Composition & Transmission of the Avesta
Gathas - the Oral Tradition
Zarathushtra memorized and conveyed his ideas and teaching through hymns called the Gathas. The verses of the Gathas were memorized and sung by his followers, thereby in turn conveying the ideas to others and subsequent generations.
Avesta - the Oral Tradition Continues
Generations that followed Zarathushtra preserved his teachings and added to them. In doing so, they created the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta. The Gathas formed the core of the Avesta, which came to include pre-Zarathushtrian compositions modified to conform to Zoroastrian principles, as well as later compositions.
When priests were introduced to the religion, they took on the role of memorizing the Avesta, especially the Gathas and the liturgy. The method proved very effective in preserving the teachings - so effective that the hymns continued to be faithfully memorized, shared and transmitted even when the language of the people reciting the verses changed and the meaning of the verses was lost.
For reasons unknown, the Avestan canon, primarily composed in eastern Aryan dialects, was closed. After a gap that we will call the unknown years, additions to the Avesta took the form of explanations, interpretations and commentaries called the Zend or Zand. When combined with the Avestan canon, they were called the Zend Avesta or Zand Avesta.
While the Avesta was composed in a group of related ancient Indo-Iranian languages informally called the Avestan languages, the Zand was composed in languages that were current after the fall of Macedonian rule in the second century BCE. The final rendition of these commentaries was in a relatively modern language called Pahlavi or Middle Persian, the language of Persia and Iran from the 2nd to the 7th century AC.
Compilation & Destruction of the Avesta
First Written Compilation - Achaemenian Avesta (c. 600 - 300 BCE)
The first report of written Avestan texts comes from the Middle Persian language (Pahlavi) writer Arda Viraf, in his book the Arda Viraf Nameh (3rd or 4th century CE?). In it, he writes that the the Persian Achaemenian kings (c. 600 - 300 BCE) commissioned the commitment of the Avesta to writing on hides and deposited the texts in the royal library at Ishtakhr. "...the entire Avesta and Zand, written on hides with gold ink, were deposited in the archives at Stakhar Papakan (Ishtakhr, near Persepolis and Shiraz in Pars province)." Masudi gives the number of hides as 12,000.
This written version of the Avesta would have been available for others to read and Martin Haug states that Hermippus, the philosopher of Smyrna (ca. 250 BCE), "is reported by Pliny (Historia Naturalis XXX., 1) to have made very laborious investigations into all Zoroastrian books, which were said to comprise two million verses, and to have stated the contents of each book separately." Regrettably, Hermippus' work has since been lost.
Destruction of the Achaemenian Avesta by Alexander (330 BCE)
Arda Viraf (see above), goes on to state in the Arda Wiraz Namag (Arda Viraf Namah) that Alexander of Macedonia, in 330 BCE, burned the Avestan manuscripts deposited at the royal library at Ishtakhr. Alexander also ordered killed several judges, dasturs, mobeds, herbads (priests) and other upholders of the religion, as well as the competent and wise of the country of Iran (in an attempt to destroy the oral tradition as well).
Bundahishn 33.14: "Then, during the reign of Darius son of Darius, the emperor Alexander came to Iranshahr, scurrying from Arum (Europe), killed king Darius, destroyed all the families of rulers, magi, and public men of Iranshahr, extinguished an immense number of sacred fires, seized the commentary (zand) of the Revelation of Mazda-worship, and sent it to Arum, burned the Avesta, and divided Iranshahr among ninety petty rulers."
Mahankard (c. 750 CE. Translated from Middle Persian to Arabic): Alexander destroyed the original ancient Persian books after having them translated into Greek. (Other accounts below state that only certain topics/books were translated and the others, e.g. religious, were destroyed without translation.)
Ibn Qutayba (d. 889 Arabic): Alexander conquered the kingdom of Iran and burned the books of their religion.
Sahristaniha-e Iran (Middle Persian): Alexander destroyed the Avesta which was stored in writing in Samarqand. (We note here that the written Avesta was stored in what may be considered the regional capital of the Eastern Iranian (Persian) Empire.
Hamza al-Isfahani, wr. 961 [Eight collated translations of the Middle Persian Khwaday Namag (Khoda Namah also used by Ferdowsi) to Arabic] & supported by the account of Musa ibn Isa al-Kisrawi: Alexander, jealous of the unparalled knowledge of the Persian nation, first translated what he needed from the Persian, then destroyed the rest, killing the Magi too. Although he destroyed their books on religion, he translated their books dealing with philosophy, astrology, medicine, and agriculture from Persian into Greek and Egyptian, which he sent to Alexandria (cf. our page on Ostanes - Persian Sage in Egypt). This account confirms that the Avesta and supporting texts were encyclopaedic in knowledge as further confirmed by the Dinkard's summary of the 21 books of the Avesta.
Tansar-Nama (Persian translated from Middle Persian): Alexander destroyed the Avesta.
Din Vijirgard (Persian in Pahlavi script): Alexander destroyed the Nasks (Books of the Avesta) except for those concerning medicine and the stars, with he had translated into Roman (i.e. Greek. Post Parthian period, the Persians called Europe 'Rome' since the interface with the Iranian / Persian Empire was the Roman Empire.)
[The above list is further catalogued and referenced in The Arabic Hermes: from Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science by Kevin Thomas Van Bladel, pp 33-35.. Also see our page on Ostanes - Persian Sage in Egypt for further citations regarding the preservation and recovery of some texts in Egypt. The first reconstruction - and second compilation took place during Parthian rule.]
Second Written Compilation - Parthian Avesta (247 BCE - 224 CE)
Following the overthrow of Macedonian rule by the Parthava (Parthians. Parthav, Parthia, was one of the Aryan nations), the Parthians (247 BCE - 224 CE) promulgated the compilation of the scattered remnants of the Avesta dispersed during Macedonian domination. The Middle Persian Pahlavi texts, the Dinkard (edition Madon) 412.5-11, translated by R. C. Zaehner in Zurvan, a Zoroastrian Dilemma, reads: "The Arsacid king Valakhsh, or Vologese, (as this is a common name amongst the Arsacid Parthians, the king referred to is thought to be the Parthian king Vologese IV, c. 147-191 CE), commanded that a memorandum be sent to the provinces to preserve, in the state in which it had come down in the province, whatever had survived in purity of the Avesta and Zand, and also every teaching deriving from it, which scattered by the havoc and disruption of Alexander, and by the pillage and looting of the Macedonians, had survived whether written or in authoritative oral transmission."
The Parthian Avesta has not survived. However, in all likelihood it formed the basis of the Sassanian Avesta.
Third Written Compilation - Sassanian Avesta (226-651 ACE)
The Sassanians were the Persian/Iranian dynasty that overthrew the Parthians. A proclamation in the Dinkard ascribed to the Sassanian king Khosrow Anoshirvan (531 - 579 AC) states that the collection of the Avesta fragments started during the Parthian Arsacid era was completed during the reign of Shahpur II (r. 309 - 379 AC).
The compilation of the Avesta and Pahlavi language texts took place particularly during the reigns of the following Sassanian kings:
• Ardeshir I (r. 226-241 CE) (under the supervision of his high priest Tonsar, or Tansar),
• Shahpur II (r. 309 - 379 AC) (under the supervision of Adarbad Mahraspandan who is said to have 'purified' the Avesta and fixed the number of nasks at twenty one (listed below), the number of words in the Ahunavar prayer),
• Khosrow Anoshirvan (531 - 579 AC) the Just (under the supervision of Mobadan Mobed Veh-Shabuhr).
The following is an example of the Sassanian Avesta written in the Avestan script. It is a section of the chapter 28.1 of the Yasna that was deposited in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, England:
Destruction by Arabs (c. 650 - 1000 CE)
The Arab started their Islamic era conquests with the subjugation of the Byzantine province of Syria in 636 AC. Soon after, they invade Mesopotamia (Iraq) and moved their armies into the Iranian plateau by the time the Sassanian monarch Yazdegird III started his reign. Over years, in the face of the relentless Arab advance, Yazdegird retreated to the northeast, until he was killed in Merv in 652 AC.
Initially, the Arabs gave the Zoroastrians (who they labelled gabr) three choices: death, conversion to Islam, or payment of a tribute and humiliation. The following is quote from A. s. Tritton's The Caliphs and their Non-Muslim Subjects, p. 227, for the collection of the special tax on unbelievers, the jizya, and their public humiliation:
"(The unbeliever, the dhimmi) has to be made to feel that he is an inferior person when he pays. He goes on a fixed day in person to the emir appointed to receive the poll-tax. (The emir) sits on a high throne. The dhimmi appears before him, offering the poll-tax on his open palm. The emir takes it so that his hand is on top and the dhimmi's below. Then the emir gives him a blow to the neck, and one who stands before the emir drives him roughly away. The public is admitted to see this show."
If the tribute could not be paid in full, Zoroastrians were required to surrender their sacred texts for burning. The Muslims also started the practice of either destroying Zoroastrian places of worship or converting them to mosques. Many Zoroastrians were made slaves and then offered their freedom if they converted to Islam. Zoroastrians found wearing the kushti, or sacred girdle, had the girdle torn off and hung around their necks in derision.
Once the number of Zoroastrians had been reduced to a small minority, the remainder very left to life lives as secondary citizens living in humiliation and without rights. It is possible that a copy of the Sassanian Avesta had survived.
Migration to India (C. 900 CE)
A group of Zoroastrians decided to migrate to India around 900 CE. They carried with them the surviving Avesta and Pahlavi texts in their possession.
Destruction by Turkoman and Mongols (c. 1000 - 1300 CE)
Whatever remained of the Sassanian Avesta in Iran was destroyed by Turkoman and Mongol invaders. A small group of Zoroastrians in Yazd and Kerman survived by offering no resistance to the invaders and instead paying them handsome tributes. Nevertheless all existing temples were destroyed and life for the surviving Zoroastrians became intolerable. The Turkomans who converted to Islam became murderous fanatics who proclaimed that "all paths were closed saved the path of Muhammad," while the Mongols murdered entire communities not for religious reasons, but to spread fear, eliminate resistance and pre-empt any future uprising.
Today, a small community of Zoroastrians survive, dispersed as some of the smallest minorities in the world.
Size and Extent of the Sassanian Avesta
21 Nasks of the Sassanian Avesta
The 21 nasks were encyclopaedic in nature and dealt with philosophy, theology, rituals, prayers, hygiene, medicine and the medicinal properties of a thousand plants and herbs, history, astronomy, geography and other forms of knowledge. The contents are outlined in Dinkard (Sanjana) volume 8.
The nasks were placed in three categories:
1. Stoata Yesnya (Pahlavi Stot yasn) commonly called Gathic since the name is made up of two words from the Gathas: Stoata (hymns) and Yesnya (dedicated).
2. Datic meaning legal.
3. Hadha-manthra meaning other insightful thoughts.
A number of the texts contain a variety of information. For instance under Haoma (Hom) was found information on medicine and the medicinal properties of a thousand plants and herbs.
The names, grouping and contents of the 21 nasks are as follows:
1. Satudgar/Sudgar nask (Gathic). Virtue and piety
2. Vahishta-Mansar/Warsht-Mansr nask (Gathic). Zarathushtra's birth, religious observances, Gatha explanations.
3. Bagh/Bag nask (Gathic). Mazdayasnian religion and its teachings.
4. Damdad nask (Hadha). This word and the next, material and spiritual existences, resurrection and judgment.
5. Nadar nask (Hadha). Astronomy
6. Pajam/Pazag nask (Hadha). Calendar, Seasons, Gahambars, months, days.
7. Ratoshtay/Ratushtaiti nask (Hadha). Political and social issues.
8. Barash/Barish nask (Hadha). sovereignty, government, priestly authority, justice, mediation, promise-keeping.
9. Kashasrub/Kishkisrub nask (Hadha). preparations and precautions for the Yashts.
10. Vishtasp/Wishtasp-sast nask (Hadha). King Vishtasp's reign
11. Khesht/Washtag nask (Gathic). Religion's practical applications.
12. Jerast/Chihrdad nask (Datic). History of peoples and monarchs.
13. Safand/Spend nask (Gathic). Zarathushtra's life.
14. Baghan yasht/Bagan-yasn nask (Datic). God and archangels.
15. Niyaram/Nigadum nask (Datic). Legal codes. Business laws.
16. Dvasraub/Duwasrud nask (Datic). Legal codes. Crime and punishment.
17. Asparam/Husparum nask (Datic). Legal codes, rituals, ceremonies.
18. Askaram/Sagadum nask (Datic). Legal codes, rituals, ceremonies.
19. Videvdad/Vendidad nask (Datic). History, Geography, purification rites.
20. Hadokht nask (Gathic). Goodness
21. Satud yasht/Stud-yasn nask (Gathic). God and archangels
Zoroastrian Scripture pages: