Recitation of the sacred Avesta Holy Gathas

The Gathas are 17 Avestan hymns traditionally believed to have been composed by the prophet Zarathushtra (Zoroaster). They form the core of the Zoroastrian liturgy (the Yasna). They are arranged in five different modes or metres. The Avestan term gāθā (“hymn”, but also “mode, metre”) is cognate with Sanskrit gāthā (गाथा), both from the Proto-Indo-Iranian word *gaHtʰáH, from the root *gaH- “to sing”.

“A fi gata, este a fi gata să cânți”.

To be ready [gata], is to be ready to sing (Romanian).

The language of the Gathas, Gathic or Old Avestan, belongs to the old Iranian language group that is a sub-group of Eastern families of the Indo-European languages. The dependency on Vedic Sanskrit is a significant weakness in the interpretation of the Gathas, as the two languages, though from a common origin, had developed independently. Sassanid era translations and commentaries (the Zend) have been used to interpret the Gathas, but by the 3rd century the Avestan language was virtually extinct, and a dependency on the medieval texts is often discouraged as the commentaries are frequently conjectural. While some scholars argue that an interpretation using younger texts is inadvisable (Geldner, Humbach), others argue that such a view is excessively skeptical (Spiegel, Darmesteter). The risks of misinterpretation are real, but lacking alternates, such dependencies are perhaps necessary.

“The Middle Persian translation seldom offers an appropriate point of departure for a detailed scholarly approach to the Gathas, but an intensive comparison of its single lines and their respective glosses with their Gathic originals usually reveals the train of thought of the translator. This obviously reflects the Gatha interpretation by the priests of the Sasanian period, the general view of which is closer to the original than what is sometimes taught about the Gathas in our time.”[3]

There are four monumental English translations of the Gathas worth noting[citation needed]: The earlier James Darmesteter version (Le Zend-Avesta, 1892–1893) that is based on a translation “from below”, that is, based on the later middle Persian commentaries and translations. The other three are Christian Bartholomae’s Die Gathas des Awesta (1905, Strassburg: Trübner), Helmut Humbach’s The Gathas of Zarathushtra (1959, Heidelberg: Winter), and Stanley Isler’s The Gathas of Zarathustra (1975, Acta Iranica IV, Leiden: Brill). These three texts exploit the “Vedic” approach, and Bartholomae’s was the first of its kind.

The problems that face a translator of the Avestan Gathas are significant: “No one who has ever read a stanza of [the Gathas] in the original will be under any illusions as to the labour that underlies the effort [of translating the hymns]. The most abstract and perplexing thought, veiled further by archaic language, only half understood by later students of the seer’s own race and tongue, tends to make the Gathas the hardest problem to be attempted by those who would investigate the literary monuments.”