By Jayaram V
Much of our knowledge of Zoroastrianism comes to us from literary
sources, few inscriptions, and art and architectural remains of
the ancient Iran. The inscriptions belong to the period of Achaemenid
kings of 6th and 5th century BC, namely Darius, Xerexes and Artaxerxes.
The principal Zoroastrian scripture is called the Avesta or Zend-i-Avesta,
meaning interpretation of Avesta. It is a heterogeneous collection
of texts composed at different periods by different authors dealing
with various aspects of religious worship, beliefs and instructions.
The texts were originally composed in the ancient Avestan language,
believed to be closely related to Sanskrit and part of the Indo
European group of languages. Among them the most ancient texts are
considered to be the five Gathas, containing 17 chapters, said to
have been composed by Zoroaster himself. Most of the compositions
of the Avesta seem to have lost or destroyed and the remaining ones
were probably redacted sometime during its long history. What we
have today are mainly those portions which deal with sacrificial
rituals and prayers. The Avesta is divided into the following main
- The Yasna is the most important division of Avesa.
It has 72 sections called Ha-iti or Ha, containing verses which
are recited during the performance of yasnas or sacrificial
rituals. The most important part of the Yasna are the Gathas,
which consist of 17 hymns, arranged in five groups. They are
considered to be the oldest portions of the Avesta, composed
by Zoroaster himself in old Avestan, a very obscure ancient
dialect different from the language used in the rest of the
Avesta. The hymns are believed to be shrouded in an ambiguous
and mysterious symbolism and demands a deeper understanding
of the scripture in order to realize their correct meaning and
intent. They deal with the conversation Zoroaster had with Ahura
Mazda, the revelations he had received, the tenets of the religion
to be followed by the believers, the various aspects of spiritual
and material creation, and the importance of making a choice
between good and evil. The five Gathas are: Ahunavaiti Gatha
(Y28, Y29, Y30, Y31, Y32, Y33, Y34), Ushtavaiti Gatha (Y43,
Y44, Y45, Y46), Spentamainyush Gatha (Y47, Y48, Y49, Y50), Vohukhshathra
Gatha (Y51) and Vahishtoishti Gatha (
- The Khorda Avesta is known as the book of common
prayers. As the name suggests it contains prayers for the use
of lay followers. It contains the five Gahs or prayers used
daily for each period of the day, nine Niyashis or litanies
and 11 frequently used short prayers including the most sacred
mantra, Ahunwar, said to have been recited by Ahura Mazda Himself
before the beginning of creation.
- The Visperad is a supplementary collection of prayers,
divided into 23 or 24 chapters, forming part of the Yasna, recited
during a Visperad ceremony performed by the priests as a part
of or an extension of Yasna on the occasion of the six Gahambar
festivals. These festivals are celebrated during the six seasons
of a year, to honor Ahura Mazda in general and the six Amesha
Spentas in particular, as they represent the different aspects
of creation in the spiritual plane and different periods of
a year in finite time.
- The Vendidad is a book
of laws prescribing code of conduct for contracts and offenses,
cleansing of ritual objects, dealing with corpses, expiation
of sins, punishment for different sins, burning of dead matter,
disposing of hair and nails, laws regarding menstruation, killing
of certain animals, funerals, unlawful sex and so on.
- The Yashts are a collection of twenty-one hymns of
praise and offered to Ahura Mazda, the seven archangels, the
guardina angels, the moon, the sun, the earth, the stars Sirius
and the Vega and the angels.
- The Sirozas meaning thirty days, contain dedications
or invocations for the 30 divinities each presiding over a particular
day of the month. Grouped into two chapters of 30 verses each,
The sirozas are never recited completely but only individually
to a particular divinity as a part of a religious ceremony depending
upon the day on which the ceremony is performed.
- The Niyeshas are
litenies addressed to various beings such as the sun, Mithra,
the moon, water, four directions and fire.
- The Fragments are the incomplete
texts that are not included in any of the major categories of
the Avesta. There are about 18 or 20 such fragments, some bearing
either no names or obscure names. They mostly deal with code
of conduct, religious worship and conversations between Zoroaster
and God and between Zoroaster and king Vishtaspa on various
aspects of the religious practice and creation.
The Pahlavi Texts
A great deal of Zoroastrian literature was preserved in a Persian
dialect called Pahlavai during the Arsacid and Sassanian periods.
These texts are collectively known as the Pahlavi texts. The contain
commentaries, translations and summaries and some rewritten portions
of many of lost texts. Although these texts are referred as secondary
texts, both from a historical and religious perspectives they carry
a great significance in our understanding the Zoroastrian religion
and the changes that came about in the practice of the religion.
Following are some of the important texts included in this category.
- The Denkard is a ninth century encyclopedic composition
Zoroastrian religion, containing large portions of ancient and
lost Avestan wisdom. It is regarded as the single most important
Zoroastrian text besides the Avesta. It is divided into 9 books
of which three are presently not available. The text contains
information and clarifications on religious instructions, conduct
and beliefs, wisdom of the Zoroastrian sages, contents of Nasks
and Gathic from the ancient canon and information on the life
- The Bundahishn, meaning "Primal Creation",
contains information about Zoroastrian cosmogony and cosmology.
It was probably derived from the earliest texts such as Zand
and the Vendidad. It contains 34 chapters which deal with the
various aspects of creation, religious calendar, the evil doing
of Ahirman and the evil spirits, the nature of earthly creatures,
liquids, elements, procreation, Goshorun the primal Ox, the
planets and the constellations, the formation of luminaries,
the battle between God and evil at various levels of creation
and on resurrection and life after death.
- The Arda Viraf contains the narrative account of
a vision of heaven and hell seen by Viraf in a dream state.
The book containing 101 chapters divided into five parts provides
details of both and heaven. The first part is introductory providing
historical details of the progression of the faith and how Viraf
prepared himself for the journey to the spiritual realm. The
second part describes how he actually traveled to the spiritual
world, the near death experience, what happened at the Chinawad
or Chinavat bridge and what he saw after he crossed the bridge.
The third part provides a detailed description of heaven, God,
the angels, spiritual leaders and other blessed souls. The fourth
part describes the purgatory in grotesque details, the conditions
prevailing there and the unbearable suffering of the souls cast
- Dadestan-i Denig is a book of religious decisions
containing 94 chapters dealing with various aspects of religious
practice and code of conduct. It extols the virtues of a righteous
man, how he is created, how he should act, whether good works
eradicate sin, what happens to departed souls, how the corpse
and bones should be disposed of, how life departs from the body,
the nature of heaven and heavenly pleasures, the nature of hell
and punishments, how the wicked suffer there, why should one
wear the sacred thread kusti and the white shirt sudre, who
is a better priest, whether business can be conducted with people
practising a different religion and so on.
- The other important Pahlavi Texts are:
- Chidag Andarz i Poryotkeshan: (Catechism)
- Counsels of Adarbad Mahraspandan: Advice on living a
- Epistles of Manushchihr (A.D. 881)
- Menog-i Khrad ("The Spirit of Wisdom")...
- Pazand Texts...
- Rivayat of Adur-Farnbag
- Rivayat of Farnbag-Srosh
- Sayings of Adarbad Mahraspandan: More advice on living
a good life
- Selections of Zadspram, a summary of Zoroastrian legend
- Shayest Ne-Shayest ("Proper and Improper")...
- Shkand-gumanig Vizar ("Doubt-dispelling Exposition"),
a Zoroastrian apologetic...
- Zand-i Vohuman Yasht,
Suggested Further Reading