A new book on Swami Vivekananda reveals him to be a man who wasn’t quite what he has been made out to be.
Vivekananda on Hinduism
If there is one phrase in the popular consciousness that effortlessly invokes the name and memory of Ramakrishna, it is ‘Ramakrishna’s catholicity’. Vivekananda, more than anyone else, helped construct the elements that constituted this carefully edited, censored and wilfully misleading version of his master’s ‘catholicity’. He used it to mean what he thought was Ramakrishna’s tolerance, generosity and inclusiveness in relation to other faiths while carefully glossing over the sources and influences that produced this ‘catholicity’. The continued use of the term has had a longevity independent of Vivekananda’s remoulding of Ramakrishna from a “religious ecstatic to a religious eclectic”, and continues to be used even to this day by perceptive and critical readers of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda story.
Faith is a creation and gift of god and it is beyond the jurisdiction of humans to tamper with it: “Suppose there are errors in the religion that one has accepted; if one is sincere and earnest, then god Himself will correct these errors.... If there are errors in other religions, that is none of our business. God, to whom the world belongs, takes care of that.” Ramakrishna does not stop at this, but goes further to warn against the triumphalism that sets in when individuals or faiths arbitrarily decide that they are right and all others are wrong. They think of faith in terms of winning and losing, where, invariably, they perceive that they and their faith alone have won and all others have lost. “But a person who has gone forward may be detained by some slight obstacle,” warns Ramakrishna, “and someone who has been lagging behind may then steal a march on him.” God’s ways are mysterious, and triumph and defeat too are in his hands.
If these are the foundations upon which Ramakrishna’s inclusiveness, universality and doctrinal generosity rested, it is also true that there was a complete absence in the Kathamrita of a clearly articulated Hindu identity. Even less so was the idea of a threatening, antagonistic ‘Other’ in the form of Islam or Christianity. Sumit Sarkar is right when he says that in Ramakrishna and in the pages of the Kathamrita “there is no developed sense of a sharply distinct ‘Hindu’ identity—let alone any political use of it”. There is, however, one exception within the Kathamrita that causes a mild dissonance in our total and categorical rejection of the presence of a cohesive Hindu identity in Ramakrishna. It must also be said that this exception is vastly outweighed by the overwhelming evidence that points towards Ramakrishna’s radical rejection of differences, hierarchies and claims of superiority among sects and faiths.
AFP (From Outlook Magazine Jan 21, 2013 Issue)
The exception can be traced to October 20, 1884. Ramakrishna visits the Marwaris of Burrabazar, who are celebrating the Annakuta festival. While returning from the festival, Ramakrishna speaks admiringly of the devotion of the Marwaris, especially the joy with which they carried the image and lifted the throne of the deity on their shoulders. He calls this the “real Hindu ideal” and also terms it ‘Sanatana Dharma’. For Ramakrishna to be excited about expressions of bhakti is not unusual, and so the expression “real Hindu ideal” can be understood in this context. What is more difficult to explain is the use of a politically charged neologism like ‘Sanatana Dharma’.
The coming together of the terms ‘Sanatana Dharma’ and ‘Hindu religion’ not just militates against the tone, tenor and spirit of the Kathamrita, but the speech itself does not sound like Ramakrishna. If it does sound like anyone, it is Vivekananda, who considered only Hinduism to be worthy of the epithet ‘religion’ and thought of Islam and Christianity to be merely sects. As noted above, this exception takes little away from what is popularly known as Ramakrishna’s “catholicity”; that his inclusiveness and doctrinal generosity is much more radical and exceptional has been explained above.
As against this kind of attempt, contradictions do seem apparent between Vedic texts and between the doctrines they preach. Vivekananda suggests that Lord Krishna himself tried to partially harmonise these contradictions, and he himself had come in the form of Ramakrishna to show the right way in which to truly understand the Vedas and Vedanta. Ramakrishna, he suggests, had through his life and teachings made sense of the seeming contradictions in these scriptures. What did he do? Vivekananda concludes that Ramakrishna perceived the contradictions as indication that various texts and their teachings are “meant for different grades of aspirants and are arranged in the order of evolution”. We already know that Ramakrishna had little interest in scriptures, thought nothing of the Vedas, made little distinction between the Vedas and the Vedanta in a formal sense, and found such textual details boring and monotonous.
In 1896, Vivekananda gave two lectures in America and England on Ramakrishna. At the outset, he confesses that he speaks on behalf of his Master, but the errors in interpreting the message are entirely his own. The bare bones of Ramakrishna’s message are all there, beginning with renunciation, devotion, love, and ending with Ramakrishna’s love of all sects and religions. But the moment one unravels the details, a very carefully doctored picture emerges. The first thing that strikes any reader of these lectures is that they are placed entirely in the context of the glorious spiritual traditions of India as contrasted with the materialism of the West. Further, and, more importantly, they are placed within the context of the spiritual greatness of Hinduism. There are frequent references to Hinduism’s capacity to withstand external shocks, including the coming of materialism in the guise of the West and the flashing of the Islamic sword. Despite all this, the national ideals remained intact because they were Hindu ideals. In turn, Hindu ideals are always painted as a deep quest for spirituality and the celebration of holiness.
Vivekananda tersely mentions that Ramakrishna was seized with the desire to find the truth of all religions. He had only known his own religion till now. His listeners in 1896 and his readers today would, of course, understand Ramakrishna’s religion to be Vivekananda’s version of Hinduism, something that it was not even in a generously extended sense. The desire to know the truth about various faiths led Ramakrishna to get to know each first-hand. As the ‘scientist’ par excellence, Ramakrishna learns about Islam and Christianity. After following these two faiths, he came to realise that these faiths led him to the same goal he had already attained. The differences were only in name and form. All this was accomplished, Vivekananda tells us, from actual experience.
Rite note: Evening arti at Parmarth Niketan Ashram, Rishikesh/ Photo by Sanjay Rawat
This is what Vivekananda claims he learned from his Master. Just as after learning about Islam and Christianity, Vivekananda’s Ramakrishna comes to the conclusion that these faiths led to the same goal that Ramakrishna had already reached. Similarly, Vivekananda learnt from his Master that all religions in the world were phases of one eternal religion. Notice the dexterity with which the word ‘phases’ has been added and introduced. What was the parity and equality of all faiths becomes “phases” of one “eternal religion” in the hands of Vivekananda. In the last part of the lecture, Vivekananda would claim that Ramakrishna did not want to disturb the faith of any individual, not even a sect like the Muslims whom “we always regard as the most exclusive”. Again, Muslims and Islam are reduced to a sect and condemned as “exclusive”. But more crucially, and perhaps ironically, the idea that without disturbing a man’s faith, one needs to “get hold of a man where he stands and give him a push upwards” is attributed to Ramakrishna. It also requires no great leap of imagination to know that “eternal religion” translates as ‘Sanatana Dharma’. Indeed, in the subsequent part of his lecture, the inference drawn becomes abundantly clear when Vivekananda argues that India was the soil to preach religion and the Hindus accept religion with effortless ease. The conflating of India, its soil and Hindu religiosity is accomplished with a flourish, something that would become part and parcel of Vivekananda’s politically charged conception of Hinduism.
Much of Vivekananda’s mystique rests on his perceived liberality with respect to other faiths. There is a clear identification between Vivekananda and the view that religions might differ in word, ritual, doctrine and emphasis but all faiths are ultimately paths to the same god. In many of his public pronouncements, he explicitly seeks to convey that his message was one of peace and a united religion and not of antagonism. Having studied comparative religions, he finds all faiths to have had the same foundations as his own faith. If there were differences, these were in the realm of the non-essential elements within faiths. Going a step further, he wants a plurality of faiths in the world to suit a variety of contexts. In a world that constantly has to contend with religious strife and the violence that is the inevitable consequence of such conflict, such words and thoughts can be seductively reassuring. This is especially so when quoted out of context, selectively and without attention to the fine print. An example would illustrate the point better. Here, Vivekananda is talking about the desirability of different faiths:
“I do not deprecate the existence of sects in the world. Would to god there were twenty million more, for the more there are, there will be a greater field for selection. What I do object to is trying to fit one religion to every case. Though all religions are essentially the same, they must have the varieties of form produced by dissimilar circumstances among different nations.”
This sounds perfectly reasonable. It is worth marking that he calls them “sects” and not religions. But the overall tone and tenor is one of remarkable liberality. Now read the last line of the quote: “We must each have our own individual religion, individual so far as the externals of it go.” The plurality of faiths, then, is limited to the externals. Remove the externals and what will emerge is a universal faith defined by Vivekananda, based entirely on his reading of the Vedanta. The Vedantic ideal of Oneness and the Universal Soul would ultimately prevail.
“When we shall feel that oneness, we shall be immortal. We are physically immortal even, one with the universe. So long as there is one that breathes throughout the universe, I live in that one. I am not this limited little being, I am the universal. I am the life of all the sons of the past. I am the soul of Buddha, of Jesus, of Mohammed.”
When the argument for a single universal faith had to be made strenuously, Vivekananda abandons even the “We must each have our own individual religion” rhetoric with alacrity: “There never was my religion or yours, my national religion or your national religion; there never existed many religions, there is only the one. One Infinite Religion existed all through eternity and will ever exist, and this Religion is expressing itself in various countries, in various ways.” What, then, about the argument that promised to accommodate even twenty million or more sects in the world, even if this acceptance of plurality was only based on the acknowledgement of a multitude of external forms of religion? The above quote ends with the following sentence: “Therefore we must respect all religions and we must try to accept them all as far as we can.” The respect for other religions was, therefore, conditional. It depended on phrases like “so far as the externals of it go” and “as far as we can”.
The refrain of not judging others and not being contemptuous towards other faiths occurs regularly within the Vivekananda corpus. It is also always invariably accompanied by the argument that differences are only of a degree and that there are people who are not as developed as “we” are. Differences and variations were only the “externals”, they were part of the phenomenal world. Invoking biological and naturalistic metaphors, Vivekananda argues that Nature always represents unity in variety, that “...through all these variations of the phenomenal runs the Infinite, the Unchangeable, the Absolute Unity”. What was true of Nature is also true for humans: “...the microcosm is but a miniature repetition of the macrocosm.” This is the reason, affirms Vivekananda, why no man’s faith ought to be disturbed. While this too sounds utterly reasonable, it also is part of the same trajectory where other faiths are limited and inadequate and require getting “hold of a man where he stands and giving him a push upwards”. Oneness, Absolute Unity and the necessary push upwards were possible, though, only if a set of preconditions were met and unambiguously affirmed.
Vivekananda on casteism
If India’s past had to become its future, especially if this past had anything to do with the ‘centre’ or ‘core’ of Hindu India’s life, namely religion, the question of caste had to be confronted. Another pillar on which Vivekananda’s mystique rests is his views on caste, especially his strong and vocal criticism of Brahmins and of untouchability. But even the criticism is not always categorical. For instance, he speaks of the Brahmins being good and moral, holding no property, but beset with one weakness. This was their fondness for power. They perceive themselves as “twice-born”, the sons of God, and view themselves as above all law and punishment. If his views on the Brahmins, at first sight, are ambiguous, even more perplexing are his pronouncements on the lower castes; he often calls them lower classes, thus, combining the ideas of caste and class.
The operative words and phrases here are “crystallised”, “after doing its service”, and “lost social individuality”, rather than “stench” and “removed”. A close reading of Vivekananda helps explain the meaning of these words and phrases, but also encourages a search for clues regarding the emerging contours of the unified version of “our religion”. To begin with, Vivekananda’s explanation of the idea of caste and its tried and tested virtues:
“In Sanskrit, Jati ie, species,—now this is the first idea of creation. ‘I am One, I become many’ (various Vedas). Unity is before creation, diversity is creation. Now if this diversity stops, creation will be destroyed. So long as any species is vigorous and active it must throw-out varieties. When it ceases or is stopped from breeding varieties, it dies. Now the original idea of Jati was this freedom of the individual to express his nature, his Prakriti, his Jati, his caste, and so it remained for thousands of years. Not even in the latest books is inter-dining prohibited; nor in any of the older books is intermarriage forbidden. Then what was the cause of India’s downfall?—the giving up of this idea of caste.”
“The present caste is not the real Jati, but a hindrance to its progress. It really has prevented the free action of Jati, ie, caste or variation. Any crystallised custom or privilege or hereditary class in any shape really prevents caste (Jati) from having its full sway, and whenever any nation ceases to produce this immense variety, it must die. Therefore what I have to tell you, my countrymen, is this: That India fell because you prevented and abolished caste. Every frozen aristocracy or privileged class is a blow to caste and is not—caste. Let Jati have its sway; break down every barrier in the way of caste and we shall rise.”
Photo by Advaita Ashram
In practical terms, caste designated individuals to perform certain actions according to their natures, their prakriti. As long as they continued to perform those without locating their actions or varna-prescribed vocation in custom, privilege or heredity, caste functioned smoothly. So, the cobbler, the peasant and the sweeper, despite an education, will continue to do their jobs and do them even better as long as they got the sympathy of the upper castes. This, in sum, is Vivekananda’s argument till now.
Once the supremacy and the primacy of the Aryan race were established, he could now readily pronounce Brahminhood as “the great ideal of India”. It was true that the degradation of Brahminhood and Kshatriyahood was prophesied in the Puranas; in the Kaliyuga, they claimed, there would only be non-Brahmins. Vivekananda regrets that this was becoming increasingly true, though a few Brahmins remained, and did so only in India. Any vision of bringing about order to the diversity of races and languages, then, can only be brought about by a superior culture. The Aryans, Vivekananda asserts, provided such a culture and this culture expressed itself through the caste system: “It put, theoretically at least, the whole of India under the guidance—not of wealth, nor of the sword—but of intellect—intellect chastened and controlled by spirituality. The leading caste in India is the highest Aryans—the Brahmans.”
India’s ancestors had the Brahmins as their racial ideal. Vivekananda describes this ideal in terms of representing renunciation and spirituality. If a country were to be governed by men of such selflessness and spiritual excellence, no police, laws or even government would be needed in any way. Following this Platonist ideal, he quotes the Mahabharata to suggest that in the Satyayuga, there were only Brahmins. Their eventual degeneration led to proliferation of other castes. It was a cycle and there would come a day when everyone would return to these Brahminical origins. The law of the ancestors has to be obeyed: all races and castes must aspire to become Brahmins and attain the Brahminical ideal. It was a law not only for Hindus and Indians but for the entire world: to attain the brahminical ideal of non-resistance, calmness, steadiness, worshipfulness, purity and introspection. Cursing and vilifying the Brahmins are futile and fruitless, since bringing down what is already up is against the dictates of the Vedantic religion. Neither the Brahmin nor caste as an institution ought to be condemned or be subjected to reform.
“I have seen castes in almost every country in the world, but nowhere is their plan and purpose so glorious as here. If caste is thus unavoidable, I would rather have a caste of purity and culture and self-sacrifice, than a caste of dollars. Therefore utter no words of condemnation. Close your lips and let your hearts open.”
The Brahminical ideal of purity, culture and self-sacrifice was, at once, the caste ideal, the race ideal and the national ideal. Whenever Vivekananda condemns caste, he has in mind the economic and social idea of class privilege and exclusivity. Questions of power and its arbitrary use by the upper castes are relegated to the whimsical and naive belief that all human beings will unquestioningly accept the Brahmin ideal as the highest that Hinduism’s ancestors in India and Vedantic religion could offer. His fondness for caste, however, is total and not entirely innocent. Neither can it be supported by arguing that in glorifying the Brahmins and the caste, Vivekananda was only speaking of an ideal of spirituality and renunciation.
Jyotirmaya Sharma’s reading of Vivekananda is partial and incomplete (Dharma for the State?, Jan 21). There are a number of links he has left out in his eagerness to poke flaws in his teachings. Firstly, it’s puzzling why Sharma thinks Swamiji saw Christianity and Islam as ‘sects’, being someone who said, “I think and dream of an India with an Islamic body and Vedantic soul.” Secondly, Sharma should know that in Indology, ‘dharma’ is not religion but ‘conduct’, one determined by behaviour and nothing else. Sharma has really tried to enter a zone unknown to him, he is neither an expert on it nor passionate about it.
Nirmalya Mukherjee, Calcutta
Sri Ramakrishna had said: “The pundits are like vultures; their minds soar high, but their sights are focused on charnel pits looking for rotten carcasses”. Sharma has constructed a false theory by quoting out of context, distorting meanings and coming up with bizarre interpretations of innocuous statements. Swamiji described Islam and Christianity as sects not derisively, but to distinguish the external practices of a faith from true religion, which he said was a manifestation of divinity. He also believed that all faiths were valid paths that led to the same transcendental reality. Sri Ramakrishna had come to the same realisation. Unlike many teachers, Vivekananda is easy to understand. By distorting his message, Sharma is looking to serve a political purpose.
Devashis Mukherjee, Gurgaon
We either create impossibly high pedestals for our heroes, or horribly vilify our adversaries. Moreover, we love to hate people who try to show our icons as mere mortals, with all too human indiscretions. It has happened with recent books on Gandhi, and it will now happen to Jyotirmaya.
Meraj Uddin Khan, Lucknow
Funnily, the subtitle under the photo of the book cover reads ‘Cosmic Love and Human Empathy’, yet the photo clearly shows it to be ‘Cosmic Love and Human Apathy’! Sabotage by the swami’s right-wing fan?
Ajit Hegde, Bangalore
Sharma says Vivekananda was casteist. Wrong. In his lecture ‘The Future of India’, published in Lectures from Colombo to Almora, he says: “The days of exclusive privileges and exclusive claims are gone, gone forever from the soil of India.... The solution is not by bringing down the higher caste, but by raising the lower up to the level of the higher.”
Sharmila Lal, Delhi
Vivekananda talked about Brahminhood and Shudrahood as qualities within the self, not as Jyotirmaya Sharma claims to understand it.
Aditya Raghavan, Bangalore
It’ll only be a matter of time before Jyotirmaya is offered a position in the divinity or political science department of a US university. As a professor in the US told me, the modern academic is all about strategy and working towards where the lobbies are the strongest in the media and in terms of funding. JS is on his way, with a one-way ticket to US universities.
“Those to whom religion is a trade are forced to become narrow and mischievous by their introduction into religion the competitive, fighting and selfish methods of the world.” So said Swamiji in a letter to Dharmapala from the US in 1894.
Subrah Katakam, Chennai
Anyone who has depth in reading will realise that Vivekananda was indeed a Hindu supremacist and casteist, whose teachings had little resemblance to the teaching of greats like Ramakrishna Paramhansa. He upheld the Manusmriti, which truly great Hindu philosophers never championed.
The article is simply atrocious, and a classic example of a pea-brained person trying to assess a great personality.
Vaibhav Srivastava, Calcutta
A majority of Islamic nations won’t allow a Hindu temple; those which do demolish them at a whim. Put that in the context of a Hindu majority country in which a great Hindu philosopher gets a bad name for calling Islam a ‘sect’!
Vikram Rathore, New York
Jyotirmaya Sharma reveals himself to be a talentless hack whose only claim to fame are his outrageous claims.
I have a serious problem with Jyotirmaya Sharma and not because I think he belongs to this or that side of the ideological spectrum. I am a student of philosophy and strongly believe he has set himself a task bigger than he’s capable of accomplishing. Does he even know the epistemology behind the various words/phrases of different philosophers-scholars? He seems to transpose the sociological definitions of different words to interpret Vivekananda’s teachings. Certainly an intellectual understanding of the sayings of a monk or mystic is shallow without knowing what metaphysics, mysticism, philosophy and religious experience is like. The very fact that Sharma accepts Ramakrishna and rejects Vivekananda makes his scholarship suspect.
Viswanath V., Kurnool, AP
The author should be commended for his painstaking and scholarly work as well as the courage to write such a book in the current Indian environment. Instead of the irrational attacks, let’s see if anybody can provide reasoned evidence that any of Vivekananda’s quotes have been misrepresented.
H.M. Siddhanti, Richmond
Despite all the dissent and criticism, Swami Vivekananda will remain an icon for moderate Hindus.
G. Anuplal, Bangalore
Vivekananda was part of a 19th-century reform movement that focused on monism and the context of the time. And that is a crime in the eyes of 21st century political scientists like Jyotirmaya Sharma!
Priya Madhavan, Rochester
Men like Sharma are intellectual terrorists who cause immeasurable damage to a people’s culture by killing its soul.
Shyam Sarvodey, Mysore
Sharma should read Swami Saradananda’s The Great Master where he discusses the Master’s Islamic sadhana. He quotes Ramakrishna as saying that in the absence of unity at the Vedantic level, there is little in common between Hindus and Muslims. Where then is the contradiction between him and Vivekananda?
Rakhal Ghosh, Philadelphia
To me Jyotirmaya is as serious as Banta Singh or Santa Singh!
Mahesh Babbar, Delhi
It’s the chronic Indian habit of sentimentalising our past and deifying figures from the past that is to blame for the misinterpretation of Swami Vivekananda. We are blind to the factual realities of such personages. And who wants to hear his gods criticised? I thank Jyotirmaya Sharma (Dharma for the State?, Jan 21) for providing a fresh perspective on the Swami in his book excerpted by Outlook.
Sarah Hafeez, Calcutta
Subverting anything that brings solace to some and does not harm others—in Jyotirmaya Sharma’s case, the great work of Swami Vivekananda—seems futile, unless done as an academic exercise, in which case it should be published in an academic journal, and not a popular format like this.
Dr Shyamala Vatsa, on e-mail
In the excerpt from his book on Swami Vivekananda (Dharma for the State, Jan 21), Jyotirmaya Sharma says that the vast majority of people who believe Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa is a catholic Hindu seer are wrong; that he really wasn’t so broad-minded after all; and that it is Swami Vivekananda’s distortion that gives his guru universal appeal. Sharma then goes into long passages which do not adva–nce his claim but are bluntly dismissive of Swami Vivekananda for calling Christianity, Islam and other religions sects under a universal religion called Vedanta. Sharma also has some aversion to the use of the terms ‘Sanatana Dharma’, ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Vedanta’. Let me point out that Swami Vivekananda seldom used the term ‘Sanatana Dharma’, often used the term ‘Hindu/Hinduism’ and even more often used the non-equivalent term ‘Vedanta’. When he says all sects are within Vedanta, he doesn’t mean that Christianity, Islam etc are within Hinduism; he means they are within the universal religion which also subsumes what is commonly called Hinduism, with its many sects such as Vaishnavism etc. If anyone says the author is indulging himself by writing shoddy, meandering passages glued together by fuzzy logic under a sensational headline, he would not be off-target.
Swami Sampurnananda, Thiruvananthapuram
Had Sharma only understood the true meaning and spirit of Swamiji’s speeches, he would not have ventured to write his 300-page book.
Anupam Sarkar, on e-mail
You are too bigoted and too thick to grasp Vivekanad's message.
"Today we see this theme pervading Praveen Togadia's tirades against Christianity and Islam, although Togadia's speeches are much more despicable and hateful than Vivekananda's writings."
I am not sure how this statement qualifies as a praise. But then I am a simpleton. WHat do I know?
>> Here I reproduce them
Repeating your stupid, hate filled statements don't make them intelligent or benign.
Only hate-crazed morons would consider my earlier posts discussing Jyotirmaya Sharma's article to be derogatory to Vivekananda. Here I reproduce them:
(1) Liberal and progressive Muslims have for a long time been critical of Maulana Maududi for his supremacist and exclusivist views. Now Jyotirmaya Sharma asserts that Swami Vivekananda was a supremacist and an exclusivist too. Vivekananda saw Hinduism to be the universal religion but was willing to grant "sect" status to Christianity and Islam. Today we see this theme pervading Praveen Togadia's tirades against Christianity and Islam, although Togadia's speeches are much more despicable and hateful than Vivekananda's writings. An egalitarian approach seeing religions as being co-equal has been adopted only by a few enlightened religious leaders. However Vivekanada will always be held in high regard for his erudite and accessible Vedantic elucidations.
(2) >> Only morons conclude that Vedantic unity of religions makes him a Hindu supremacist. ((DC).
Mr. Sharma says that Vivekananda "considered only Hinduism to be worthy of the epithet ‘religion’ and thought of Islam and Christianity to be merely sects." That may qualify him as a supremacist, don't you think?
Both posts should be seen in the context of the discussion of Sharma's article and my response to another poster. Only the most malicious smearer would cite them to show me as detracting from Vivekananda's greatness considering the fact that I have written several times praising him.
"nterestingly, the resident jehadi himself had compared Vivekananda to Maududi and Togadia"
I am sure you do not expect logic or consistency from Anwaar. He rarely thinks thro' any issue and simply repeats talking points.
That aside, the concern of a communist like Panikkar over Vivekananda is very touching-given the way his party had trashed him over the years. It is only RSS that had made him and people like him see the light.
For that, RSS deserves great kudos.
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