Ancient History . Classics and Ancient History

On translation and exegesis in the Zoroastrian religious tradition

Zoroastrianism, now a minority faith in Iran and India, is an Iranian religion with a complex textual transmission reaching back to the remote antiquity.

The oldest layers of the surviving Zoroastrian texts are in Avestan language and commonly dated to the middle of the second millennium BCE. Exact dates and circumstances of composition, however, remain uncertain, so that little is known about the socio-political context from which these texts emerged. After two millennia of oral transmission, the texts were finally committed to writing, at a time when the language must have no longer been in active use.

The written and monumental evidence left by the three major empires of Iranian antiquity do not contribute much to a better understanding of the socio-religious context of the respective eras. While the Achaemenids (550–330 BCE) have often been understood to have Zoroastrian affiliations, we do not possess unequivocal evidence for the Achaemenid practice of systematised Zoroastrian rituals, while the Seleucids (312–64 BCE) and Arsacids (247 BCE–224 CE) are not easily contextualised within the Zoroastrian religious history either. It is only after the rise of the Sasanians (224–650 CE) that these orally transmitted texts enter the light of history in written form.

A number of Middle Persian sources of the early Islamic era speak of a series of religious councils in which the Avestan texts seem to have undergone a process of redaction and canonisation. It must have been during or after these councils, placed in the Sasanian era, that the newly canonised texts were translated into Middle Persian, the language of the Sasanian empire. Although our sources are silent on this significant undertaking, these translations cum commentary, known as Zand, have survived in the bilingual Pahlavi-Avestan manuscripts and were later expanded with translations and commentaries in Gujarati, Sanskrit and New Persian. Thus, as the Sasanians establish a new political power across the Iranian plateau, the Avesta, Middle Persian abestāg, undergoes a reception process, presumably under the patronage of the royal family.

It is noteworthy that the name of the corpus, abestāg, is only attested in Middle Persian and not Avestan. The millennia old authority of religious interpretation, if it ever existed in such form, passes from the gatekeepers of a sacred language into the hands of a new empire, its vernacular, religious authority and ultimately its people (for more on this see, Zeini 2018). But far from lifting the fog of obscurity, these developments pose new questions about the transmission and reception of the Avesta in late antiquity.

Which socio-political or religious impulses lead to the priestly or royal decision to write down the corpus? What was the process of canonisation in the councils? Which criteria where set for the division of the written texts? What relationship did the texts have with the ritual? Why were these councils not properly documented? At what point did the scholars invent a new script for the Avesta and who oversaw the script and translation projects? Unfortunately, most of these questions remain unanswered due to a lack of sources and evidence.

In the manuscripts of the Yasna (Y), the text of a central Zoroastrian ritual with the same name, the original Avestan is divided into sections, comparable to cola, that are followed by a Middle Persian translation and at times commentary. Below, I have marked these sections in an image of Y 35.0 in Pt4, an eighteenth century bilingual manuscript from India.

The discipline of Iranian Studies, particularly the Study of Old Iran has always been dominated by a philological approach with a strong focus on historical linguistics. The enormous difficulties involved in the interpretation of these texts appear to justify this preference. This approach, however, has led to a lack of interest in Zoroastrian exegesis. Josephson (1991), for instance, who reinvigorated scholarly interest in the Middle Persian translations, ignored all sections of the Zand that did not correspond to the original Avestan in a one-to-one manner.

In other words, all exegesis was purged from her edition. While this might have been justified in a study of the translation techniques of the Zand, her choice deprives us of some of the most fascinating passages within the text she edited (see Section 3.3. and Appendix B in Zeini 2020). Cantera (2004), another important work on the Pahlavi translations, also remains unconcerned about the intricacies of exegesis.

Religious exegesis, however, cannot be measured by linguistic paradigms of modern scholarship. An example shall illustrate my point.

In the Zand of the first stanza of the Yasna Haptaŋhāiti (Y 35.1), which is dedicated to the well-known Zoroastrian triad ‘good thoughts, good words, good deeds’, we find a particularly difficult passage. I reproduce the text as it appears in the manuscript Pt4:

Yasna 35.1

(a) humataną̇m. hūxtaną̇m. huuarəštaną̇m. iiadacā. Aniiadacā / (MP) humatān hūxtān huwarštān ka ēdar dahišn u-š pad-iz ī ān ī any dahišn kū-š ēdar ud ānōh-iz nēkīh aziš

(b) vərəziiamananą̇mcā. vāuuarəzananą̇mcā. mahī / (MP) ān ī warzīd tā nūn ud ān-iz ī warzīhēd az nūn frāz

(c) aibījarətārō. naēnēstārō. yaθinā. vōhuną̇m. mahī / (MP) hom abar griftār kū ō xwēš kunom ān ī mard ō mard be abespārdār kirbag pad dād rāh čiyōn weh hom kū čiyōn pahlom ō xwēš kunom

Translation of the Avestan section (after Hintze 2007):

(a) Of good thoughts, good words, good deeds, both here and elsewhere,

(b) being done and having been done,

(c) we are welcomers, not revilers of such good (things) are we.

Translation of the Middle Persian section:

(a) Of good thoughts, good words (and) good deeds, when (in) this creation, and also in that which is the other creation, that is, goodness comes from those here and also there,

(b) (of) those which have been performed till now, and also (of) those which will be performed from now on,

(c) I am an appropriator, that is, I make my own that which a man consigns to a man, (namely) the justly (performed) good deeds, as I am good, that is, I make (it) my own, as it is best.

In the above stanza, the Zand offers an interpretation that radically departs from the scholarly reading of Y 35.1c. It does so by translating the Avestan hapax legomenon naēnaēstārō ‘not revilers’ as mard ō mard ‘a man to a man’. At first, there seems to be a discrepancy between our understanding of the Avestan word and its Middle Persian translation. But despite the Zand’s obscure translation of naēnaēstārō, the phrase ān ī mard ō mard be abespārdār ‘that which a man consigns to a man’ is grounded in a well established, priestly tradition. A similar issue is taken up in Question 18 in a Middle Persian text entitled Pursišnīhā (I only reproduce the question here):

Pur 18 mard-ēw hāwišt-ēw ast ān hāwišt kirbag ī pad dād rāh ī-š az weh-dēnān abar šawēd ān-iz ī hāwištān ōy hāwišt kunēd ān hērbed ī naxwistīn ān kirbagīhā abar šawēd ayāb nē (Text transliterated after TD2)

A man has a disciple. That disciple receives the (merits) of the justly (performed) good deeds from the adherents of the good religion. Does that first teacher receive the (merits) of the good deeds performed by the disciples of that disciple, or not?

In my view, Pursišnīhā 18 asks whether religious merit transfers from a receiving disciple to his teaching priest. Would the first teacher receive the merits of the good deeds performed by his disciples’ followers? Previous editors of the Pursišnīhā did not recognise the significance of Question 18 for the interpretation of Y 35.1. Humbach and Jamaspasa (1971: 31) translate mard-ēw hāwišt-ēw ast  ‘(There is) a man who is a disciple’. This translation is grammatically difficult and ignores the essence of the question, which is about the transfer of merits between two men: a disciple and his teacher. In my interpretation, ‘the first teacher’ (hērbed ī naxwistīn), mentioned at the end of the question, is the first man who has a disciple.

I argue that mard ō mard ‘a man to a man’ in Y 35.1c refers to the question about a teacher and his disciple (mard-ēw hāwišt-ēw ast ‘a man has a disciple’) as discussed in Question 18 of the Pursišnīhā. If this is accepted, then ‘that which a man consigns to a man’ in Y 35.1c (ān ī mard ō mard be abespārdār), is a reference to the merits resulting out of a commitment to good thoughts, good words and good deeds that are transferred from a disciple to his priestly teacher, and not the result of a misunderstanding of Avestan naēnaēstārō ‘not revilers’ as has previously been suggested. The Zand of the Yasna Haptaŋhāiti refers to the relationship between teacher priests and their disciples a number of times.

The Zand or the Middle Persian translations of the Avestan texts have rarely been analysed within the context of the wider Middle Persian texts. Such passages emphasise the authority and relevance ascribed to the Zand for discussions of priestly functions. They also show that even an ostensibly wrong translation can be the result of a meaningful analysis which is correct within its own religious setting. In this case, the somewhat poetically expressed committent to good thoughts, good words and good deeds in the Avestan section becomes part of a different discourse, where the appropriation of the merits of good thoughts, good words and good deeds and their transfer between religious authorities are the focus. Ultimately, however, both versions agree in their positive outlook towards  humatān, hūxtān, huwarštān ‘good thoughts, good words (and) good deeds’, a religious prescription central to the Zoroastrian world view.

About the author

Arash Zeini is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute of Iranian Studies, Freie Universität Berlin. Following his PhD at SOAS, he held a Research Fellowship at the University of St Andrews. This project is based on his PhD thesis and is his first book.
He has published a number of journal articles and has chapters forthcoming in The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity and The Oxford Bahari Lectures.
You can find out more about his Edinburgh University Press title Zoroastrian Scholasticism in Late Antiquity here on our website.

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