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Discovery Of The Zend-avesta

Books: Sacred Books Of The East

The "Zend-Avesta" is the sacred book of the Parsis; that is to say, of

the few remaining followers of that religion which reigned over Persia

at the time when the second successor of Mohammed overthrew the

Sassanian dynasty (A.D. 642), and which has been called Dualism, or

Mazdeism, or Magism, or Zoroastrianism, or Fire-worship, according as

its main tenet, or its supreme God, or its priests, or its supposed

founder, o
its apparent object of worship has been most kept in view.

In less than a century after their defeat, most of the conquered people

were brought over to the faith of their new rulers, either by force, or

policy, or the attractive power of a simpler form of creed. But many of

those who clung to the faith of their fathers, went and sought abroad

for a new home, where they might freely worship their old gods, say

their old prayers, and perform their old rites. That home they found at

last among the tolerant Hindoos, on the western coast of India and in

the peninsula of Guzerat. There they throve and there they live still,

while the ranks of their co-religionists in Persia are daily thinning

and dwindling away.[9]

As the Parsis are the ruins of a people, so are their sacred books the

ruins of a religion. There has been no other great belief in the world

that ever left such poor and meagre monuments of its past splendor. Yet

great is the value which that small book, the "Avesta," and the belief

of that scanty people, the Parsis, have in the eyes of the historian and

theologian, as they present to us the last reflex of the ideas which

prevailed in Iran during the five centuries which preceded and the seven

which followed the birth of Christ, a period which gave to the world the

Gospels, the Talmud, and the Qur'an. Persia, it is known, had much

influence on each of the movements which produced, or proceeded from,

those three books; she lent much to the first heresiarchs, much to the

Rabbis, much to Mohammed. By help of the Parsi religion and the

"Avesta," we are enabled to go back to the very heart of that most

momentous period in the history of religious thought, which saw the

blending of the Aryan mind with the Semitic, and thus opened the second

stage of Aryan thought.

Inquiries into the religion of ancient Persia began long ago, and it was

the old enemy of Persia, the Greek, who first studied it. Aristotle,

Hermippus, and many others wrote of it in books of which, unfortunately,

nothing more than a few fragments or merely the titles have come down to

us. We find much valuable information about it, scattered in the

accounts of historians and travellers, extending over ten centuries,

from Herodotos down to Agathias and Procopius (from B.C. 450 to A.D.

550). The clearest and most faithful account of the Dualist doctrine is

found in the treatise _De Iside et Osiride_, ascribed to Plutarch. But

Zoroastrianism was never more eagerly studied than in the first

centuries of the Christian era, though without anything of the

disinterested and almost scientific curiosity of the earlier times.

Religious and philosophic sects, in search of new dogmas, eagerly

received whatever came to them bearing the name of Zoroaster. As Xanthos

the Lydian, who is said to have lived before Herodotos, had mentioned

Zoroastrianism, there came to light, in those later times, scores of

oracles, styled "Oracula Chaldaica sive Magica," the work of

Neo-Platonists who were but very remote disciples of the Median sage. As

his name had become the very emblem of wisdom, they would cover with it

the latest inventions of their ever-deepening theosophy. Zoroaster and

Plato were treated as if they had been philosophers of the same school,

and Hierocles expounded their doctrines in the same book. Proclus

collected seventy Tetrads of Zoroaster and wrote commentaries on them;

but we need hardly say that Zoroaster commented on by Proclus was

nothing more or less than Proclus commented on by himself. Prodicus, the

Gnostic, possessed secret books of Zoroaster; and, upon the whole, it

may be said that in the first centuries of Christianity, the religion of

Persia was more studied and less understood than it had ever been

before. The real object aimed at, in studying the old religion, was to

form a new one.

Throughout the Middle Ages nothing was known of Mazdeism but the name of

its founder, who from a Magus was converted into a magician and master

of the hidden sciences. It was not until the Renaissance that real

inquiry was resumed. The first step was to collect all the information

that could be gathered from Greek and Roman writers. That task was

undertaken and successfully completed by Barnabe Brisson. A nearer

approach to the original source was made in the following century by

Italian, English, and French travellers in Asia. Pietro della Valle,

Henry Lord, Mandelslo, Ovington, Chardin, Gabriel du Chinon, and

Tavernier, found Zoroaster's last followers in Persia and India, and

made known their existence, their manners, and the main features of

their belief to Europe. Gabriel du Chinon saw their books and recognized

that they were not all written in the same language, their original holy

writ being no longer understood except by means of translations and

commentaries in another tongue.

In the year 1700, a professor at Oxford, Thomas Hyde, the greatest

Orientalist of his time in Europe, made the first systematic attempt to

restore the history of the old Persian religion by combining the

accounts of the Mohammedan writers with "the true and genuine monuments

of ancient Persia." Unfortunately the so-called genuine monuments of

ancient Persia were nothing more than recent Persian compilations or

refacimenti. But notwithstanding this defect, which could hardly be

avoided then, and a distortion of critical acumen, the book of Thomas

Hyde was the first complete and true picture of modern Parsiism, and it

made inquiry into its history the order of the day. A warm appeal made

by him to the zeal of travellers, to seek for and procure at any price

the sacred books of the Parsis, did not remain ineffectual, and from

that time scholars bethought themselves of studying Parsiism in its own


Eighteen years later, a countryman of Hyde, George Boucher, received

from the Parsis in Surat a copy of the Vendidad Sada, which was brought

to England in 1723 by Richard Cobbe. But the old manuscript was a sealed

book, and the most that could then be made of it was to hang it by an

iron chain to the wall of the Bodleian Library, as a curiosity to be

shown to foreigners. A few years later, a Scotchman, named Fraser, went

to Surat, with the view of obtaining from the Parsis, not only their

books, but also a knowledge of their contents. He was not very

successful in the first undertaking, and utterly failed in the second.

In 1754 a young man, twenty years old, Anquetil Duperron, a scholar of

the _Ecole des Langues Orientales_ in Paris, happened to see a

fac-simile of four leaves of the Oxford Vendidad, which had been sent

from England, a few years before, to Etienne Fourmont, the Orientalist.

He determined at once to give to France both the books of Zoroaster and

the first European translation of them. Too impatient to set off to wait

for a mission from the government which had been promised to him, he

enlisted as a private soldier in the service of the French East India

Company; he embarked at Lorient on February 24, 1755, and after three

years of endless adventures and dangers through the whole breadth of

Hindostan, at the very time when war was waging between France and

England, he arrived at last in Surat, where he stayed among the Parsis

for three years more. Here began another struggle, not less hard, but

more decisive, against the same mistrust and ill-will which had

disheartened Fraser; but he came out of it victorious, and prevailed at

last on the Parsis to part both with their books and their knowledge. He

came back to Paris on March 14, 1764, and deposited on the following day

at the _Bibliotheque Royale_ the whole of the "Zend-Avesta," and copies

of several traditional books. He spent ten years in studying the

material he had collected, and published in 1771 the first European

translation of the "Zend-Avesta."

A violent dispute broke out at once, as half the learned world denied

the authenticity of this "Avesta," which it pronounced a forgery. It was

the future founder of the Royal Asiatic Society, William Jones, a young

Oxonian then, who opened the war. He had been wounded to the quick by

the scornful tone adopted by Anquetil towards Hyde and a few other

English scholars: the "Zend-Avesta" suffered for the fault of its

introducer, Zoroaster for Anquetil. In a pamphlet written in French,

with a _verve_ and in a style which showed him to be a good disciple of

Voltaire, William Jones pointed out, and dwelt upon, the oddities and

absurdities with which the so-called sacred books of Zoroaster teemed.

It is true that Anquetil had given full scope to satire by the style he

had adopted: he cared very little for literary elegance, and did not

mind writing Zend and Persian in French; so the new and strange ideas he

had to express looked stranger still in the outlandish garb he gave

them. Yet it was less the style than the ideas that shocked the

contemporary of Voltaire. His main argument was that books, full of such

silly tales, of laws and rules so absurd, of descriptions of gods and

demons so grotesque, could not be the work of a sage like Zoroaster, nor

the code of a religion so much celebrated for its simplicity, wisdom,

and purity. His conclusion was that the "Avesta" was a rhapsody of some

modern Guebre. In fact, the only thing in which Jones succeeded was to

prove in a decisive manner that the ancient Persians were not equal to

the _lumieres_ of the eighteenth century, and that the authors of the

"Avesta" had not read the "Encyclopedie."

Jones's censure was echoed in England by Sir John Chardin and

Richardson, in Germany by Meiners. Richardson tried to give a scientific

character to the attacks of Jones by founding them on philological

grounds. That the "Avesta" was a fabrication of modern times was shown,

he argued, by the number of Arabic words he fancied he found both in the

Zend and Pahlavi dialects, as no Arabic element was introduced into the

Persian idioms earlier than the seventh century; also by the harsh

texture of the Zend, contrasted with the rare euphony of the Persian;

and, lastly, by the radical difference between the Zend and Persian,

both in words and grammar. To these objections, drawn from the form, he

added another derived from the uncommon stupidity of the matter.

In Germany, Meiners, to the charges brought against the newly-found

books, added another of a new and unexpected kind, namely, that they

spoke of ideas unheard of before, and made known new things. "Pray, who

would dare ascribe to Zoroaster books in which are found numberless

names of trees, animals, men, and demons, unknown to the ancient

Persians; in which are invoked an incredible number of pure animals and

other things, which, as appears from the silence of ancient writers,

were never known, or at least never worshipped, in Persia? What Greek

ever spoke of Hom, of Jemshid, and of such other personages as the

fabricators of that rhapsody exalt with every kind of praise, as divine


Anquetil and the "Avesta" found an eager champion in the person of

Kleuker, professor in the University of Riga. As soon as the French

version of the "Avesta" appeared, he published a German translation of

it, and also of Anquetil's historical dissertations. Then, in a series

of dissertations of his own, he vindicated the authenticity of the Zend

books. Anquetil had already tried to show, in a memoir on Plutarch, that

the data of the "Avesta" fully agree with the account of the Magian

religion given in the treatise on "Isis and Osiris." Kleuker enlarged

the circle of comparison to the whole of ancient literature.

In the field of philology, he showed, as Anquetil had already done, that

Zend has no Arabic elements in it, and that Pahlavi itself, which is

more modern than Zend, does not contain any Arabic, but only Semitic

words of the Aramean dialect, which are easily accounted for by the

close relations of Persia with Aramean lands in the time of the

Sassanian kings. He showed, lastly, that Arabic words appear only in the

very books which Parsi tradition itself considers modern.

Another stanch upholder of the "Avesta" was the numismatologist Tychsen,

who, having begun to read the book with a prejudice against its

authenticity, quitted it with a conviction to the contrary. "There is

nothing in it," he writes, "but what befits remote ages, and a man

philosophizing in the infancy of the world. Such traces of a recent

period as they fancy to have found in it, are either due to

misunderstandings, or belong to its later portions. On the whole there

is a marvellous accordance between the 'Zend-Avesta' and the accounts of

the ancients with regard to the doctrine and institutions of Zoroaster.

Plutarch agrees so well with the Zend books that I think no one will

deny the close resemblance of doctrines and identity of origin. Add to

all this the incontrovertible argument to be drawn from the language,

the antiquity of which is established by the fact that it was necessary

to translate a part of the Zend books into Pahlavi, a language which was

growing obsolete as early as the time of the Sassanides. Lastly, it

cannot be denied that Zoroaster left books which were, through

centuries, the groundwork of the Magic religion, and which were

preserved by the Magi, as shown by a series of documents from the time

of Hermippus. Therefore I am unable to see why we should not trust the

Magi of our days when they ascribe to Zoroaster those traditional books

of their ancestors, in which nothing is found to indicate fraud or a

modern hand."

Two years afterwards, in 1793, was published in Paris a book which,

without directly dealing with the "Avesta," was the first step taken to

make its authenticity incontrovertible. It was the masterly memoir by

Sylvestre de Sacy, in which the Pahlavi inscriptions of the first

Sassanides were deciphered for the first time and in a decisive manner.

De Sacy, in his researches, had chiefly relied on the Pahlavi lexicon

published by Anquetil, whose work vindicated itself thus--better than by

heaping up arguments--by promoting discoveries. The Pahlavi inscriptions

gave the key, as is well-known, to the Persian cuneiform inscriptions,

which were in return to put beyond all doubt the genuineness of the Zend


Tychsen, in an appendix to his Commentaries, pointed to the importance

of the new discovery: "This," he writes, "is a proof that the Pahlavi

was used during the reign of the Sassanides, for it was from them that

these inscriptions emanated, as it was by them--nay, by the first of

them, Ardeshir Babagan--that the doctrine of Zoroaster was revived. One

can now understand why the Zend books were translated into Pahlavi.

Here, too, everything agrees, and speaks loudly for their antiquity and


About the same time Sir William Jones, then president of the Royal

Asiatic Society, which he had just founded, resumed in a discourse

delivered before that society the same question he had solved in such an

off-hand manner twenty years before. He was no longer the man to say,

"_Sied-il a un homme ne dans ce siecle de s'infatuer de fables

indiennes?_" and although he had still a spite against Anquetil, he

spoke of him with more reserve than in 1771. However, his judgment on

the "Avesta" itself was not altered on the whole, although, as he

himself declared, he had not thought it necessary to study the text. But

a glance at the Zend glossary published by Anquetil suggested to him a

remark which makes Sir William Jones, in spite of himself, the creator

of the comparative grammar of Sanscrit and Zend. "When I perused the

Zend glossary," he writes, "I was inexpressibly surprised to find that

six or seven words in ten are pure Sanscrit, and even some of their

inflexions formed by the rules of the Vyacaran, as yushmacam, the

genitive plural of yushmad. Now M. Anquetil most certainly, and the

Persian compiler most probably, had no knowledge of Sanscrit, and could

not, therefore, have invented a list of Sanscrit words; it is,

therefore, an authentic list of Zend words, which has been preserved in

books or by tradition; it follows that the language of the Zend was at

least a dialect of the Sanscrit, approaching perhaps as nearly to it as

the Pracrit, or other popular idioms, which we know to have been spoken

in India two thousand years ago." This conclusion, that Zend is a

Sanscrit dialect, was incorrect, the connection assumed being too close;

but it was a great thing that the near relationship of the two languages

should have been brought to light.

In 1798 Father Paulo de St. Barthelemy further developed Jones's remark

in an essay on the antiquity of the Zend language. He showed its

affinity with the Sanscrit by a list of such Zend and Sanscrit words as

were least likely to have been borrowed, viz., those that designate the

degrees of relationship, the limbs of the body, and the most general and

essential ideas. Another list, intended to show, on a special topic, how

closely connected the two languages are, contains eighteen words taken

from the liturgic language used in India and Persia. This list was not

very happily drawn up, as out of the eighteen instances there is not a

single one that stands inquiry; yet it was a happy idea, and one which

has not even yet yielded all that it promised. His conclusions were that

in a far remote antiquity Sanscrit was spoken in Persia and Media, that

it gave birth to the Zend language, and that the "Zend-Avesta" is

authentic: "Were it but a recent compilation," he writes, "as Jones

asserts, how is it that the oldest rites of the Parsis, that the old

inscriptions of the Persians, the accounts of the Zoroastrian religion

by the classical writers, the liturgic prayers of the Parsis, and,

lastly, even their books do not reveal the pure Sanscrit, as written in

the land wherein the Parsis live, but a mixed language, which is as

different from the other dialects of India as French is from Italian?"

This amounted, in fact, to saying that the Zend is not derived from the

Sanscrit, but that both are derived from another and older language. The

Carmelite had a dim notion of that truth, but, as he failed to express

it distinctly, it was lost for years, and had to be rediscovered.

The first twenty-five years of this century were void of results, but

the old and sterile discussions as to the authenticity of the texts

continued in England. In 1808 John Leyden regarded Zend as a Pracrit

dialect, parallel to Pali; Pali being identical with the Magadhi dialect

and Zend with the Sauraseni. In the eyes of Erskine, Zend was a Sanscrit

dialect, imported from India by the founders of Mazdeism, but never

spoken in Persia. His main argument was that Zend is not mentioned among

the seven dialects which were current in ancient Persia according to the

Farhang-i Jehangiri, and that Pahlavi and Persian exhibit no close

relationship with Zend.

In Germany, Meiners had found no followers. The theologians appealed to

the "Avesta," in their polemics, and Rhode sketched the religious

history of Persia after the translations of Anquetil.

Erskine's essay provoked a decisive answer from Emmanuel Rask, one of

the most gifted minds in the new school of philology, who had the honor

of being a precursor of both Grimm and Burnouf. He showed that the list

of the Jehangiri referred to an epoch later than that to which Zend must

have belonged, and to parts of Persia different from those where it must

have been spoken; he showed further that modern Persian is not derived

from Zend, but from a dialect closely connected with it; and, lastly, he

showed what was still more important, that Zend was not derived from

Sanscrit. As to the system of its sounds, Zend approaches Persian rather

than Sanscrit; and as to its grammatical forms, if they often remind one

of Sanscrit, they also often remind one of Greek and Latin, and

frequently have a special character of their own. Rask also gave the

paradigm of three Zend nouns, belonging to different declensions, as

well as the right pronunciation of the Zend letters, several of which

had been incorrectly given by Anquetil. This was the first essay on Zend

grammar, and it was a masterly one.

The essay published in 1831 by Peter von Bohlen on the origin of the

Zend language threw the matter forty years back. According to him, Zend

is a Pracrit dialect, as it had been pronounced by Jones, Leyden, and

Erskine. His mistake consisted in taking Anquetil's transcriptions of

the words, which are often so incorrect as to make them look like

corrupted forms when compared with Sanscrit. And, what was worse, he

took the proper names in their modern Parsi forms, which often led him

to comparisons that would have appalled Menage. Thus Ahriman became a

Sanscrit word ariman, which would have meant "the fiend"; yet Bohlen

might have seen in Anquetil's work itself that Ahriman is nothing but

the modern form of Angra Mainyu, words which hardly remind one of the

Sanscrit ariman. Again, the angel Vohu-mano, or "good thought," was

reduced, by means of the Parsi form Bahman, to the Sanscrit bahuman, "a

long-armed god."

At length came Burnouf. From the time when Anquetil had published his

translation, that is to say during seventy years, no real progress had

been made in knowledge of the Avesta texts. The notion that Zend and

Sanscrit are two kindred languages was the only new idea that had been

acquired, but no practical advantage for the interpretation of the texts

had resulted from it. Anquetil's translation was still the only guide,

and as the doubts about the authenticity of the texts grew fainter, the

authority of the translation became greater, the trust reposed in the

"Avesta" being reflected on to the work of its interpreter. The Parsis

had been the teachers of Anquetil; and who could ever understand the

holy writ of the Parsis better than the Parsis themselves? There was no

one who even tried to read the texts by the light of Anquetil's

translation, to obtain a direct understanding of them.

About 1825 Eugene Burnouf was engaged in a course of researches on the

geographical extent of the Aryan languages in India. After he had

defined the limits which divide the races speaking Aryan languages from

the native non-brahmanical tribes in the south, he wanted to know if a

similar boundary had ever existed in the northwest; and if it is outside

of India that the origin of the Indian languages and civilization is to

be sought for. He was thus led to study the languages of Persia, and,

first of all, the oldest of them, the Zend. But as he tried to read the

texts by help of Anquetil's translation, he was surprised to find that

this was not the clue he had expected. He saw that two causes had misled

Anquetil: on the one hand, his teachers, the Parsi dasturs, either knew

little themselves or taught him imperfectly, not only the Zend, but even

the Pahlavi intended to explain the meaning of the Zend; so that the

tradition on which his work rested, being incorrect in itself, corrupted

it from the very beginning; on the other hand, as Sanscrit was unknown

to him and comparative grammar did not as yet exist, he could not supply

the defects of tradition by their aid. Burnouf, laying aside tradition

as found in Anquetil's translation, consulted it as found in a much

older and purer form, in a Sanscrit translation of the Yasna made in the

fifteenth century by the Parsi Neriosengh in accordance with the old

Pahlavi version. The information given by Neriosengh he tested, and

either confirmed or corrected, by a comparison of parallel passages and

by the help of comparative grammar, which had just been founded by Bopp,

and applied by him successfully to the explanation of Zend forms. Thus

he succeeded in tracing the general outlines of the Zend lexicon and in

fixing its grammatical forms, and founded the only correct method of

interpreting the "Avesta." He also gave the first notions of a

comparative mythology of the "Avesta" and the "Veda," by showing the

identity of the "Vedic Yama" with the "Avesta Yima," and of Traitana

with Thraetaona and Feridun. Thus he made his "Commentaire sur le Yasna"

a marvellous and unparalleled model of critical insight and steady good

sense, equally opposed to the narrowness of mind which clings to matters

of fact without rising to their cause and connecting them with the

series of associated phenomena, and to the wild and uncontrolled spirit

of comparison, which, by comparing everything, confounds everything.

Never sacrificing either tradition to comparison or comparison to

tradition he knew how to pass from the one to the other, and was so

enabled both to discover facts and to explain them.

At the same time the ancient Persian inscriptions at Persepolis and

Behistun were deciphered by Burnouf in Paris, by Lassen in Bonn, and by

Sir Henry Rawlinson in Persia. Thus was revealed the existence, at the

time of the first Achaemenian kings, of a language closely connected

with that of the "Avesta," and the last doubts as to the authenticity of

the Zend books were at length removed. It would have required more than

an ordinary amount of scepticism to look still upon the Zend as an

artificial language, of foreign importation, without root in the land

where it was written, and in the conscience of the people for whom it

was written, at the moment when a twin language, bearing a striking

likeness to it in nearly every feature, was suddenly making itself heard

from the mouth of Darius, and speaking from the very tomb of the first

Achaemenian king. That unexpected voice silenced all controversies, and

the last echoes of the loud discussion which had been opened in 1771

died away unheeded.