The Avesta is a compilation of all Zoroastrian prayers, which were composed over several centuries, some dating back to more than 3000 years. The Avesta, also known as the Holy Book or the Prayer Book of the Zoroastrians, was committed to writing in the mid-first millennium CE (Common Era). Before this time it had been transmitted orally from one generation to the next.
The Avesta is composed in two languages: Avestan and Pahalavi. Avestan is a very ancient language and is similar to Sanskrit, the language of the Rigveda, one of the religious books of the Hindus. The similarity between Avestan and Vedic Sanskrit is due to a common heritage. More than 4000 years ago, i.e. before 2000 BCE (Before Common Era), the Indo-Iranians used to live together in the Southern Steppes of Asia. Around 2000 BCE a tribe called Aryans split into two groups: one group went southwest towards modern day Iran and came to be known as the Iranians and the other group went southeast towards India and came to be known as the Vedic Indians. The Indians developed the Sanskrit language while the Iranians independently developed the Avestan language but because of the common Indo-Iranian root many words in the two languages are quiet similar.
The parts of the Avesta in Avestan language can be seperated into texts in "Old Avestan" and "Young(er) Avestan". Old Avestan is a language closely akin to the oldest Indic language found in the oldest part of the Rigveda, and on archeological and linguistic grounds could be dated to the first half of the 2nd millennium BCE. Young Avestan represents a changed form of the language, linguistically close to Old Persion which was spoken by Iranian tribes, who called themselves Parswa (Persian) and lived in northwestern Iran from 9th century BCE.
Hundreds of years later, the language of the Iranians again changed and Pahalavi became the religious language of Persia. Pahalavi is a Middle Persian language and many prayers in the Avesta, composed after the 5th century CE, are in Pahalavi. The term Pazend has also been mentioned as one of the languages of the Zoroastrian religious scriptures; however, Pazend is not a language and this term will be explained later. Over the centuries, many Zoroastrian scriptures were destroyed due to the invasion of Persia by the Greeks, Arabs and Mongols. However, all the original teachings of Zarathushtra (called Gathas, which literally means "songs") have survived because they were memorized by each generation of Zoroastrian Priests and transmitted orally from one generation to the next, for thousands of years.
Prior to Zarathushtra, the Indo-Iranians used to worship many Gods, called Ahuras in Avestan and Asuras in Vedic Sanskrit. Both words come from the root Asu, which means vital force or the life giving force. Zarathushtra taught that there is only one God whom he called Ahura Mazda or Mazda Ahura. Since Mazda means the wise one, many scholars have translated the term Ahura Mazda as Lord of Wisdom.
The Gathas contain about 6000 words and are incorporated into 17 chapters, called hâitis. These
17 hâitis contain 241 verses. Almost two thousand years after Zarathushtra, the 17 haitis of the Gathas
were compiled into 5 parts and each part was named after its opening word. The names of the 5 Gathas are:
(1) Ahunavaiti Gatha, the song containing the Ahuna Vairya (a prayer)
(2) Ushtavaiti Gatha, the song containing wishes
(3) Spentamainyu Gatha, the song of the Life-giving Inspiration
(4) Vohukhshathra Gatha, the song of the Good Command
(5) Vahishtoishti Gatha, the song of the Best Ritual.
Each of the 5 Gathas, as we know them today, starts with a Khshnuman, an introduction, composed in Pahalavi language,
and also ends with a few additional sections in Pahalavi. In the first Ahunavaiti Gatha, Zarathushtra starts his prayers with the words:
In humble adoration, with hands outstretched I pray to You, O Mazda!
Three paragraphs in the Atash Nyaish prayer, a liturgy to Fire, are from the Ahunavaiti Gatha and the first
paragraph starts with the words:
The first paragraph of the Kemna Mazda, recited during the Kusti prayer, is from the 2nd Ushtavaiti Gatha.
It starts with the words:
In the 5th Gatha, Zarathushtra addresses her youngest daughter Pourachista during her marriage and tells her to be dedicated to the divine law of Asha and lead a life of righteousness.
A dialect is a regional and temporal variation of a language. The Gathas, composed in Older (or Gathic) Avestan, have a dialect that is different to the prayers composed in Younger Avestan. The difference between Gathic and Younger Avestan is similar to what we notice today between British English and American English and, the Gujerati language spoken by the Parsis as compared to the Shuddh Gujerati spoken by the people of Gujerat in India.
Over the centuries as more prayers were composed, the 5 Gathas were made part of a longer prayer called the Yasna, which means Reverence or Veneration. The Yasna is one of the longest prayers in the Avesta and has 72 haitis. The kusti is made of 72 threads to represent the 72 haitis of the Yasna. The Parsis call the Yasna, Ijashne, and this ceremony is performed practically every day in a Fire-Temple.
Of the 72 haitis of the Yasna prayer, Haitis 1 to 27 are in Younger Avestan language. These prayers are not in poetic but in prose form and were not composed by Zarathushtra but hundreds of years later by others, most likely by priests of that era. Haitis 28 to 34 contain the first Gatha of Zarathushtra, Haitis 35 to 41 contain a prayer called the Haptanghâiti and Haiti 42 has a prayer called Yanghe Hatam, Both of these prayers are also in Older Avestan. Haitis 43-51 contain Gathas 2, 3 and 4 composed by Zarathushtra, Haiti 52 is another prayer, while, Haiti 53 contains the 5th Gatha of Zarathushtra and Haiti 54 has a prayer called Airyama Isho. Haitis 55 to 72 are in Younger Avestan language and prose form but were not composed by Zarathushtra.
The prayers in Haitis 28 to 54, in Older Avestan, are called Staota Yasna, which means words of Praise and Wisdom. The Stoata Yasna includes the 5 Gathas of Zarathushtra, the Yatha, Ashem, Yenghe Hatam, Airyama Isho and the Haptanghâiti prayers. The rest of the Haitis and the other prayers in Avesta are in Younger Avestan since they were composed several centuries after Zarathushtra's time.
Yasna Haptanghâiti, the Yasna of Seven Chapters, Haitis 35 to 41, is in Older Avestan and was perhaps composed by one or more of Zarathushtra's close companions. Yasna Haptanghâiti has short songs of prayers and has been given the second highest position (after the Gathas) in the Avesta. It is between the Five Gathas of Zarathushtra, inside which it has been allotted a placid place. According to Dr. Almut Hintze, Lecturer in Zoaroastrianism at SOAS, UK, Yasna Haptanghâiti is a poetic text like the Gathas. While the poetic form of the Gathas is governed by the rhythm of the syllables that of Haptanghâiti is governed by the rhythm of the words. In this prayer, the following three terms appear for the first time, Amesha Spentas (Bounteous Immortals), Yazamaidi (Bless) and Fravashi (active presence of Ahura Mazda in every being).
A paragraph from Haptanghâiti is recited during the flower ritual in the Jashan ceremony, and its words are:
We revere Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds
done and to be done,
Now and henceforth.
We are, accordingly, the praisers
And invokers of all that is good.
(Haptanghâiti: Yasna 35-2)
The Haptanghâiti prayer tells us that we, Humans are responsible for what we have done in the past, for what we are doing at present as well as for what we will do in the future, for we esteem all that is good in the Divine Creation.
The words of this prayers are:
The meaning of the prayer is:
This prayer which appears for the first time
in Yasna 4-26 is repeated several times at the end of many haitis.
In the 'Vohukhshathra' Gatha, Yasna 51-62, Asho Zarathushtra praises such persons in almost the same
Other prayers composed in Younger Avestan, several centuries after Zarthushtra, are the
Visperad, Vendidad and some Yashts.
This is a prayer in praise of all spiritual leaders (vispeh-Ratu) and is recited during thanksgiving ceremonies and feasts during the Gahambars. Vispered has 23 fragards, a later Pahlavi term meaning “chapter,” and approximately 4,000 words.
Yashts (The Revered)
These prayers in Younger Avestan are either fully poetical or prose-poetry pieces in praise of divinities worthy of worship (Yazatas). They were composed around 7th or 6th century BCE i.e. about 2700 years ago. There are 23 Yashts and a few of these are in honour of Ahura Mazda and certain Gathic concepts such as Sraosha and Ashi, which were personified. Many Yashts are in honour of pre-Zarathushtrian Aryan divinities, such as the water diety Anahita, plant deity Haoma, contract diety Mithra, sun diety Hvare, rain diety Tishtrya, victory diety Verethraghna, and wind diety Vayu. These and a few others were reintroduced into the religion under the new term of yazatas (venerable). The Yashts have a total of about 35,800 words.
Vendidad (Vi-Daeva Dâta)
The Vendidad (Law against the Daevas [evil deities]) has mostly rules and regulations governing pollution and purification. This composition in Younger Avestan dates back to the 3rd or 4th century BCE. Originally intended as a guide for priesthood, agriculturists and pastoralists, it had its major redaction under Khusrow I Anoshiravan of the Sassasian Dynasty. It has a total of 24 fragards (chapters) with a few chapters on legends, history, geography, and animals, and a total of 19,000 words.
Herbadistan and Nirangistan.
These books are for Priests and religious rites. They guide the person who is learning to become a priest and describe how to perform ceremonies and lead rituals. The contents show that the books were compiled at an early age when the Staota Yesnya constituted the only “canon” and rituals were not fully institutionalized. The two as twins have, in their salvaged shape, 17 brief parts and approximately 3,000 words. They have an elaborate Pahlavi commentary which reflects the gradual ascendancy of the hereditary priestly class.
Since Pahalavi had only 14 letters it was extremely difficult to transliterate the Avestan prayers, so after a few centuries, somewhere in the 6th century CE, the Avestan alphabet was invented. This alphabet had 46 letters and all prayers were now transcribed into the Avestan script. Many new prayers composed in Pahalavi language were also written down in Avestan script, which was much easier to write than the ambiguous Pahalavi script. This combination of writing one spoken language, the Pahalavi language, into the script of another language, the Avestan script, is called Pazand. So Pazend is not a language for it neither has the grammer, nor the phonology, morphology or syntax of its own. Just for the sake of convenience, Pazend continues to be referred as a language.
After the invention of the Avestan Script the Persian priests recorded, in the late Sassanian Period, every surviving Avestan text and formed the Great Avesta. This was compiled into 21 nasks (books) to correspond to the 21 words of the Ahunavar (Yatha Ahu Vairyo) prayer. Copies of these books were placed in the fire temples, libraries and treasuries but during the Islamic reign all books were destroyed through successive conquests by Arabs, Turks and Mongols and not a single copy survived. We only know of their existence from a later book, called the Denkard.
The Pahalavi texts form an important link between early Zoroastrian thought and its subsequent development through ages. Among these are:
It was composed in the 4th century CE and gives an account of the life and times of the legendary (fictitious) Peshdadian and Kayanian dynasties. This book was transcribed by four Zoroastrian priests into Arabic in the 10th century and became the source of Firdausi’s epic the Shahaname (975 to 1010 CE).
Bundahishn meaning creation, deals with cosmology (purpose of the universe) and also with the nature of the divine beings and legendary history of ancient Iranians. It was compiled in the 6th century CE.
Zandaspram deals with similar subjects and also includes legends regarding Zarathushtra and his family, the nature of the evil spirit and the renovation of the world at the end of time. It was compiled in the 9th century CE.
Denkard (Acts of Religion)
This is the longest Pahalavi work, contains very diverse material and also a list of the 21 books of the Great Avesta. It was compiled in the 9th century CE.
Khordeh Avesta (Smaller Avesta)
This is the popular book of daily prayers and has selected prayers from the nasks of the Great Avesta. It is believed to have been compiled by the Head Priest, Ardubad Maharaspand, of the Sassanian era. Its gradual popularity, especially among the laity, has made it the only prayer book so much so that many of the faithful believe it to be the Avesta as revealed by Zarathushtra! Originally consisting of no more than 4,000 words, it may, in its augmented editions, contain as many as 20,000 words. It is, indeed, a very non-Gathic selection from the Great Avesta for all it has are 183 words from the Gathas of 6,000 words. Ashem Vohu and Yatha Ahu are repeated so often that one loses their dynamic, thought-provoking message. Moreover, Khordeh Avesta has many of its Avestan prayers supplemented by late Middle Persian pieces. It is, therefore, a bilingual prayer book and of a recent compilation.
From the 15th to the 18th centuries Irani and Parsi priets corresponded sporadically on matters of religious rituals. The Iranis answers to Parsi queries are preserved as Rivayets (Rules and Regulations).
From the mid-19th century there is considerable Parsi literature in Gujerati and English concerned with doctrines and observances. Many Parsi works are influenced by Hindu, Occult and Theosophical teachings.
So what should we pray? Should we only pray the Gathas that were composed by Zarathushtra or should we pray the Yashts, Nyaishes and Gahas composed by others? Some Parsis say that the recitation of the Avesta prayers creates electromagnetic vibrations; but, sound waves are not electromagnetic. Others say that it is important to understand the meaning of our prayers and then there are those who say that the rituals performed during the prayers are the most important. We can derive immense spiritual satisfaction by praying but it really does not matter what we pray, when we pray, and where we pray. Thinking good thoughts is a prayer, speaking good and kind words is a prayer and the most important part is performing good deeds for our family, for our community, for our nation, and for humanity at large.
When we have difficulties we pray to Ahura Mazda but we do not realize that Ahura Mazda has gifted us with certain potentialities that can be used to overcome every type of adversity. Take for example the first paragraph of kęm-nâ mazdâ prayer which is recited during the kusti ritual. It is from the Ushtavaiti Gatha (Yasna 46-7) of Zarathushtra:
When we are faced with difficulty we usually turn to God for help. But the kęm-nâ mazdâ prayer tells us that Mazda has already granted us two potentialities: âthrascâ, the Divine Fire which gives light, warmth, and strength to our spirit, and mananghascâ, a Good Mind which makes us think clearly. One lights the way and the other makes us think of a stragegy that would lead us to safety. The two potentialities give us confidence to perform good acts that serve Ahura Mazda and the creations. The prayer teaches us to have faith and think bright for "God helps those who help themselves."
However, faith cannot be blind. In the Ahunavaiti Gatha Yasna 30.2 Zarathushtra tells us to listen with our ears to what he has to say and to reflect, contemplate, ponder on his teachings with an open, illumined mind. Only after we have convinced ourselves of the truth in his teachings should we choose to follow Him.
So we don’t have to blindly follow what someone says until we have convinced ourselves that the person is telling the truth. For example, if we are told that in order to achieve something all we have to do is just pray, then, we can keep praying till eternity but we won’t be able to achieve our goals. Prayers help us to realize the divinity that resides in us but we must accomplish with our body, mind and soul the goals that we establish. We must not simply recite a prayer without contemplating and meditating on it. Mere murmuring a few formulas and performing rituals without any devotion or reverence are not true prayers. Every time we perform the Kusti we tie the knot on the word shayaothananam, of the Yatha Vairyo prayer. The word shayaothananam means work and action and it reminds us that we have to use our energy and mind to be progressive, creative, constructive, and promote Asha, the right order of the cosmos.
Our mission in this life is not to acquire fame or fortune or be selfish and not bother with the rest of the world. Our purpose in this life is to promote ASHA, which is Truth and Righteousness. Asha also represents social truth, scientific truth, spiritual truth and philosophical truth. By following the path of Asha, the path of Ashoi, the path of Ashem we will not only bring happiness to ourselves, but also to the present generation and to the generations to come.