The general belief prevailing among common people, Zoroastrians or not, is that the Avesta constitutes the “Sacred Books of the Zoroastrians.” Looking at the sacred scriptures of other living religions, it should be so. Baha’ism, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, and Sikhism, have their relevant sacred books.
A closer look would, however, reveal that the conscious or unconscious founder of each religion or order had his or her inspired or thought-out message conveyed in person. Later the successors added much around the nucleus of the founding message and consequently produced a collection of writings, some of them in a different dialect or language.
Still later, the followers of the successors canonized the collection—duly collated, edited, and even translated to suit the times—to form their sacred scriptures. Some went even further. They ascribed the entire collection to a single author: the revelatory founder, enlightened promulgator, inspiring gods, or God of Revelation!
The same holds true about the Avesta, “the Sacred Books of the Zoroastrians.” A linguistic and historical scrutiny of the collection, however, will reveal several layers of literature which could not but have taken almost a thousand years to materialize into an oral literature—oral because, like most of the sacred books of other religions, it was precisely and meticulously memorized and passed on by word of mouth through generations until its final reduction in writing.
Tradition says that it was put in writing in the very earliest times. But from what we know of the scripts among the Iranians, it could have been done during the Achaemenian period (550-330 BCE) when the Iranians learned how to read and write.
The collection suffered a disaster when Alexander of Macedonia invaded Iran 2317 years ago in 321 BCE, put an end to the Achaemenian empire, and devastated the royal treasuries in which the Avesta was reportedly kept. An effort was begun during the Parthian period (250 BCE-224 CE) to collect what remained in priestly memories and scattered records. The arduous task was completed and the collection was collated, screened, augmented, and canonized centuries later during the reign of the Sassanian King Chosroes I (Khosrow Anushiravan) in about 560 CE.
It may be noted that during the entire period of collecting, collating, and canonizing of the Avesta, Jews and Christians were also engaged in a similar move, and the present forms and orders of all sacred scriptures are the result of meticulous labor over centuries. Yet critical studies of all them continue to find new and sometimes startling points about their original texts, volumes, languages, styles, and the hands of those who have edited, at times interpolated, adulterated, added, and deducted to give the final forms to the scriptures before their canonizations.
The Sassanian canon of the Avesta was divided into 21 volumes, called nasks in the Pahlavi language. The nasks were put into three categories of seven each. The first category, called Gathic, had the first nask named after two Gathic terms to read Stoata Yesnya (Pahlavi Stot Yasn), meaning “Reverential Praises.”
It consisted of the seventeen songs of the Gathas of Zarathushtra and certain subtle addenda of his close companions—a total of 33 sections, all in, more or less, the same dialect. This was considered the core, the foremost of the nasks. The remaining six nasks of this category, in a slightly different dialect now conventionally called the “Younger” or “Later” Avesta, perhaps the dialect spoken by the priests in control, were later commentaries and supplementaries concerning the first nask. This category is recognized as the “spiritual” in Pahlavi books.
The second category is Dâtik, meaning the “legislative” part of the collection. It had rules and regulations for socio-religious matters. It is called “material” by the Pahlavi writings.
The third, Hadha-mânthra, meaning “With the Thought-provoking [Words]” was a mixture of both, a kind of miscellanea. This encyclopedic collection covered the then known subjects, Avestan as well as alien, on religion, mythology, epic, history, geography, astronomy, hygiene, healing, medicine, agriculture, judicial law, government, and development.
Every piece of the Avestan text had a Pahlavi translation, commentary, and supplementary following. It was the Pahlavi renderings on which the latter priests relied to expound the religion, because Avesta, as the name “a+vista” reveals, had become an “unknown” and mystical divine language no more understood by the people, including the Sassanian and post-Sassanian priests.
Ali A. Jafarey: zoroastrian.org
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