Gathas vs. 'later-Avesta' - a Rebuttal

by Adil J. Govadia

There is an on-going argument, which suggests that only Gathas are the true word of Asho Zarathushtra and everything else is best termed as "later Avesta", penned by post-Zarathushtra mobeds of the Sassassian era. I would like to delve a bit on this subject, which seems to be a pet theory with some scholars, especially the Western scholars, based on their philological study of the Avestan scriptures.

The question that is often posed by those who have no Faith in the Revealed Religion is: Are there any scriptural references to suggest that all 21 Nasks were indeed penned by Asho Zarathushtra?

Let me start by stating that Zarathushtrian religion has NEVER been a religion that promotes or encourages reforms. On the contrary, and as taught by Prophet Zarathushtra, Zarathushtrianism is all about the natural laws of evolution, which inculcates the universal laws of governing the universal moral code and order as dictated by Ahura Mazda and enacted by the various angels and archangels working in different capacities. However, if someone wants to misinterpret, misrepresent and twist the religious truths by falsely painting the Zarathushtrian religion as proselyte and that which promotes inter-communal marriages and believes in conversion, then that person is a downright liar and a fraud on the face of human civilization.

As regards the practice of rituals, some like to believe that the primary principles of life taught by Prophet Zarathushtra do not offer guidelines for rituals or ceremonies and, in support of their argument, quote Ervad Dr. Maneckjee N. Dhalla. To suggest even remotely that the Gathas and only Gathas belong to Zarathushtra and the rest of Avesta is the product of the priests and Magis of the post-Zarathushtrian period of the Sassasian era is absurd and ridiculous, and can be best described as a figment of ones imagination.

On the contrary, there are many indications to suggest that Zarathushtra himself propounded these Avestic canons of life (and death) brought from Dadar Ahura Mazda the same way as the Gathas. You take any Fargarad in Vendidad or any Ha in Ijshne or any Kardeh in Yashts/Niyashes, the name of Zarathushtra is repeated more than once just as it is done in the Gathas. And, just as in Gathas, Zarathushtra's name is repeated in either first, second or third person.

In their jointly authored book titled ‘A Guide to the Zoroastrian Religion’, Dr. Feroze Kotwal and James Boyd discuss the question of revelation of the Avestan Nasks to Zarathushtra by Dadar Ahura Mazda on page 22/23. The Q & A goes as follows:

Q: Did God teach the Avesta to Zoroaster?

A: Yes, he explained the 21 Nasks to Zoroaster. Yasna 28(.7) quotes Zoroaster as saying: “Oh Ohrmazd, you have shown to Zoroaster your true words.”

Q: Was the Avesta created by God?

A: Yes. Zoroaster himself says in Yasna 29(.7): “Ohrmazd himself created the beneficent manthras through righteousness”.

Again on page 47 of the same book,

Q: How were our religious books destroyed?

A: First King Arjasp sought to destroy all the Nasks. -------

According to historical facts as recorded in various books, evil Arjasp was the ruler when Zarathushtra’s death occurred. If Arjasp was indeed the first person to resort to destruction of the Nasks then is it not obvious that the Nasks were in existence in Zarathushtra’s lifetime? So where is the question of doubt in our holy scriptures? How can anybody claim that Gathas alone are the only true words of Zarathushtra and everything else is “later-Avesta” penned by the priests of the Sassassian era?

It is an indisputable and well-documented fact that the original Zarathushtrian scriptures had 21 Nasks (Volumes) penned by Prophet Zarathushtra, and the Gathas make a part of the same. The Gathas, although most sublime and direct expressions by our holy Prophet, certainly DONOT make up the complete religion as propagated by the Faithless and those harbouring vested interests. The Gathas make a very small fraction of the entire religion of 21 Nasks (Volumes) as taught by Prophet Zarathushtra. If, according to some, the 21 Nasks or volumes were not the original productions of Prophet Zarathushtra, then the entire Avesta (including the Gathas) could not have originated from Prophet Zarathushtra

As we all know, the Ahunawar prayer (Yatha Ahu Vario) is the fundamental keynote to the entire edifice of Zarathushtrian scriptures of which we presently possess less than 5%, mostly in disconnected and disjointed condition, thanks to the historical vagrancies inflicted upon the great religion over the past several centuries and millennia. However, for the traditional Parsees of the world even the meager portion of Avestan scriptures that still exists is regarded sufficient-enough, as long as the traditional rules of the Ashoi are practiced with sincerity and solemn devotion.

It is evident from the historical records that when Prophet Zarathushtra came to the court of King Vishtasp he brought 3 items with Him, namely, the 21 Nasks (Volumes) of the Avesta, the holy Fire known as Adar Burzin Meher, which burned without fuel and emanated no smoke and did not burn the hand of the person who held it and a branch of a Cypress tree (ref. ‘A Guide to the Zoroastrian Religion’ by James Boyd and Dr. Feroze Kotwal). If one were to strictly go by the arguments offered by the Gatha-alone believers that the only true word of Prophet Zarathushtra is enshrined in the Gathas, then who penned those 21 Nasks, of which the Gathas and the Vendidad form a very small part, brought by Prophet Zarathushtra to the court of King Vistasp??

According to Ervad Phiroze Masani in his magnum opus ‘Zoroastrianism—Ancient and Modern’, the 21 Nasks (or volumes) originally were known to comprise of 21 books, each named after the 21 words of the Ahunawar prayer and classified under three separate heads, namely, the Gathic lore (ie spiritual knowledge), the Datic exposition (ie knowledge of worldly existence) and the Hada-manthric learning (ie knowledge of the spiritual and the material world). Each of the 21 Nasks so named after the Ahunawar words also have Pahlavi names assigned, namely Satud Yasht (or Staota Yachna in Avesta), Sudgar, Bagha, Baghan Yasht, Spend, Nadar etc. The Sudgar Nask or the nask corresponding to the first word (Yatha) of the Ahunawar prayer (Yatha Ahu Vario), is “the foundation of the Din or Revelation, and the formation or composition of the Nasks is derived from it” as stated by Ervad Masani. Therefore, the division of Avesta scriptures into the Gathas and the “later-Avesta”, based on linguistic and philological interpretation, is not only objectionable but also crude and offensive.

When one analyses the summary of the 21 Nasks as offered by none other than the learned Shams-ul-Ulma Dastur Dr. Peshotan B. Sanjana in the translations of the Dinkard, will it enable all concerned to understand the extent of the original Avestan scriptures that existed as compared to the present insignificant fraction available with us and the speculative belief as propagated by some scholars and the non-scholars alike based on mere philological interpretations. For example, the last Nask (twenty-first), also corresponding to the last word of the Ahunawar prayer (that is, Vastarem), contained 33 chapters of which the Gathas formed the most essential part. Similarly, the second Nask also corresponding to the word Ahu (or Varsht-mansar in Pahlavi) in the Ahunawar prayer, contained 22 chapters devoted to commentary on the 5 Gathas and also explanations of the three most ancient prayers, namely the Yatha Ahu Vario, Ashem Vohu and the Yenghe Hatam prayers.

Therefore, can one really give credence to the argument raised by some which suggests that only Gathas are the true word of Asho Zarathushtra and everything else is "later Avesta" penned by post-Zarathushtra mobeds of the Sassassian era?

In his latest book titled ‘Is the Zarathushtrian Religion Universal?’ Roni Khan empathically states, “Thus, they (the Gathas) constitute the very FOUNTAINHEAD AND FOUNDATION of the religion of Zarathushtra, venerated since ancient times with three entire volumes of the original 21 Nasks devoted to their explanation. But in and of themselves, the five holy Gathas DO NOT, and CANNOT, comprise the whole religion of Zarathushtra.”

The Gatha-alone believers have always advocated the fact, wrongly and at times with an ulterior motive, that the “later-Avesta” was penned by the priests of the Sassanian era. However, contrary to what the Gatha-alone cultists believe, it is interesting to read what Dastur Dr. Feroze Kotwal and James Boyd have to say jointly in their book titled ‘A Persian Offering The Yasna: A Zoroastrian High Liturgy’. They stated in their Foreword, “the ritual of Yasna service has its’ roots in Persian antiquity and remains till this day as one of the most important liturgical celebrations for Zoroastrians”. As a footnote they went ahead to further clarify, “Archaeology furnishes us with even older evidences. Stone and metal mortars and pestles from the Persipolis treasury dating back to the 5th Century BC have been excavated. Moreover, an Achaemanian relief depicts figures wearing cloth masks over the nose and mouth and holding a bundle of twigs, a ritual implement indispensable in the Yasna service (cf Boyce, 1982, 117-118; Hinnells, 1985, 68-69).”

“Also, the internal evidence of the Avestan scriptures that predate Achaemanian times bare testimony to the existence of implements used in ritual celebrations and to the performance of the Yasna. In the Gathas, Zarathushtra calls himself a priest (zaotar), literally, ‘he who makes the offering’. In Yasna 30.1, Zarathushtra emphasizes the importance of prayer (staotcha) and worship (yesnyacha) for the benevolent (humanzdrai) Ahura Mazda to be performed with joy (urvaza) throughout the days (raochebish). The term Yasna can denote ‘worship’ in a general sense, but as the previous passage suggests, can also refer more specifically to a liturgical performance. Thus it can be claimed with considerable certainty that the present Yasna liturgy has its’ roots in ancient Zoroastrian scriptures (Nasks). The service is largely a compilation of Gathic or spiritual (gahanig) and legal (dadig) collection of books referred to in the Denkard……”

If, according to reputed scholars like Boyd and Kotwal, the internal evidence of the Avestan scriptures along with other archaeological findings prove and confirm the existence of Avestan ceremonies like Yasna even before the Achaemanian period (contrary to the false and malicious claims made by the Gatha-alone cultists as “later-Avesta”), then where is the argument or logic to falsely claim that the same was penned by priests in the Sassassian era?

Going by the assumption of the Gatha-alone believers that the Avesta is indeed post-Zarathushtrian in form and penned by post-Zarathushtrian priests of the Sassasian period and not Asho Zarathushtra himself, then:

Can anybody provide chronological data of different dates/year/period of various Avesta compilations that are assumed to be post Zarathushtrian? The answer is NO.

We don’t even know the exact date/period of Zarathushtra’s birth as speculative scholars have tried their best to determine the period but none have arrived at any satisfactory result. Can then anyone provide the chronological data of the dates/period of various Avesta compilations?

What exactly is the defining reason for this adventurism by the Gatha-alone cult, this dogmatic stamping of all our scriptures into two empirical divisions, namely the Gathas and the post-Zarathushtrian scriptures? If the reasons are based on the observable difference in content, form and philology of the Gathas as compared to the remaining Avestan scriptures, then in the words of Darmesteter, and as stated in Zoroastrianism---Ancient & Modern, there are total 33 chapters in the last Nask (21st), which also contains the Gathas, of which 22 chapters are in poetry form and the remaining 11 chapters are in prose form. Therefore, if poetry and prose can occur simultaneously in one and the same Nask containing the Gathas, can it than be logical to assume that the poetic Gathas are of the previous age as compared to the prosaic part of the Avesta scriptures? Therefore the indisputable fact stands out that the entire 21 Nasks of Zarathushtra comprised of widely different style, contents and philology depending upon the subjects it dealt with. But by alienating Gathas from the rest of the scriptures and labeling it as post-Zarathushtrian one gets the impression that some group of individuals wish to practice the simple religion of Gathas, wherein there are complex observances, no exhaustive rituals, no purification laws, no demons & angels nor heaven & hell as propounded in the other Avestan scriptures. Convenient, I say!

Indeed, the Gathas are highly abstract, ethical and philosophical texts. In order to reach the spirit of the Gathas by properly understanding the variation of the Avestan dialect and the allegorical references mentioned therein, it is essential to first have a contextual grasp of the religion. Ironically, we are quick in referring to the Gatha-translations by Insler or Taraporewalla or Kanga or Humbach; but do we truly know what is Asho Zarathushtra’s Gatha before suggesting religious reforms? Is it not mournful that in the name of modernity and 'scholarly' knowledge, a handful of ‘aggressors’ are hell bent on destroying the age-old traditions, customs, rituals and peaceful harmony in the community by spreading incorrect pronouncements which are bound to be proved wrong but, unfortunately, not before causing considerable damage to the religion?

If Gathas are truly the sole words from the Prophet and everything else about the Avesta is post-Zarathushtrian, then can anyone provide any shred of positive evidence or even an indication to suggest at least one such name of the composer of post-Zarathushtra era who could have penned the “later-Avesta”?? Even staunch and the known disciples of Zarathushtra like Jamasp, Kae Gustasp and Maidyoma Arasp do not find their names in any scripture or historical data as co-authors of the post Zarathushtrian Avesta.

When we don’t even have any credible and authoritative data as regards the date/year/period Prophet Zarathushtra's birth or his eventual departure, is it fair or proper to cast doubts at the authenticity of the complete Revelations that the Prophet brought from Dadar Ahura Mazda? Just because we cannot correctly date Prophet Zarathushtra’s birth should we begin to believe that he never existed and therefore a hoax?? Just because some Revelations don’t suit ones purpose should it be generally termed as garbage and discarded? If such arguments hold water, then we must stop wearing the sudreh-kushti or covering our heads while praying or practicing Bareshnoom, Jashan, Afringan and Stum just because it is not mentioned in the holy Gathas!! Can one truly discard such holistic ceremonies and practices based on some vague statements made by Gatha-alone believers?

Has any scholar or anybody else provided any evidence to counter the fact that 21 Nasks were Zarathushtra’s or offered any proof to stake their falsified claims? Unless the names/dates/periods and other particulars of the so-called "original writers" of the Avesta Scriptures are not proved reasonably enough (directly or indirectly), ascribing to such selfish motives (of having more than one writer) must be strongly condemned at every given opportunity for the onus is on the change-seekers to prove what they falsely claim and trumpet! In fact it is an insult to great Prophet Zarathushtra even to believe that in His 40 long years of religious preaching He was able to write only 17 chapters of Gathas comprising of approximately 5660 words in 896 lines!

Let me conclude by quoting Kotwal and Boyd in their book titled ‘A Guide to the Zoroastrian Religion’ wherein they stated and I quote,

“Some ‘reformers’ of Zoroastrianism have argued that because there is no mention in the Gathas of various religious practices we follow, such as certain laws of purification or exposure of the dead in dakhmas (places of exposure), these practices should no longer be allowed because Zoroaster never instituted them. But such an argument again fails to understand the nature of the Gathas. You don’t look for geometry in a poetry book. The Gathas, as hymns, have a different purpose. If one is looking for a description of laws of purification or exposure, he should look in the Vendidad. They are all there.”

Do I need to rebut anymore?

The problem today is that we have almost as many ‘religious’ groups in the community as probably the population itself and each group claims to live in an age of perfect intellectual awareness and scientific precision and therefore feel privileged to pull the other group down by proving its point. So much so that most of us are not even prepared to repose faith in the well-documented declarations of the Prophet himself. Faith indeed is the foundation of spiritual existence. We need faith in everything and in every aspect of human endeavour. In fact, faith transcends reason for it is only when the horizon is the darkest and human reason is beaten down to the ground that faith shines brightest and generally comes to one’s rescue.

However, FAITH in our age-old religious scriptures, traditions and rituals has unfortunately been replaced by the so-called ‘intellectual arguments’, thereby introducing possible deceptions in the name of ‘researched knowledge’ which contribute to twisting the immature minds of our young and not-so-young.

Sad, very sad indeed!

Adil J. Govadia

July 23rd 2002

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