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The Avesta is the primary collection of sacred texts of Zoroastrianism, composed in the Avestan language.



The etymology of the term Avesta itself is uncertain, but a derivation from Middle Persian abestāg meaning "praise", is a frequently noted possibility.[citation needed]


Age of the texts

The texts of the Avesta — which are all in the Avestan language — were collated over several hundred years. The most important portion, the Gathas, in Gathic Avestan, are the hymns thought to have been composed by Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) himself, and date linguistically to around 1000 BCE. The liturgical texts of the Yasna, which includes the Gathas, is partially in Older and partially in Younger Avestan. The oldest portions may be older than the Gathas, later adapted to more closely follow the doctrine of Zoroaster. The various Yashts are in Younger Avestan and thought to date to the Achaemenid era (559330 BCE). The Visprad and Vendidad, which are also in Younger Avestan, were probably composed even later but this is not certain.

Early transmission

The various texts are thought to have been transmitted orally for centuries before they found written form. The Book of Arda Viraf, a work composed in the 3rd or 4th century, suggests that the Gathas and some other texts that were incorporated into the Avesta had previously existed in the palace library of the Achaemenid kings (559330 BCE). According to Arda Viraf 1.4-7 and Denkard 3.420, the palace library was lost in a fire caused by the troops of Alexander. However, neither assertion can be confirmed since the texts, if they existed, have been lost.

Nonetheless, Rasmus Christian Rask concluded that the texts must indeed be the remnants of a much larger literature, as Pliny the Elder had suggested in his Naturalis Historiae, where he describes one Hermippus of Smyrna having "interpreted two million verses of Zoroaster" in the 3rd century BCE. Peter Clark in Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith (1998, Brighton) suggests the Gathas and older Yasna texts would not have retained their old-language qualities if they had only been orally transmitted.

Later redaction

According to the Dēnkard, a semi-religious work written in the 9th century, the king Volgash (thought to be the Parthian king Vologases IV, c. 147191 CE) attempted to have the sacred texts collected and collated. The results of this undertaking, if it occurred, have not survived.

In the 3rd century, the Sassanian emperor Ardashir I (r. 226-241 CE) commanded his high priest Tonsar (or Tansar) to compile the theological texts. According to the Dēnkard, the Tonsar effort resulted in the reproduction of twenty-one volumes, called nasks, subdivided into 348 chapters, with approximately 3.5 million words in total. One final redaction took place under Shapur II (r. 309-379).

The Avesta, as known today, represents only those parts of the text that are used liturgically, and therefore survived in the memory of the priests; and, as it now consists of all surviving liturgical texts in the Avestan language, it may include material that never formed part of the 21 nasks at all. In that sense, the current Avesta is a "prayer book" rather than a "Bible". The remainder of the 21 nasks, including the Chihrdad, has been lost since then, especially after the fall of the Sassanid empire, after which Zoroastrianism was supplanted by Islam. However, some secondary literature in Pahlavi purports to contain paraphrases or lists of contents of the lost books.

European scholarship

The texts became available to European scholarship comparatively late. Abraham Anquetil-Duperron travelled to India in 1755, and discovered the texts in Parsi communities. He published a French translation in 1771, based on a Modern Persian language translation provided by a Parsi priest.

Several Avesta manuscripts were collected by Rasmus Rask on a visit to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1820, and it was Rask's examination of the Avestan language that first established that the texts must indeed be the remnants of a much larger literature of sacred texts.

Rask's collection now lies in the Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen. Other manuscripts are preserved in the East India House, the British Museum in London, the Bodleian library at Oxford, and at various university libraries in Paris.


The Zend

The word Zend or Zand, literally meaning "interpretation", refers to late Middle Persian (see Pazend and Pahlavi) language paraphrases of and commentaries on the individual Avestan books: they could be compared with the Jewish Targums. These commentaries - which date from the 3rd to 10th centuries - were not intended for use as theological texts by themselves but for religious instruction of the (by then) non-Avestan-speaking public. In contrast, the texts of the Avesta proper remained sacrosanct and continued to be recited in Avestan, which was considered a sacred language.

Manuscripts of the Avesta exist in two forms. One is the Avesta-o-Zand (or Zand-i-Avesta), in which the individual books are written together with their Zand. The other is the Vendidad Sadeh, in which the Yasna, Visperad and Vendidad are set out in alternating chapters, in the order used in the Vendidad ceremony, with no commentary at all.

The use of the expression Zend-Avesta to refer to the Avesta in general is a misunderstanding of the phrase Zand-i-Avesta (which literally means "interpretation of the Avesta").

A related mistake is the use of Zend as the name of a language or script. In 1759, Anquetil-Duperron reported having been told that Zend was the name of the language of the more ancient writings. In his third discourse, published in 1798, Sir William Jones mentions a conversation with a Hindu priest who told him that the script was called Zend, and the language Avesta. This mistake results from a misunderstanding of the term pazend, which actually refers to the use of the Avestan alphabet in writing the Zand and other Middle Persian religious texts, as an expression meaning "in Zend".

The confusion then became too universal in Western scholarship to be reversed, and Zend-Avesta, although a misnomer, is still occasionally used to denote the older texts.

Rask's seminal work, A Dissertation on the Authenticity of the Zend Language (Bombay, 1821), may have contributed to the confusion. N. L. Westergaard's Zendavesta, or the religious books of the Zoroastrians (Copenhagen, 1852-54) only propagated the error.

Structure and content

In its present form, the Avesta is a compilation from various sources, and its different parts date from different periods and vary widely in character. Only texts in the Avestan language are considered part of the Avesta.

There are strong linguistic and cultural similarities between the texts of the Avesta and those of the Rigveda; the similarities are assumed to reflect the common beliefs of Proto-Indo-Iranian times, with the differences then assumed to reflect independent evolution that occurred after the pre-historical split of the two cultures.

According to Denkard, the 21 nasks (books) mirror the structure of the 21-word-long Ahuna Vairya prayer: each of the three lines of the prayer consists of seven words. Correspondingly, the nasks are divided into three groups, of seven volumes per group. Originally, each volume had a word of the prayer as its name, which so marked a volume’s position relative to the other volumes. Only about a quarter of the text from the nasks has survived until today.

The contents of the Avesta are divided topically (even though the organization of the nasks is not), but these are not fixed or canonical. Some scholars prefer to place the categories in two groups, the one liturgical, and the other general. The following categorization is as described by Jean Kellens (see bibliography, below).

The Gathas

The Gathas are the 17 hymns in Avesta clearly attributed to Zoroaster. Much of the Gathas deal with the purposes of Ohrmazd and prophesies of the future. Much of the Gathas are hard to translate due to its archaicness and the literary isolation of the Avestan language. Because of this scholars have had problems with the syntax and grammar of Gathic Avestan. For the most part it can not be understood by themselves clearly, however when supplemented with the Younger Avesta enigmatic verses may seem more meaningful. However the Language of the Rigveda is similar to the Gathic Avestan and has use in understanding the Language of the Gathic portion of the Avesta.[1]

The Yasna

Yasna 28.1 (Bodleian MS J2)
The Yasna (from yazišn "worship, oblations", cognate with Sanskrit yajña), is the primary liturgical collection. It consists of 72 sections called the Ha-iti or Ha. The 72 threads of lamb's wool in the Kushti, the sacred thread worn by Zoroastrians, represent these sections. The central portion of the Yasna is the Gathas, the oldest and most sacred portion of the Avesta, believed to have been composed by Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) himself. The Gathas are structurally interrupted by the Yasna Haptanghaiti ("seven-chapter Yasna"), which makes up chapters 35-42 of the Yasna and is almost as old as the Gathas, consists of prayers and hymns in honour of the Supreme Deity, Ahura Mazda, the Angels, Fire, Water, and Earth. The structure of the Yasna, though handed down in prose, may once have been metrical, as the Gathas still are.
It is believed by some scholars that the Yasna represents the 21st nask (the seventh and last volume in the third and last group). Six of the nasks from the first group of nasks, which are commentaries on the Gathas, may also be regarded as relevant to the Yasna.
The Yasna, or Izeshne, is primarily the name, not of a book, but of a ceremony in which the entire book is recited and appropriate liturgical actions performed. In its normal form, this ceremony can only be performed in the morning.

The Visperad

The Visperad (from vîspe ratavo, "(prayer to) all patrons") is a collection of supplements to the Yasna.[citation needed] The Visparad is subdivided into 23 or 24 kardo (sections) that are interleaved into the Yasna during a Visperad service (which is an extended Yasna service).
The Visperad collection has no unity of its own, and is never recited separately from the Yasna.

The Vendidad

The Vendidad (or Vidēvdāt, a corruption of Avestan Vî-Daêvô-Dāta, "Given Against the Demons") is an enumeration of various manifestations of evil spirits, and ways to confound them. The Vendidad includes all of the 19th nask, which is the only nask that has survived in its entirety. The text consists of 22 Fargards, fragments arranged as discussions between Ahura Mazda and Zoroaster. The first fargard is a dualistic creation myth, followed by the description of a destructive winter on the lines of the deluge of mythology. The second fargard recounts the legend of Yima. The remaining fargards deal primarily with hygiene (care of the dead in particular) [fargard 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 16, 17, 19] as well as disease and spells to fight it [7, 10, 11, 13, 20, 21, 22]. Fargards 4 and 15 discuss the dignity of wealth and charity, of marriage and of physical effort, and the indignity of unacceptable social behaviour such as assault and breach of contract, and specify the penances required to atone for violations thereof. The Vendidad is an ecclesiastical code, not a liturgical manual, and there is a degree of moral relativism apparent in the codes of conduct. The Vendidad's different parts vary widely in character and in age. Some parts may be comparatively recent in origin although the greater part is very old.
The Vendidad, unlike the Yasna and the Visparad, is a book of laws rather than the record of a liturgical ceremony. However, there is a ceremony called the Vendidad, in which the Yasna is recited with all the chapters of both the Visparad and the Vendidad inserted at appropriate points. This ceremony is only performed at night.

However, many Zoroastrians do not consider the Vendidad as a religious text and only consider its historical value as it was written around 1000 years after Zarathustra and that the style of writing and laws has nothing to do with the Gathas. [1]

The Yashts

Faravahar, believed to be a depiction of a Fravashi, as mentioned in the Yasna, Yashts and Vendidad
The Yashts (from yešti, "worship by praise") are a collection of 21 hymns, each dedicated to a particular divinity or divine concept. Three hymns of the Yasna liturgy that "worship by praise" are—in tradition—also nominally called yashts, but are not counted among the Yasht collection since the three are a part of the primary litury. The Yashts vary greatly in style, quality and extent. In their present form, they are all in prose but analysis suggests that they may at one time have been in verse.

The Siroza

The Siroza ("thirty days") is an enumeration and invocation of the 30 divinities presiding over the days of the month. (cf. Zoroastrian calendar). The Siroza exists in two forms, the shorter ("little Siroza") is a brief enumeration of the divinities with their epithets in the genitive. The longer ("great Siroza") has complete sentences and sections, with the yazatas being addressed in the accusative.
The Siroza is never recited as a whole, but is a source for individual sentences devoted to particular divinities, to be inserted at appropriate points in the liturgy depending on the day and the month.

The Khordeh Avesta

The Khordeh Avesta ("little Avesta") is both a selection of verses from the other collections, as well as three sub-collections that do not appear elsewhere. Taken together, the Khordeh Avesta is considered the prayer book for general lay use. In a wider sense, the term Khordeh Avesta includes all material other than the Yasna, the Visparad and the Vendidad, as it is only the ceremonies contained in these three books that are reserved for the priests.
The Khordeh Avesta is divided into 4 sections:
  1. Five introductory chapters, accompanied by excerpts from different parts of the Yasna.
  2. Five Niyayishns "praises," addressed to the sun, Mithra, the moon, the waters, and the fire. In the main, the material overlaps with that of the Yashts. The Niyayishn to fire derives from Yasna 62.
  3. Five Gahs "moments of the day," addressed to the five divisions of the day.
  4. Four Afrinagans "blessings," each recited on a particular occasion: the first in honor of the dead, the second on the five epagomenal days that end the year, the third is recited at the six seasonal feasts, and the fourth at the beginning and end of summer.


All material in the Avesta that is not already present in one of the other categories falls into a "fragments" category, which - as the name suggests - includes incomplete texts. There are altogether more than 20 fragment collections, many of which have no name (and are then named after their owner/collator) or only a Middle Persian name. The more important of the fragment collections are the Nirangistan fragments (18 of which constitute the Ehrbadistan); the Pursishniha "questions," also known as "Fragments Tahmuras"; the Aogemadaeca "we accept," a treatise on death; and the Hadokht Nask "volume of the scriptures" with two fragments of eschatological significance.

Other Zoroastrian religious texts

Only texts preserved in the Avestan language count as scripture and are part of the Avesta. Several other secondary works are nonetheless crucial to Zoroastrian theology and scholarship.

The most notable among the Middle Persian texts are the Dēnkard ("Acts of Religion"), dating from the 9th century; the Bundahishn ("Primordial Creation"), finished in the 11th or 12th century, but containing older material; the Mainog-i-Khirad ("Spirit of Wisdom"), a religious conference on questions of faith; and the Arda Viraf Namak ("Book of Arda Viraf"), which is especially important for its views on death, salvation and life in the hereafter. Of the post-14th century works (all in New Persian), only the Sad-dar ("Hundred Doors, or Chapters"), and Rivayats (traditional treatises) are of doctrinal importance. Other texts such as Zartushtnamah ("Book of Zoroaster") are only notable for their preservation of legend and folklore.

See also

  • The Gathas, the most sacred of the texts of the Zoroastrian faith.


  1. ^ Boyce (1990), p. 1


Texts and translations

Secondary works

  • Gershevitch, Ilya (1955). "Approaches to Zoroaster's Gathas". Iran (London: British Institute of Persian Studies) 33. 
  • Gnoli, Gherardo (2000). Zoroaster in History. New York: Oxbow. 
  • Kellens, Jean (1983). "Avesta". Encyclopædia Iranica. 3. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul. pp. 35–44. 
  • Modi, J. J., The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees
  • This article incorporates text from the public-domain Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913.
  • Boyce, Mary (1990), Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism, University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0226069303 

Further reading

Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel


Avesta is a city in Dalarna, Sweden.

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Proper noun




  1. (Zoroastrianism) The sacred texts of Zoroastrian, composed in Avestan language.

See also

  • Zend-Avesta


Avesta (not comparable)


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  1. (dated) Avestan language

Bible wiki

Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From BibleWiki

The canonical book of the religious sect known as the Parsees, more frequently though less precisely called Zend-Avesta—an inversion of the Pahlavi phrase "Avistāk va Zand," the Scriptures and the Commentary or the Law and Its Interpretation. The Avesta is the Zoroastrian Bible supplemented by the Pahlavi, or Middle Persian, writings, as the Hebrew Scriptures are by the Talmud.


Jewish Interest.

The Avesta has special claims upon the interest of Jewish scholars, there being certain points of similarity between the Avesta and the Old as well as the New Testament, points that are striking or close enough to call forth frequent comment. In the next place, the Avesta, as the sacred book of early Persia, must command attention because of the historical points of contact between the Jews and the Persians. Note especially such passages as the following: Isa. xlv. 1, 13, 28; II Chron. xxxvi. 22, 23; Ezra i. 1-11; v. 13-17; vi. 1-15; and perhaps Ezek. viii. 16. See Persian Religion.

The Typical Magian.

The Avesta represents the ancient priestly code of the Magi; for Zoroaster, or Zarathushtra, as his name is called in the original texts, has stood in history as the typical Magian, as the sage, priest, prophet, andlawgiver of ancient Iran. According to the more recent views on the subject, which agree with the traditional date for his era, he flourished about 660-583 B.C.; though the common tendency is to believe that he lived and taught at a much earlier period. It is certain that King Artaxerxes and the later Achæmenian rulers professed his faith; less certain is it according to some scholars whether Darius and Xerxes, and still less whether Cyrus, were really followers of the Avesta and genuine Zoroastrians, although much may be said in the affirmative. It is beyond doubt that they were all worshipers of Ahuramazda, or Ormuzd, the supreme God of the Avesta; and this makes the passages in Isaiah (xliv. 28; xlv. 1, 13) relating to Cyrus doubly interesting. In the Old Persian inscriptions the Mazda worship of Darius is most pronounced. For these reasons still more importance is to be attached to the Avesta in the history of religious thought, especially when the power and the wide-spread influence of the Persian empire in early times are taken into account.

According to the book itself the Avesta represents a direct revelation from Ahuramazda to Zarathushtra. The sacred text (Vend. xxii. 19) mentions "the Forest and the Mountain of the Two Holy Communing Ones"—Ormuzd and Zoroaster—where special intercourse through inspired vision was held between the Godhead and his prophetic representative on earth, as between Yhwh and Moses on Sinai. Later tradition repeats the view that the sacred book was the result of inspiration, for the Pahlavi texts (Dk. vii. 3, 51-62; viii. 51; Zsp. xxiv. 51) recount not only how Zoroaster communed with Ormuzd, but like the Zoroastrian Gāthās they tell also of ecstatic visions of the six archangels and of other revelations which were vouchsafed to him. According to a tradition preserved in the Pahlavi writings (Dk. Bk. 3, end, quoted by West, "Sacred Books of the East," xxxvii., Introd. 30-32), the Avesta itself was committed to writing at the instance of King Vishtāspa, whom Zoroaster converted to the faith and who became Zoroaster's patron. The king's own prime minister, Jāmāspa, had a hand in the redaction as scribe, and Zoroaster's mantle descended upon him, so that he succeeded the great priest in the pontifical office on the latter's death (Dk. iv. 21; v. 34; vii. 5, 11).

Traditions About Origin.

It is said by Ṭabarī, and by Bundarī after him, that Vishtāspa caused two copies of the holy texts to be inscribed in letters of gold upon 12,000 ox-hides (see Jackson, "Zoroaster," p. 97)—a tradition which is confirmed by Pliny's statement that Zoroaster composed no less than 2,000,000 verses (N. H. xxx. 2). These two archetype copies, mentioned in the Dinkard, the Artā-Vīrāf, and the Shatrōihā-i-Airān, were to serve as the standard priestly codes of Vishtāspa's realm. The faith was to be promulgated throughout the world in accordance with the teaching of these. There is likewise a tradition (see Dk., references above) to the effect that one of these original copies came into the hands of the Greeks and was translated into their tongue. Support for this tradition may perhaps be found in the Arabic lexicon of Bar-Bahlūl (963), according to which the Avesta of Zoroaster was composed in seven tongues, Syriac, Persian, Aramean, Segestanian, Mervian, Greek, and Hebrew. A still earlier Syriac manuscript commentary on the New Testament by 'Ishō'dād, bishop of Ḥadatha, near Mosul (852), similarly speaks of the Avesta as having been written by Zoroaster in twelve different languages. As for the other archetype copy, which seems to have been the principal one, the direct statement, again of the Pahlavi treatise Dînkard, says that it was burned by Alexander the Great when he invaded Iran.

The Fate of the Avesta.

Whatever may be the value of these traditions regarding the Avesta, the fate of the sacred book was connected with the history of the people, and with the rise and fall of the fortunes of Iran. The five centuries that followed the invasion of Alexander with the government of the Seleucidæ and the sway of the Parthians were dark ones for Zoroastrianism. Nevertheless, there is no reason for making the strong claim that Darmesteter does to the effect that the tradition was lost. It is known that the last of the Parthian monarchs were filled with the true Zoroastrian spirit; and it can be proved from Greek, Latin, and other writings, that the tradition of the wisdom of Zoroaster lived on during the long period between Alexander and the rise of the House of Sassān in the third and fourth centuries. The entire Sassanian period was a most flourishing time for the creed which was now restored to its pristine glory. But in the seventh century, with the rise of Islam, the Avesta gave place in Persia to the Koran; Ormuzd sank before Allah; and Zoroaster yielded to Mohammed. A number of the faithful cherishers of the sacred fire, however, sought safety in flight from Iran and found refuge in India, where they are still known by their ancient name Parsi; it is they that are the conservators of the remnants of the old Avestan texts that have passed through so many vicissitudes.

Much had been lost through Alexander, it was claimed; but the number of texts that were still extant was nevertheless considerable, and they represented the ancient Avesta fairly well. The canon was divided into twenty-one nasks, or books. These again were subdivided into three classes, each comprising seven books. The first group ("Gāthā" or "Gāsān") was theological; the second ("Dāt") was legal; the third ("Hadha-mãthra") was of a somewhat miscellaneous character. In this threefold classification of the nasks, Darmesteter sought to prove Jewish influences at work upon the Avesta, and he compared the classification of the Biblical texts into "Torah" (Law), "Nebiim" (Prophets), and "Ketubim." But of this Sassanian Avesta there is much less extant now because of the havoc wrought, directly or indirectly, upon Zoroastrianism and the Avesta by the Mohammedan conquest and the Koran. To-day only two of the twenty-one nasks are in any degree complete. These are the Vendīdād, or law against demons, and the Stōt Yasht, which answers to Yasna (xiv.-lix.), yet these show signs of being very imperfect. There exists also, in addition to these two remnants, an important part of another nask—this is the Bakān Yasht; and portions or fragments of others. There thusexist specimens of about fifteen of the original nasks. This material, moreover, is supplemented by various passages that have been translated from the original Avesta into Pahlavi and are thus preserved; or by quotations of the Avesta text itself incorporated into the Pahlavi treatises. All this bears but a small proportion to the Avesta of Zoroaster's time, and the remnant is but small in extent when compared with the Hebrew Scriptures.

What is still extant is commonly divided into the following six classes: (1) Yasna, including the Gāthās, or Zoroastrian Psalms; (2) Vīspered; (3) Yashts; (4) minor texts; (5) Vendīdād; (6) fragments.

The Extant Avesta.

The Yasna—a liturgical work, comprising seventy-two chapters—contains texts used by the "dastūr," or priest, in connection chiefly with the sacrifice of "haoma." In the midst of the Yasna the Gāthās are inserted. These are the Zoroastrian psalms, and they represent the verses of Zoroaster's own preaching and teaching, embodying especially his belief in a new and better life; the coming of a Messiah, or Saoshyant; the annihilation of Satan and the evil principle, Angro-Mainyush, and the Druj, "Falsehood" (see Ahriman); and the general restoration of the world for ever and ever. For theologians the Gāthās are the most interesting and important part of the Avesta; but at the same time they are by far the most difficult.

Less characteristic is the short book known as the Vīspered. It consists of brief invocations and offerings of homage to "all the lords" ("vīspe ratavō"), as the name implies. The Yashts, or Praises, twenty-one in number, contain praises of the angels or glorification of the spirits, and personified abstractions of the faith. They are generally written in meter, with some claim to poetic merit. One of the most interesting is the thirteenth, or Farvadīn Yasht, on the worship of the spirits ("fravashis"). The doctrine of the ancient Persian faith, which this Yasht contains, has been brought by Paul de Lagarde into connection with the Purim festival. Another Yasht (Yt. 19) is in praise of the kingly glory ("hvarenah"), the halo, sheen, or majesty which surrounds and protects the king as a mark of divine favor (compare Moses' shining face, Ex 34:29). The Vendīdād, in twenty-two chapters, is an Iranian Pentateuch, and it contains numerous parallels of interest to the Biblical student.

The real pioneer exegete at the end of the eighteenth century was Anquetil du Perron; then followed Burnouf and Rask; later came Haug, Westergaard, Spiegel, Roth, Hübschmann, De Harlez; or more recently, West, Mills (a stanch advocate of the Pahlavi), and especially Geldner and James Darmesteter. The latter's theory of the late origin of the Avesta (in "Le Zend-Avesta," iii., Introduction, and "Sacred Books of the East," 2d ed., iv., Introduction) can not be said to have found much favor among specialists or support among those best qualified to judge; but he has brought out numerous likenesses between the Avesta and the Old Testament.

This entry includes text from the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.

Simple English

Avesta is the holy book of Zoroastrianism. It has been written in Avestan language. The Avesta is also translated into other languages including Farsi and English. The oldest portion, the Ghathas,are the religious songs produced by Zarathushtra himself. Other parts of Avesta are named Yasna,Yashts,Visperad,Vendidad and Khordeh Avesta.There are two other religious texts in Zoroastrianism which are named Denkard and Ardaviraf Namak.


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