This is a copy of the Zoroastrian Videvdad, or Vendidad as it is also known, a lawbook containing the rules for dealing with pollution and crime. It is one of the oldest existing Zoroastrian manuscripts, copied in 1323 in Nawsari, Gujarat, by the scribe Mihraban Kaykhusraw. In this manuscript, each sentence is given first in the original Avestan (Old Iranian) language, and then in Pahlavi (Middle Persian), the language of Sasanian Iran (c. 224–651 AD).
What is Zoroastrianism?
Zoroastrianism, the religion of the ancient Iranians, is named after Zarathushtra (Zoroaster in Greek sources) whose songs (Gathas) are thought to have been composed 1500–1000 BC. These are the oldest Avestan texts and form part of the Yasna liturgy which Zoroastrian priests are still today required to learn and recite by heart.
Zoroastrianism teaches the importance of good thoughts, words, and actions, in a world where the forces of the all-knowing lord, Ahura Mazda, are constantly opposed by those of the evil spirit, Angra Mainyu. Originating in Central Asia, Zoroastrianism spread to Iran where it was the religion of the Achaemenid kings (550–330 BC) and their successors until the Arab conquest in the mid-seventh century AD.
In the 10th century AD, Zoroastrian refugees from Iran established settlements in Gujarat, India, where they were called Parsis, 'Persians'. During British rule in India, Parsi diaspora communities became established in Canton, Macau, Hong Kong, East Africa, and Britain, and today there are Zoroastrians living worldwide. The Census of India 2001 reported a Zoroastrian population of 69,601. In the same year, the UK Census listed about 4000 Zoroastrians.
What are the Zoroastrian scriptures?
The oldest Zoroastrian scriptures are referred to as the Avesta or Zend Avesta. The Avesta contains the sacred texts in the Avestan language, whereas the Zend refers to their translations and explanations in Pahlavi. The Avestan language was probably spoken from the second millennium until the first half of the first millennium BC, but the Avestan scriptures, unlike the Old Testament and the Qur'an, were transmitted orally. They were finally written down many centuries later in late Sasanian times, when the oral tradition could no longer be completely relied upon. Zoroastrian treatises continued to be written in Pahlavi until the ninth and tenth centuries AD, but it is clear that by then the priests who wrote them had only a partial understanding of the Avestan texts. Much material has been lost and it is possible that only about a quarter of the Avesta of the ninth century survives today.
The Avestan and Pahlavi scripts
The earliest Zoroastrian manuscripts that survive today date from the late 13th and early 14th centuries. They are written in the Avestan and (Book) Pahlavi scripts. The Pahlavi script is derived from Aramaic, the chief administrative language of the Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BC). It contains only consonants and is read from right to left. It evolved in southern Iran and became the official script of the Sasanian Empire (c. 224–651 AD). The script of the Zoroastrian Pahlavi manuscripts is a calligraphic cursive script.
The Avestan alphabet was created in late Sasanian times from the Pahlavi script with the addition of numerous new letters for the purpose of recording the Avesta exactly as it was recited. The letters are written from right to left and are usually not connected. Unlike Pahlavi, but like Greek, which may have served as a model, it is a phonetic script with characters for both vowels and consonants – 53 in all, including 16 different vowel signs.
What is the Videvdad?
The Videvdad is the only complete book (nask) of the Sasanian Avesta that has survived. It is primarily concerned with ritual purity, containing rules for how to remove impurities from Ahura Mazda's creation, and how to atone for and punish acts causing pollution. It also includes several important myths: the creation story, the rule of Yima the first king, and, as illustrated in the passage shown above, Zarathushtra's temptation and defeat of the evil spirit Angra Mainyu.
Why is this manuscript important?
This manuscript is one of the oldest surviving Avestan manuscripts. Apart from the ninth century Ashem Vohu manuscript in Sogdian (BL Or 8212/84), which Aurel Stein discovered in Dunhuang, China, the earliest surviving Avestan manuscript dates from the end of the 13th century. Several manuscripts exist from the beginning of the 14th century, but most, however, date from the 16th to 19th centuries. Mihraban Kaikhusraw, the scribe of our manuscript, also made another copy of the Videvdad in 1324 and two copies of the Yasna in 1323, all of which survive today.
The British Library manuscript belonged previously to Samuel Guise, Surgeon in the Bombay Army from 1775 to 1796. Guise's collection was made at Surat between 1788 and 1795, at great personal expense, while he was Head Surgeon to the General Hospital. His rarest manuscripts (according to his catalogue published in 1800) were purchased from the widow of Dastur Darab who between 1758 and 1760 had taught Avestan to Anquetil du Perron, the first translator of the Avesta into a European language.
Unfortunately the first part of the manuscript was in such bad condition that Guise had folios 1–34 and 59–154 re-copied and presumably the original was thrown away. The manuscript also lacks the final leaf containing the colophon, but luckily this has been preserved in a later copy made from the same manuscript. Samuel Guise died in 1811 and his collection was sold at auction by Leigh and Sotheby in July 1812.