The Sacred Literature Of Zoroastrianism

Faravahar, the sacred emblem of Zoroastrianism

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.

Zend Avesta

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 divisions.

  • 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 of Zarathushtra.
  • 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 into it.
  • 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.

Other important Pahlavi Texts

Other important Pahlavi texts are listed below.

  • Chidag Andarz i Poryotkeshan: (Catechism)
  • Counsels of Adarbad Mahraspandan: Advice on living a good life
  • 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 and beliefs...
  • Shayest Ne-Shayest ("Proper and Improper")...
  • Shkand-gumanig Vizar ("Doubt-dispelling Exposition"), a Zoroastrian apologetic...
  • Zand-i Vohuman Yasht,

Suggestions for Further Reading

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