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Discovery Of The Zend-avesta

Source: 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, or 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.

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