Avesta /əˈvɛstə/ is the primary collection of religious texts
of Zoroastrianism, composed in the otherwise unrecorded Avestan
Avesta texts fall into several different categories, arranged
either by dialect, or by usage. The principal text in the liturgical
group is the Yasna, which takes its name from the
Zoroastrianism's primary act of worship, and at which the
is recited. The most important portion of the
Yasna texts are the five
Gathas, consisting of seventeen hymns attributed to
These hymns, together with five other short Old
Avestan texts that are
also part of the Yasna, are in the Old (or 'Gathic')
The remainder of the Yasna's texts are in Younger Avestan, which is
not only from a later stage of the language, but also from a different
Extensions to the
Yasna ceremony include the texts of the
the Visperad. The
Visperad extensions consist mainly of additional
invocations of the divinities (yazatas), while the
Vendidad is a
mixed collection of prose texts mostly dealing with purity laws.
Even today, the
Vendidad is the only liturgical text that is not
recited entirely from memory. Some of the materials of the extended
Yasna are from the Yashts,  which are hymns to the individual
yazatas. Unlike the Yasna,
Visperad and Vendidad, the Yashts and the
other lesser texts of the
Avesta are no longer used liturgically in
high rituals. Aside from the Yashts, these other lesser texts include
the Nyayesh texts, the Gah texts, the Siroza, and various other
fragments. Together, these lesser texts are conventionally called
Khordeh Avesta or "Little Avesta" texts. When the first Khordeh Avesta
editions were printed in the 19th century, these texts (together with
Avestan language prayers) became a book of common prayer for
Avesta is from the 9th/10th-century works of Zoroastrian
tradition in which the word appears as Zoroastrian Middle Persian
Book Pahlavi ʾp(y)stʾkʼ. In that context, abestāg
texts are portrayed as received knowledge, and are distinguished from
the exegetical commentaries (the zand) thereof. The literal meaning of
the word abestāg is uncertain; it is generally acknowledged to be a
learned borrowing from Avestan, but none of the suggested etymologies
have been universally accepted. The widely repeated derivation from
*upa-stavaka is from Christian Bartholomae (Altiranisches Wörterbuch,
1904), who interpreted abestāg as a contraction of a hypothetical
reconstructed Old Iranian word for "praise-song" (Bartholomae:
Lobgesang); that word is not actually attested in any text.
2 Structure and content
2.1 The Yasna
2.2 The Visperad
2.3 The Vendidad
2.4 The Yashts
2.5 The Siroza
2.6 The Nyayeshes
2.7 The Gahs
2.8 The Afrinagans
3 Other Zoroastrian religious texts
5 Further reading
6 External links
The surviving texts of the Avesta, as they exist today, derive from a
single master copy produced by Sasanian Empire-era (224–651 CE)
collation and recension. That master copy, now lost, is known as the
'Sassanian archetype'. The oldest surviving manuscript (K1)[n 1] of an
Avestan language text is dated 1323 CE. Summaries of the various
Avesta texts found in the 9th/10th century texts of Zoroastrian
tradition suggest that a significant portion of the literature in the
Avestan language has been lost. Only about one-quarter of the
Avestan sentences or verses referred to by the 9th/10th century
commentators can be found in the surviving texts. This suggests that
Avestan material, including an indeterminable number
of juridical, historical and legendary texts, have been lost since
then. On the other hand, it appears that the most valuable portions of
the canon, including all of the oldest texts, have survived. The
likely reason for this is that the surviving materials represent those
portions of the
Avesta that were in regular liturgical use, and
therefore known by heart by the priests and not dependent for their
preservation on the survival of particular manuscripts.
A pre-Sasanian history of the Avesta, if it had one, is in the realm
of legend and myth. The oldest surviving versions of these tales are
found in the ninth to 11th century texts of Zoroastrian tradition
(i.e. in the so-called "Pahlavi books"). The legends run as follows:
The twenty-one nasks ("books") of the
Avesta were created by Ahura
Mazda and brought by
Zoroaster to his patron
Vishtaspa (Dk 3A) or another Kayanian, Daray (Dk
4B), then had two copies made, one of which was stored in the
treasury, and the other in the royal archives (Dk 4B, 5). Following
Alexander's conquest, the
Avesta was then supposedly destroyed or
dispersed by the Greeks after they translated the scientific passages
that they could make use of (AVN 7–9, Dk 3B, 8). Several
centuries later, one of the Parthian emperors named Valaksh (one of
the Vologases) supposedly then had the fragments collected, not only
of those that had previously been written down, but also of those that
had only been orally transmitted (Dk 4C).
Denkard also transmits another legend related to the transmission
of the Avesta. In that story, credit for collation and recension is
given to the early Sasanian-era priest Tansar (high priest under
Ardashir I, r. 224–242, and Shapur I, r 240/242–272), who had the
scattered works collected, and of which he approved only a part as
authoritative (Dk 3C, 4D, 4E). Tansar's work was then supposedly
completed by Adurbad Mahraspandan (high priest of Shapur II, r.
309–379) who made a general revision of the canon and continued to
ensure its orthodoxy (Dk 4F, AVN 1.12–1.16). A final revision
was supposedly undertaken in the 6th century under
Khosrow I (Dk
In the early 20th century, the legend of the Parthian-era collation
engendered a search for a 'Parthian archetype' of the Avesta. In the
theory of Friedrich Carl Andreas (1902), the archaic nature of the
Avestan texts was assumed to be due to preservation via written
transmission, and unusual or unexpected spellings in the surviving
texts were assumed to be reflections of errors introduced by
Sasanian-era transcription from the Aramaic alphabet-derived Pahlavi
scripts.[n 2] The search for the 'Arsacid archetype' was increasingly
criticisized in the 1940s and was eventually abandoned in the 1950s
after Karl Hoffmann demonstrated that the inconsistencies noted by
Andreas were actually due to unconscious alterations introduced by
oral transmission. Hoffmann identifies these changes to be
due in part to modifications introduced through recitation;[n 3]
in part to influences from other Iranian languages picked up on the
route of transmission from somewhere in eastern
Iran (i.e. Central
Asia) via Arachosia and Sistan through to Persia;[n 4] and in part due
to the influence of phonetic developments in the
The legends of an Arsacid-era collation and recension are no longer
taken seriously. It is now certain that for most of their long
history the Avesta's various texts were handed down orally, and
independently of one another, and that it was not until around the 5th
or 6th century that they were committed to written form. However,
during their long history, only the Gathic texts seem to have been
memorized (more or less) exactly. The other less sacred works
appear to have been handed down in a more fluid oral tradition, and
were partly composed afresh with each generation of poet-priests,
sometimes with the addition of new material. The Younger Avestan
texts are therefore composite works, with contributions from several
different authors over the course of several hundred years.
The texts became available to European scholarship comparatively late.
Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron
Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron travelled to
India in 1755, and
discovered the texts among Indian Zoroastrian (Parsi) communities. He
published a set of French translations in 1771, based on translations
provided by a
Parsi priest. Anquetil-Duperron's translations were at
first dismissed as a forgery in poor Sanskrit, but he was vindicated
in the 1820s following Rasmus Rask's examination of the Avestan
language (A Dissertation on the Authenticity of the
Bombay, 1821). Rask also established that Anquetil-Duperron's
manuscripts were a fragment of a much larger literature of sacred
texts. Anquetil-Duperron's manuscripts are at the Bibliothèque
nationale de France ('P'-series manuscripts), while Rask's collection
now lies in the
Royal Library, Denmark
Royal Library, Denmark ('K'-series). Other large
Avestan language manuscript collections are those of the British
Museum ('L'-series), the K. R. Cama Oriental Library in Mumbai, the
Meherji Rana library in Navsari, and at various university and
national libraries in Europe.
Structure and content
In its present form, the
Avesta is a compilation from various sources,
and its different parts date from different periods and vary widely in
character. Only texts in the
Avestan language are considered part of
According to the Denkard, the 21 nasks (books) mirror the structure of
Ahuna Vairya prayer: each of the three lines of the
prayer consists of seven words. Correspondingly, the nasks are divided
into three groups, of seven volumes per group. Originally, each volume
had a word of the prayer as its name, which so marked a volume’s
position relative to the other volumes. Only about a quarter of the
text from the nasks has survived until today.
The contents of the
Avesta are divided topically (even though the
organization of the nasks is not), but these are not fixed or
canonical. Some scholars prefer to place the categories in two groups,
the one liturgical, and the other general. The following
categorization is as described by Jean Kellens (see bibliography,
Main article: Yasna
Yasna 28.1 (Bodleian MS J2)
Yasna (from yazišn "worship, oblations", cognate with Sanskrit
yajña), is the primary liturgical collection, named after the
ceremony at which it is recited. It consists of 72 sections called the
Ha-iti or Ha. The 72 threads of lamb's wool in the Kushti, the sacred
thread worn by Zoroastrians, represent these sections. The central
portion of the
Yasna is the Gathas, the oldest and most sacred portion
of the Avesta, believed to have been composed by Zarathushtra
(Zoroaster) himself. The
Gathas are structurally interrupted by the
Yasna Haptanghaiti ("seven-chapter Yasna"), which makes up chapters
35–42 of the
Yasna and is almost as old as the Gathas, consists of
prayers and hymns in honour of the Supreme Deity,
Ahura Mazda, the
Angels, Fire, Water, and Earth. The younger Yasna, though handed down
in prose, may once have been metrical, as the
Gathas still are.
Main article: Visperad
Visperad (from vîspe ratavo, "(prayer to) all patrons") is a
collection of supplements to the Yasna. The Visparad is subdivided
into 23 or 24 kardo (sections) that are interleaved into the Yasna
Visperad service (which is an extended
Visperad collection has no unity of its own, and is never recited
separately from the Yasna.
Main article: Vendidad
Vendidad (or Vidēvdāt, a corruption of Avestan
Vī-Daēvō-Dāta, "Given Against the Demons") is an enumeration of
various manifestations of evil spirits, 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 Fargards,
fragments arranged as discussions between
Ahura Mazda and Zoroaster.
The first fargard is a dualistic creation myth, followed by the
description of a destructive winter on the lines of the Flood myth.
The second fargard recounts the legend of Yima. The remaining fargards
deal primarily with hygiene (care of the dead in particular) [fargard
3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 16, 17, 19] as well as disease and spells to
fight it [7, 10, 11, 13, 20, 21, 22]. Fargards 4 and 15 discuss the
dignity of wealth and charity, of marriage and of physical effort, and
the indignity of unacceptable social behaviour such as assault and
breach of contract, and specify the penances required to atone for
violations thereof. The
Vendidad is an ecclesiastical code, not a
liturgical manual, and there is a degree of moral relativism apparent
in the codes of conduct. 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.
The Vendidad, unlike the
Yasna and the Visparad, is a book of moral
laws rather than the record of a liturgical ceremony. However, there
is a ceremony called the Vendidad, in which the
Yasna is recited with
all the chapters of both the Visparad and the
Vendidad inserted at
appropriate points. This ceremony is only performed at night.
Main article: Yasht
Faravahar, believed to be a depiction of a Fravashi, as mentioned in
the Yasna, Yashts and Vendidad
The Yashts (from yešti, "worship by praise") are a collection of 21
hymns, each dedicated to a particular divinity or divine concept.
Three hymns of the
Yasna liturgy that "worship by praise" are—in
tradition—also nominally called yashts, but are not counted among
Yasht collection since the three are a part of the primary
liturgy. The Yashts vary greatly in style, quality and extent. In
their present form, they are all in prose but analysis suggests that
they may at one time have been in verse.
The Siroza ("thirty days") is an enumeration and invocation of the 30
divinities presiding over the days of the month. (cf. Zoroastrian
calendar). 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, with the yazatas being addressed in the accusative.
The Siroza is never recited as a whole, but is a source for individual
sentences devoted to particular divinities, to be inserted at
appropriate points in the liturgy depending on the day and the month.
The five Nyayeshes, abbreviated Ny., are prayers for regular
recitation by both priests and laity. They are addressed to the Sun
Mithra (recited together thrice a day), to the Moon (recited
thrice a month), and to the Waters and to Fire. The Nyayeshes are
composite texts containing selections from the
Gathas and the Yashts,
as well as later material.
The five gāhs are invocations to the five divinities that watch over
the five divisions (gāhs) of the day. Gāhs are similar in
structure and content to the five Nyayeshes.
The Afrinagans are four "blessing" texts recited on a particular
occasion: the first in honor of the dead, the second on the five
epagomenal days that end the year, the third is recited at the six
seasonal feasts, and the fourth at the beginning and end of summer.
All material in the
Avesta that is not already present in one of the
other categories falls into a "fragments" category, which – as the
name suggests – includes incomplete texts. There are altogether more
than 20 fragment collections, many of which have no name (and are then
named after their owner/collator) or only a
Middle Persian name. The
more important of the fragment collections are the Nirangistan
fragments (18 of which constitute the Ehrbadistan); the Pursishniha
"questions," also known as "Fragments Tahmuras"; and the Hadokht Nask
"volume of the scriptures" with two fragments of eschatological
Other Zoroastrian religious texts
Only texts preserved in the
Avestan language count as scripture and
are part of the Avesta. Several other secondary works are nonetheless
crucial to Zoroastrian theology and scholarship.
The most notable among the
Middle Persian texts are the Dēnkard
("Acts of Religion"), dating from the ninth century; the Bundahishn
("Primordial Creation"), finished in the eleventh or twelfth century,
but containing older material; the Mainog-i-Khirad ("Spirit of
Wisdom"), a religious conference on questions of faith; and the Book
of Arda Viraf, which is especially important for its views on death,
salvation and life in the hereafter. Of the post-14th century works
(all in New Persian), only the
Sad-dar ("Hundred Doors, or Chapters"),
and rivayats (traditional treatises) are of doctrinal importance.
Other texts such as Zartushtnamah ("Book of Zoroaster") are only
notable for their preservation of legend and folklore. The Aogemadaeca
"we accept," a treatise on death is based on quotations from the
^ K1 represents 248 leaves of a 340-leaf
Vendidad Sade manuscript,
i.e. a variant of a
Yasna text into which sections of the
Vendidad are interleaved. The colophon of K1 (K=Copenhagen) identifies
its place and year of completion to Cambay, 692Y (= 1323–1324 CE).
The date of K1 is occasionally mistakenly given as 1184. This mistake
is due to a 19th-century confusion of the date of K1 with the date of
K1's source: in the postscript to K1, the copyist – a certain
Mehrban Kai Khusrow of
Navsari – gives the date of his source as
552Y (= 1184 CE). That text from 1184 has not survived.
^ For a summary of Andreas' theory, see Schlerath (1987),
^ For example, prefix repetition as in e.g. paitī ... paitiientī vs.
paiti ... aiienī (Y. 49.11 vs. 50.9), or sandhi processes on word and
syllable boundaries, e.g. adāiš for *at̰.āiš (48.1), ahiiāsā
for ahiiā yāsā, gat̰.tōi for *gatōi (43.1), ratūš
š́iiaoϑanā for *ratū š́iiaoϑanā (33.1).
^ e.g. irregular internal hw > xv as found in e.g. haraxvati-
'Arachosia' and sāxvan- 'instruction', rather than regular internal
hw > ŋvh as found in e.g. aojōŋvhant- 'strong'.
^ e.g. YAv. -ō instead of expected OAv. -ə̄ for Ir. -ah in almost
^ a b c Boyce 1984, p. 1.
^ a b c d e f g Boyce 1984, p. 3.
^ a b c d e f Boyce 1984, p. 2.
^ Kellens 1987, p. 239.
^ Cantera 2015.
^ Humbach 1991, pp. 50–51.
^ Humbach 1991, pp. 51–52.
^ a b Humbach 1991, pp. 52–53.
^ Humbach 1991, pp. 53–54.
^ Humbach 1991, p. 54.
^ Humbach 1991, p. 55.
^ Humbach 1991, p. 57.
^ Hoffmann 1958, pp. 7ff.
^ Humbach 1991, pp. 56–63.
^ Humbach 1991, pp. 59–61.
^ Humbach 1991, p. 58.
^ Humbach 1991, p. 61.
^ a b Humbach 1991, p. 56.
Boyce, Mary (1984), Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism,
Manchester UP .
Cantera, Alberto (2015), "
Middle Persian Translations",
Encyclopedia Iranica, New York: Encyclopedia Iranica online .
Hoffmann, Karl (1958), "Altiranisch", Handbuch der Orientalistik, I
4,1, Leiden: Brill .
Humbach, Helmut (1991), The
Gathas of Zarathushtra and the Other Old
Avestan Texts, Part I, Heidelberg: Winter .
Kellens, Jean (1983), "Avesta", Encyclopædia Iranica, vol. 3, New
York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, pp. 35–44 .
Kellens, Jean (1987), "Characters of Ancient Mazdaism", History and
Anthropology, vol. 3, Great Britain: Harwood Academic Publishers,
pp. 239–262 .
Schlerath, Bernfried (1987), "Andreas, Friedrich Carl: The Andreas
Theory", Encyclopædia Iranica, vol. 2, New York: Routledge and Kegan
Paul, pp. 29–30 .
Talageri, S. G. (2010). The Rigveda and the Avesta: The final
evidence. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan.
Jal, M., & Centre for Studies in Civilizations (Delhi, India).
(2012). Zoroastrianism: From antiquity to the modern period.
Avesta in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Wikisource has original text related to this article:
avesta.org: translation by
James Darmesteter and L. H. Mills forms
part of the
Sacred Books of the East series, but is now regarded as
Book of Arda Viraf
Letter of Tansar
Dana-i Menog Khrat