual world, the Datik related to subjects relating to laws related to the material world, and the Hadha-manthrik group contained matter which connected the material to the spiritual, like rituals, prayers etc.

The Nasks covered all conceivable topics, like creation of spiritual and material worlds, praises of God and the Yazads, knowledge about God, prayer, good-works, life and miracles of Zarathushtra, life and kingship of King Vishtaspa, teachings of the religion, arts and crafts of the world, astronomy and medicine.

The existing body of texts like the Yashts, Yasna and Visperad have been taken from other Nasks such as Bagho, Baghan Yasht and Staot Yasna.

Destruction of Avestan Nasks

The Avestan texts were first destroyed during the Iranian invasion of the Macedonian Alexander and subsequent downfall of the Achaemenian empire in 330 BC.

The Avestan texts suffered disruption once again when the Arabs invaded and conquered Iran in 641 A. C. Out of 21 Avestan Nasks and their Pahlavi translations, 20 Nasks and Pahlavi translation of 19 Nasks were in existence in the 9th century. Most of the Pahlavi texts now extant were compiled or composed in the 9th century.

Thereafter most of the Avestan Nasks, along with their Pahlavi translations, have been irretrievably lost, especially on account of the Hun and several other invasions of Iran.


Extant Avesta texts:

The Avestan texts, as they exist at present, consist of compositions of prophet Zarathushtra, along with those compositions of his immediate disciples. They may be divided into the following  parts :(1) The Yasna (including the Gathas), (2) The Visparat, (3) The Vidēvdāt (Vandidad), (4) The Yashts, (5) The Khordeh Avesta.

 (1) The Yasna (including the Gathas):

The Avesta word Yasna generally signifies worship with ceremony and offerings. This text consists of 72 chapters including 17 cantos of the Gathas having 238 stanzas. The Avesta word gāthā means “a song, a hymn.” The Gathas are the five collections of the divine songs of prophet Zarathushtra.  The Avesta names of the Gathas are: Ahūnavaiti, Ushtavaiti, Spentā Mainyū, Vohu Khshathra and Vahishtōishtī.

 (2) The Visparat:

The  word Visparat means ‘all Ratus, spiritual lords’. The Visparat consists of 23 chapters, called karde ‘section, division’. As the name implies, the Visparat is composed in honour of the celestial Lords presiding over the spiritual and material creations. In the ceremonial recitation, the Visparat is not an independent text, but a supplement to the Yasna, and its chapters are recited in conjunction with the chapters of Yasna.

(3) The Vidēvdāt (Vandidad) :

The Pahlavi word vidēvdāt corresponds to the Avesta words vīdaēva dāta ‘the law against the demons (evil forces)’. It is one of the 21 Nasks of the Sasanian times and the only Nask surviving in its entirety. It has 22 chapters, called frakart (Phlv) or pargarad (P. Guj) “section, chapter.” As the name implies, Vidēvdāt is the religious law-book, and contains religious laws against visible and invisible impurities and evil forces to safeguard the health and happiness of mankind. Besides other matters, the Vidēvdāt contains religious laws of sanitation, hygiene, atonements, ritual purity and purifications.

In the ceremonial recital, the Frakarts of the Vidēvdāt  are intermingled with the chapters of the Yasna and the Visparat.

Topics covered in the Vendidad are not on the basis of Chapters. They are randomly interspersed throughout the text. The Pargarads are of varying lengths and deal with diverse topics, except the last three (20-21-22) and the first two (1-2), more than one matter is dealt with. Vendidad contains detailed rules.

(4) The Yashts

The Pahlavi word Yasht is derived from Avesta yeshti which means “worship.” Yashts are individual invocations in honour of Ahura Mazda, Amesha Spentas, and Yazatas. At present there are 22 Yashts and fragments of some more.

The Yashts are distinguished by the epic character of their contents and their poetic form which is generally in octo-syllabic metre. Rhythmic metrical compositions are found in the Avan Yasht, Tir Yasht, Meher Yasht and the Hom Yasht.

Important historical information about the kings and heroes of the Peshdadian and Kayanian times have been preserved in the Yashts in a narrative style. Such Yashts are generally referred to as larger Yashts. Other distinguishing features of larger Yashts are division into short chapters (Kardehs), each having a common introduction and conclusion. Each Yasht is generally woven around a central figure, who is the Yazata to whom the Yasht is dedicated.

(5) The Khordeh Avesta

The Khordeh Avesta “the smaller Avesta” is the Zoroastrians’ book of daily prayers. It includes :

(1) The five Gāhs : The prayers dedicated to  each of the five watches of the day.

(2) The five Nyaishnas : Litanies in honour of divine beings presiding over the sun, the light, the moon, the water, and the fire.

(3) The shorter Yashts: Hormazd, Haftan, Ardibehesht, Khordad, Sarosh, Hom and Vanant.

(5) The Afringāns: They contain invocatory prayers and blessings, dedicated to Ardā Fravash (Holy Fravashi), Dahmān (Piety), Gāhambār (seasonal festivals) Rapithwin (onset of spring and summer) and others.