Avesta / Manzara Tourism - Various Tours in Uzbekistan, Central Asia and along the Great Silk Road
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Avesta

A thought unwritten is a thought lost' as the saying goes. It is especially right for the words meant to last years, for instance doctrines of a faith. That is why the clergy and monks in particular were justly the first to know written languages.

Yet the Zoroastrian book "Avesta" was first written down a thousand years after it had been created by prophet Zoroaster. The priests themselves were against committing "Avesta" to paper. They believed that the alphabet which existed at the time could not precisely reflect the holy sounds of their God's revelations. In practice, for this reason, every minister of religion had to spend enormous amount of time in his youth on learning by heart long liturgical texts, and then to permanently refresh them in memory over the rest of his life.

extract from Avesta

But in the 6th century a priest, who wished to remain unknown, solved the problem of writing down the holy texts of "Avesta". The anonymous genius invented "Avestian" alphabet, which was remarkable for its amazing precision. The alphabet was based on Pehlevian, or mid-Persian, script. But instead of 20 characters, it had 46 ones. This alphabet had a character for each vowel and consonant. It was as precise as today's international phonetic transcription. Using this invention the priests began to write down all the approved texts from "Avesta". Soon Great "Avesta" was laid open to the public. It consisted of 21 sections - nasks. The nasks were arranged in 3 groups, each containing 7 chapters. The first group had gats ('hymns') which were composed by Zoroaster himself. The second group contained scholastic essays and some practical recommendations. The third one comprised various treatises: instructions for the priests, a codex, and supplementary liturgical texts. Great "Avesta" was also accompanied by written commentaries to the texts.

Avesta

It is impossible to determine the exact date when "Avesta" came into existence. The Zoroastrians dated it to prehistoric times, the times of unrecorded historical events. UNESCO seems to have determined the date best of all. In accordance with UNESCO resolution just recently there was celebrated the 2700th anniversary of "Avesta". As for the birthplace of the book, most authoritative scientists agree with the famous Russian archeologist and orientalist S.P.Tolstov. In the middle of the last century, while studying ancient monuments of the mid-first millennium BC, S.P.Tolstov came to the conclusion that the birthplace of Zoroastrianism was ancient Khorezm with its developed civilization. Indeed, of 63 Zoroastrian monuments found in various countries, including Iran, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan, 38 monuments are in Uzbekistan, 17 of which are in Khorezm. Therefore, in Uzbekistan the 2700th anniversary of "Avesta" was celebrated on a large scale. It should be noted that Zoroaster traveled a lot, composing hymns and preaching his doctrines. In "Avesta" there is a list of 16 countries which were allegedly created by the supreme god Akhura Mazda and which Zoroaster was likely to visit.

The most important part of "Avesta" is Zoroaster's gats, which make up the book Yasni. This is the main liturgy of the fire-worshippers. It consists of 72 paragraphs and alongside with prayers it contains the description of the rite of offering. The following are what some of the paragraphs are about: a praising prayer to the master of nature and to the whole clean nature; Akhura Mazda's injunction to think, say and do good things; praise to the words of God, who existed before the world had been created; Zoroaster's admonition to be firm in making good; prayers to fire, prayers to water, etc.

The next book is called Vendidat ('Law against Demons'). It is mainly a number of instructions for ritual purification which the Zoroastrians believed to be of great importance. The book Vispered ('Knowledge of Everything') contains liturgical prayers on various occurrences of life. Thus in one of its parts the book deals with woman's qualities, in the other the book describes what a just man should be like, whereas the third part praises Akhura Mazda who knows the future.

"Avesta" also contains yashts - hymns to individual gods. The hymns include religious practices and description of religious ceremonies, myths and legends. In fact new prayers and regulations were one by one added to the initial ones; so different yashts belong to different times.

Akhura Mazda

Helped by Spenta Mainyu, the Holy Spirit, Akhura Mazda created six immortal gods, who together with the supreme god himself made up the Zoroastrian pantheon. This pantheon of seven gods was one of the innovations of Zoroastrianism. The six immortal gods (with the seventh being Akhura Mazda himself) are some metaphysical creatures and at the same time the manuifestation of various virtues. Vokhu Mana, for instance, is the protector of cattle and concurrently bearer of Good Thought, Asha Vakhishta is the protector of fire and embodiment of Best Truth, Khshatra Varya is the protector of metals and personification of Peculiar Power, Spenta Armati is the protector of fire and at the same time the expression of Piety, Khaurvatat is the protector of water and reflection of Integrity, Amertat is the protector of plants and incarnation of Immortality.

Avesta

In "Avesta" the fundamentals of the faith are put into the mouth of Akhura Mazda himself. Responding to Zoroaster's request for teaching him where the world came from and what the source of good and evil was, Akhura Mazda expounds the doctrine of dualism, which describes the good and evil beginning of everything existing. Good and evil are life and death, heaven and hell; they are the two initial forces which always oppose each other, yet at the same time being inseparably linked. In the physical world this is a fight between light and dark, life and death; in the spiritual world it is a fight between good and evil; in social life it is a fight between justice and anarchy; in religion it is a fight between a good god and an evil spirit. Man takes the most active part in this great battle between the two world forces. Through doing good things he contributes to the victory of the good forces, through every wrongdoing he reinforces the evil.

Good God is not responsible for all the evil things happening in the world, for evil is the cause of the other force, independent of God. Imperfection is inherent to the world, to all the objects. So, achievement of common happiness is a matter of very distant future. By saying this, the author of "Avesta" somehow forestalled the possible reproach for the fact that God, being perfectly good and almighty, allows the world evil to exist. In Catholicism this issue is dealt with by a special doctrine called theodicy, or 'justification of God'. But Zoroastrianism is free from such reproaches, for Akhura Mazda is good, but not omnipotent.

Every Zoroastrian was to follow all the divine moral rules and the principles of the faith: 'I commit myself to good thoughts, good words, and good deeds; I commit myself to Mazda's religion, which is true, and the greatest and best of all the religions that are and will be.'

The language and style of the hymns composed by Zoroaster are rather remarkable. They are a creation of an outstanding poet. The gats bear his individuality. Zoroaster's style is quite distinctive and at the same time it reflects the traditions of the ancient poetry. The works of the prophet belong to the sort of "scholarly poetry"; they show erudition of the author and require the encyclopedic knowledge from a reader. At the same time Zoroaster's poetry presupposes that a reader should have an ability of abstract thinking. On the whole the originality of the prophet's poetry lies in the combination of the folklore and the court poetry, of high artistic merits and erudition patterns with philosophical turns of speech.

One of the most fascinating things in "Avesta" is the geographical poem. In the poem Akhura Mazda himself tells about 16 countries he created, about the fight he had to wage against the evil spirit Angra Maynyu (Akhriman). However beautiful a country Akhura Mazda created, Akhriman spoiled it in various ways. Thus he inflicted frosty winter on the first country - Airiana Vaego situated by the Araks River; to the second country Sogdiana he sent malicious flies, in the third country Margiana he planted sinful passions, and sent locusts to the fourth country Bactria. The evil spirit used a wide variety of evil things; he used severe frost and scorching heat, floods, pests, mosquitoes, diseases, lust and passions, unfaithfulness, black witchcraft, burning of corpses and burying them in the ground, tyranny and anarchy…

The social structure and economy, described in "Avesta", are also very interesting. The "Avesta" society had a rather developed agriculture, horticulture, cattle-breeding and poultry farming. "Avesta" mentions such cereals as wheat, barley and rice. It tells about a well-designed irrigation system and just distribution of land among the members of the community.

"Avesta" attaches great significance to agriculture: it ordains to love soil. Happiness of the people depends on agriculture. Cattle-breeding is also of great concern to the prophet, alongside with agriculture. He believes that all the useful animals have to be taken care of. At the same time he curses the pests.

In general all the practical commandments are based on the main rule - to eat well. People, who have poor diet, can have neither sound working force nor healthy children. Abstention from eating is a folly; it makes man weaker. So Zoroaster condemns voluntary fasting and mortification of the flesh practiced by other religions.

Physical cleanliness and moral purity are the most important requirements professed in "Avesta". In the course of time there were added to the book certain directions how to keep oneself clean and there was developed a specific, rather complicated and expensive purification ritual.

The Zoroastrian religious rites were also very distinctive. The neighboring peoples called the Zoroastrians fire-worshippers. The cult of fire - from divine spark in the human soul to the sacred fire in the temples - was indeed of a great significance for the followers of Zoroaster. However, they did not burn their deceased, as the common opinion has it. A dead human was believed to be "impure" and had to touch neither water, nor earth, nor fire. So they left their dead on the flat tops of the "towers of silence" or just at bare deserted places so that birds and animals fed on them. Then they put the remaining bones into special containers called assuaris.

Like any practiced religion, in the course of time Zoroastrianism underwent the attempts of modification, new interpretation of the old texts. Sometimes these changes developed into fixed heresies. This inevitably influenced "Avesta" itself.

For example, during the rule of the Sassanid Dynasty there appeared Manichaeism, the religion founded by the prophet Mani. It was an eclectic teaching including Zoroastrian, Christian and Judaic principles.

Such a heresy worried the Zoroastrian priests and most likely the ruling king Shapur who decided to introduce order in his empire: "The king of the kings Shapur, Ardashir's son, took all irrelevant of the faith scriptures which were widespread in India, Byzantium and other countries, and which dealt with medicine, astronomy, motion, time, space, substances, job, formation, disappearance, changes in quality, logic and other crafts and abilities. He compared them all with "Avesta" and ordered to make copies of those texts which contained no viciousness, in order to keep them in the king's treasury."

According to "Avesta", and Zoroastrianism in general, spiritual development of man was very important. Main attention was put to the triad of good thought, good word and good deed. Passive profession of faith and contemplation was impossible for a Zoroastrian. Zoroastrianism taught man to live in purity and order, to be compassionate, to be grateful to the parents and fellowmen, to be responsible for the children, to help the fellow-brothers-in-faith, to care of the fields and pastures. These values were passed down from generation to generation and played an important role in fostering viability in "Avesta" people, in making them capable to overcome constant hardships.

It should be especially noted that "Avesta" was not only the first religion to deal with the ideals of humanism, justice, constructive work and peace, but also it dealt with these matters in as elevated style as none of the religions did.

Those who have chosen the truth
Will become immortal.
Lie will be gone to
Where it came from…
And the Immortal Savior will
Come and recreate the world

(yasht 19, song 12)

"Avesta" is one of the most respected written works in the human history. For thousands of years it was being passed on orally, modified and copied in writing, and has reached our days, having greatly influenced the civilization.

"Avesta" was known to the Greek historians from the ancient times. But Europeans could familiarize themselves with this sacred book only after it had been translated into French by A.H.Anquetil-Duperron in 1771. Worthy of notice also is the full translation of "Avesta", made by the German scholar Kristian Bartolome in the late 19th century. At the same period the book was translated into English by J.Darmsteter. In the 20th century there were published the Russian translations of Avesta. At the turn of the second millennium the poet and translator Askar Makhkam made Uzbek translation of "Avesta". Yet, for the researchers of "Avesta" there still are many unsolved issues and textual mysteries.

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