Chapter 11: The Sacred Literature of the Persians — Zoroastrianism

The Scriptures of Mankind: An Introduction
by Charles Samuel Braden

Chapter 11: The Sacred Literature of the Persians — Zoroastrianism

The sacred book of Zoroastrianism is the Avesta, though often, but improperly, it is called the Zend-Avesta. It is comparatively little known in the Western world, probably because Zoroastrianism as a living faith no longer occupies a place of great importance. At one time one of the great missionary faiths of the world, it has declined under persecution, or pressure from without, until there remain only a little more than a hundred thousand Zoroastrians in the whole world. Most of these are not to be found in the land in which the faith began. There is in Persia, or Iran, a small remnant of probably less than thirty thousand followers of the prophet, Zoroaster. The larger group is a remnant of the company of Zoroastrians, now known as Parsis, who migrated to India many centuries ago, in search of freedom to worship according to their own beliefs, for freedom was denied them by their Mohammedan conquerors at home.

Nevertheless, the faith of Zoroastrianism has been of very great influence upon three of the great religions of the world, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and therefore deserves to be better known. The extant Zoroastrian writings are probably only a small part of what once constituted a very extensive collection of sacred writ. It is mentioned by Pliny the Elder that some two million verses were composed by the prophet, Zoroaster. There is also a reference in late sources to twenty-one Nasks, or books originally, of which there remain little more than a half-dozen today. In fact, we are told the very content of each of the books. The collection as a whole covers a very wide range of material -- historical, religious, cultural --indeed, it is almost encyclopedic in character.

The invasion of Alexander was the occasion for the destruction of a considerable part of the book, and in the years following little attempt was made to restore what had been destroyed, or to preserve what remained. It appears that some time in the third or fourth century of the Christian era an effort was made to bring together all the writings that remained, and to put into written form such oral traditions as were still retained concerning the lost parts of the book. This work was brought to completion perhaps in the fourth century, revised and finally declared canonical. It is this which remains and constitutes the Avesta today. However, even this has undergone change, because to the original Avestan text has been added a commentary, or paraphrase, to some of the material, and this material has also come to be regarded as sacred.

In its present form there are seven divisions in the Avesta: the Yasna, the Gathas, the Visparad, the Yashts, certain minor texts, the Vendidad, and a group of fragments.

The Gathas, which are today found interspersed throughout the Yasna, 1 constitute the oldest as well as the most important part of scripture, for here are preserved, more than anywhere, the authentic words of the prophet himself, Zoroaster. On linguistic grounds, it is adjudged much older than the other parts of the book, and may well go back to the time of Zoroaster himself, some scholars think. There is in these songs more of spontaneity and depth of religious insight than is found in the other parts of the book. Here apparently religion was simpler and less complicated. It is in these verses that one discovers the apparent monotheistic belief of Zoroaster who seems to have reacted vigorously against the polytheism of his day. But if there is monotheism here, it is not to be found elsewhere in the scriptures, which are full of reference to, and praises of, numerous other gods, angels, and spirits. Apparently the vigorous reform of Zoroaster himself had failed to sustain itself after his death, and the whole pantheon crowded back into the picture.

In the Gathas is told the story of the call of Zoroaster. The "Soul of the Kine," representative of the economic base of the Iranian people, addresses Ahura, the divinity raised to the place of Supreme God by Zoroaster’s reform, inquiring why she was ever created since suffering and afflictions are her lot, and beseeching the Divine Order to instruct her in the benefits of agriculture, and serve as her protector. In response Ahura names Zarathustra (Zoroaster) who, inspired by Good Mind --an attribute of Ahura himself -- will serve the Iranian people. They object at first, but he is confirmed in the appointment, and accepts it, only praying: "Do ye, O Ahura, and thou, O righteousness, grant gladness unto these our disciples. . . . And when shall the (Divine) Righteousness, the good Mind (of the Lord and His) Sovereign Power (come) hastening to me (to give me strength for my task and mission) O Great Creator, the Living Lord? (For without this I cannot advance or undertake my toil) . Do ye now therefore assign unto us your aid and in abundance for our great cause. May we be partakers of the bountiful grace of these your equals."2

Following his call, under a sense of his own inadequacy he prays earnestly for the necessary gifts and knowledge to perform his task effectively: "That best of gifts therefore do I beseech of Thee, O Thou best (of beings) Ahura! Who art one in will with (Thy Divine) Righteousness . . . do Thou teach me from Thyself, yea, from Thine own mouth of spirit, that I may declare it forth to (these Thy waiting people) by what (powers and according to what laws) the primeval world arose."3

Again and again he inquires about the origin of things: "Tell me I ask thee, O Ahura! Tell me aright, Who by generation was the first father of the Righteous Order (within the world) ? Who gave the sun and stars their (undeviating) way? Who established that whereby the moon waxes and whereby she wanes, save Thee? . . . Who from beneath hath sustained the earth and the clouds above that they do not fall? Who made the waters and the plants? Who to the wind has yoked the storm clouds? . . . Who . . . is the inspirer of the good thoughts?"4 "Who is the righteous one . . .and who is evil? . . . How shall I banish this Demon-of-the-Lie from us hence . . . and deliver him into the two hands of Thine Order to cast her down to death . . . and send mighty destruction among her believers, to keep those deceitful and harsh oppressors from reaching their (fell) aims?"5

He had strong opposition to his preaching and, for a long time, won no converts to the cause. He cries out: "To what land to turn; aye, whither turning shall I go?" Neither kinsmen nor princes will aid him. "How then shall I establish well the faith, and thus conciliate Thy (grace) , O Lord?"6

Judgment shall fall upon those of evil deeds "and when they approach there where the Judge’s Bridge (extends, unlike the believing ones of God, who go so firmly forth with me as a guide and helper, these shall miss their path and fall) , and in the Lie’s abode forever shall their habitation be. But for the penitent there is yet hope."7

Here is prophetic judgment of an ethical God upon those who sin. It is reminiscent of some of the utterances of the prophets of Israel. The whole scheme of salvation was to be developed into a highly elaborate and eschatological scheme in late Zoroastrianism, which undoubtedly had its influence upon Judaism and through it upon Christianity. It was an ethically conditioned immortality which Zoroaster taught.

These Gathas are not easy reading. They lack the grace and charm that one finds in an Isaiah or a Jeremiah. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the text is often corrupt, and the language obscure to modern scholars. But there is a strength and forthrightness about the Gathas which sets them apart from the later scriptures, which preserve chiefly the rituals of the faith of a later day.

Zoroastrianism is strongly dualistic in its developed form. Over against Ahura-Mazda, or Ormuzd, the good Lord and his holy attributes, the Amesha Spentas, there stands in increasing conflict AngraMainyu, or Ahriman, the evil one and his unholy attributes, corresponding to the Amesha Spentas. But the basis of this is clearly laid in the Gathas themselves, though not so fully or explicitly spelled out. In Yasna XXX the concept is set forth for the first time. "Thus there are the primeval spirits who as a pair (combining their opposite strivings) and (yet each) independent in his action, have been famed (of old) . They are a better thing, they. two, and a worse as to thought, as to word, and as to deed. And between these two let the wisely acting choose aright. (Choose ye) not (as) evil doers!"8

These two came together and created each his separate realm, quaintly expressed as "making life and life’s absence," determined how the world should be ordered at the last for the good and for the wicked. Thus the good Ahura was not to be held responsible for the creation of the evil in the world. Says L. S. Mills: "The swallowing up of sin and sorrow in ultimate happiness belongs to a later period. It is not Gathic Zarathustrianism. Evil was the work of an independent being."9 Yet, in a later verse of the same Gatha, mention is made of the final attainment of perfection, when "the blow of destruction shall fall upon the Demon of falsehood, and her adherents shall perish with her."10 Surely this foreshadows the scenes of final judgment of later Zoroastrianism, when all the evil shall be destroyed and only the good remain.

The Yasna is a liturgical book. It is used in connection with the Yasna ceremony which is very much like the Vedic ceremony of preparation of the soma for ritual use in sacrifice. The soma of the Vedas becomes Haoma in the Avesta but the ceremony is strikingly similar in both cases, due no doubt to the fact that it was an old custom common to the Indo-Iranian Aryans for a long time before they became separated into their Persian and Indian branches. The ceremony here is too long to repeat but a few verses will be included:

Thereupon spake Zarathustra: Praise to H (a) oma. Good is H (a) oma, and the well-endowed, exact and righteous in its nature, and good inherently, and healing, beautiful of form, and good in deed, and most successful in its working, goldenhued, with bending sprouts. As it is the best for drinking, so (through its sacred stimulus) is it the most nutritious for the soul.

This first blessing I beseech of thee, O H (a) oma, thou that drivest death afar! I beseech of thee for (heaven) , the best life of the saints, the radiant, all-glorious.

This second blessing I beseech of thee, O H (a) oma, thou that drivest death afar! this body’s health (before that blest life is attained.)

This third blessing I beseech of thee, O H (a) oma, thou that drivest death afar! that I may stand victorious on earth, conquering in battles, overwhelming the assaults of hate, and conquering the lie. . . .

This sixth blessing I ask of thee, O H (a) oma, thou that drivest death afar! that we may get good warning of the thief, good warning of the murderer, see first the bludgeon-bearer, get first sight of the world. May no one whichsoever get first sight of us. In the strife with each, may we be they who get the first alarm!

Hail to thee, O H (a) oma, who hast power as thou wilt, by thine inborn strength! Hail to thee, thou art well-versed in many sayings, and true and holy words. Hail to thee for thou dost ask no wily questions, but questionest direct.

O H (a) oma, thou house-Lord, and thou clan-Lord, thou tribe-Lord, and chieftain of the land, and thou successful learned teacher, for aggressive strength I speak to thee, for that which smites with victory, and for my body’s saving, for manifold delight!

Bear off from us the torment and the malice of the hateful. Divert the angry foe’s intent!

What man soever in this house is violent and wicked, what man soever in this village, or this tribe, or province, seize thou away the fleetness from his feet; throw thou a veil of darkness o’er his mind; make thou his intellect (at once) a wreck!

Let not the man who harms us, mind or body, have power to go forth on both his legs, or hold with both his hands, or see with both his eyes, not the land (beneath his feet) , or the herd before his face.

H (a) oma grows while he is praised, and the man who praises him is therewith more victorious. The lightest pressure of thee, H (a) oma, thy feeblest praise, the slightest tasting of thy juice, avails to the thousand-smiting of the D (a) evas.

Wasting doth vanish from that house, and with it foulness, whither in verity they bear thee, and where thy praise in truth is sung, the drink of H (a) oma, famed, health-bringing (as thou art) . [ (Pazand) to his village and abode they bear him.]

All other toxicants go hand in hand with Rapine of the bloody spear, but H (a) oma’s stirring power goes hand in hand with friendship. [Light is the drunkenness of H (a) oma (Pazand) .]

Who as a tender son caresses H (a) oma, forth to the bodies of such persons H (a) oma comes to heal.

Of all the healing virtues, H (a) oma, whereby thou art a healer, grant me some. Of all the victorious powers, whereby thou art a victor, grant me some. A faithful praiser will I be to thee, 0 H (a) oma, and a faithful praiser (is) a better (thing) than Righteousness the Best; so hath the Lord, declaring (it) , decreed.11

A collection of twenty-one hymns of various angels and heroes of ancient Persia, legendary and probably pre-Zoroastrian, make up the Yashts. They contain little of interest to a modern reader, as indeed do few of the Zoroastrian texts apart from the Gathas. The Vendidad resembles very much the book of Leviticus in the Bible, for it is a priestly book, largely concerned with ritual purity. This has led to innumerable taboos, and ceremonies which are incumbent upon those who would cleanse themselves of the defilement which comes from violating taboos.

Thus is to be accounted for, for example, the odd custom of the Parsis in the disposal of their dead. In order not to bury them, an act which would pollute the earth, the body is exposed in an elevated tower (Tower of Silence) , for the vultures to consume. Anyone who is in contact with the dead becomes defiled and must be purified.

If a man bury the body of a dog or a man in the earth and not disinter it for half a year, he shall be beaten with five hundred stripes with a goad. If he leave the body in the ground a full year a thousand stripes is the penalty. If it be left for two years it is a deed which nothing can pay, a trespass for which there is not atonement even possible.12

Land upon which a man or a dog died must lie fallow for a year before it can be used for agricultural purposes.13

Ground in which a body has been buried is not purified for use until fifty years have passed.14

One may not dispose lightly of such things as parings of the nails or hair that has been cut off from the head. The improper disposition of them constitutes "a deadly deed whereby a man increases the strength of the Daevas" (or evil spirits) . They must be taken away ten paces from the faithful, twenty paces from fire, thirty paces from water and fifty paces from certain consecrated articles. A hole of prescribed depth must be dug, the hair or nails deposited, with certain "fiend smiting words," then furrows must be drawn with a metal knife around the hole, to the accompaniment of appropriate chanting.15

There is a good deal of medical lore in the book just as there is in the Book of Leviticus.

There are also regulations concerning those who would practice surgery. One must not practice upon worshippers of Mazda until he has successfully practiced upon three worshippers of the Daevas. If unsuccessful there, he may never practice on the faithful.

There are even rules regulating the fees physicians may charge. The charge is proportional to the importance of the patient. A priest he shall heal for a blessing, a master of a house he shall heal for the value of a not too good ox; the lord of a town must pay the value of a very valuable ox; and the lord of a province the value of a chariot and four.16

Included also within the Vendidad there are occasional stories, for example, concerning the temptation of Zoroaster, also stories concerning the destiny of the soul after death. Probably the book as a whole, if one skips the repetitions which run throughout, is as interesting reading as anything to be found in Zoroastrian scriptures.

But the Vendidad is not solely concerned with ritual. There is at least one section (IV) which deals with contracts -- six different kinds -- and various kinds of outrages, that is to say it is in some senses a book of law. Each kind of contract is specifically defined and an appropriate penalty assessed for violation. For example, if one breaks a word contract, that is, one made simply by word of mouth, he shall be beaten with six hundred stripes and his next of kin is answerable for his atonement. More serious contracts carry correspondingly higher penalties if broken. So for outrages such as assaults, blows, wounds, broken bones, manslaughter.

The Yashts and minor texts combined, as they often are, form a kind of abridged Avesta or smaller Avesta, called the Khordah Avesta which serves as a book of prayers for laymen.

In addition to the Avesta, as above described, there are late Pahlavi works which are much used by Zoroastrians of the later periods. Chief of these are the Bundahish and the Dinkard. The former is concerned chiefly with eschatology, that is the end of the world, and the final judgment. It presents the most elaborate eschatological scheme the world has yet seen. Much of it sounds familiar to those acquainted with the more extreme millenarian beliefs held by some Christian groups. While this book itself is too late in origin to have affected Christian thought since it comes from perhaps the ninth century A.D., it is probably true that Zoroastrian beliefs concerning eschatology, here carried to such an extreme, did materially affect late Hebrew and early Christian ideas of the ending of the world and the final judgment. Indeed, not a little of the content of the book may have been taken from now lost earlier Avestan sources.

The Dinkard, longest of the Pahlavi works, consisted at one time of nine books, though two of them have been lost. It is a sort of miscellaneous collection of material on a great variety of subjects, literary, social, scientific, and religious, for instance one book discusses astrology, another miracles that have occurred, another morality and custom. While not canonical in the sense that the Avestan books are, both are of great importance in late Zoroastrian belief and practice. There is now a movement among young modern Zoroastrians to go back to the earlier purer form of their faith, not unlike movements that have occurred within Hinduism and Christianity under such names as "Back to the Vedas," or "Back to Christ," or "Back to the gospels," in an attempt to throw off the accretions of the years which are felt to have obscured the original teachings of those fajths.


Sources for Further Reading

Sacred Books of the East. Vol. IV. The Vendidad. Vol. XXXI. The Gathas, the Yasnas, the Visparad and some fragments.

Sacred Books and Literature of the East, Vol. 7. The Gathas, pp. 14-58, Vendidad, pp. 59-162; Bundahish, pp. 179-184.

In The Anthologies

Bible of the World, pp. 561-639. The Gathas, pp. 561-570.

World’s Great Scriptures, pp. 361-374. The Gathas, Vendidad, Yasna.

Tree of Life, pp. 307-334.

Tongues of Fire, pp. 103-120.

Scriptures of the World’s Great Religions (Frost) , pp. 67-78.



1. They are to be found as Chapters 28-34; 43-51; 53, of the Yasna, Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 31, pp. 1-194.

2. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 31, pp. 1-13, passim.

3. Yasna, 38:9, 12. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 31, pp. 22-24.

4. Yasna XLVI, 2-4, passim. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 31, pp. 112-113.

5. Ibid., 12, 13, 14, passim.

6. XLVI, 1, pp. 134-135.

7. Op. cit., XLVI, 11-12, pp. 140-141.

8. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 31, p. 291.

9. Op. cit., Vol. 31, p. 26.

10. Id., p. 34.

11. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 31, pp. 235-241, passim.

12. Vendidad, III, 36-39, Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 4, p. 87.

13. Id., VI, 1, p. 66.

14. Id., VII, 45, p. 86.

15. Id., XVII, passim, pp. 186-189.

16. Vendidad, VII, Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 4, p. 87.