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Hinduism Share This Page
Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part LI
by Dr. Jaipal Singh Bookmark and Share

Papam [Sin]

Continued from Part L

In Hinduism, Papam or Paap is a bad or evil action or deed in common parlance, which is done against another human being or society, or any other living creature and even God thereby violating universal eternal laws. Naturally, the opposite of Paap is recognized as Punya (virtue) which by definition is the quality of being morally good and upright, being engaged in acts and deeds that are for the welfare and good of other living beings. Paap or sin is a significant and dominant concept in nearly all contemporary religions: In Hinduism, sin is the outcome of all desire-ridden actions and evil doings that have been committed in violation of Dharma or righteous duty while in Abrahamic religions actions done against the will of God or Allah fall in the category of sin. For illustration, if a Hindu does not worship but is righteous in actions, he is not considered sinner but in Islam the person not paying obeisance to Allah would be considered a sinner.

The Hindu scriptures such as Vedas, Upanishads and Srimad Bhagavad Gita use the word Papam from which Paap is derived with a literal meaning “sin”. Similarly, the opposite word in scriptures is Punyam from which Punya is derived with a loose literal sense of virtue or good. According to scriptures, both Paap and Punya are the twin products of Karma, as a direct consequence of indulging in Dharma and Adharma, which ultimately determine the destiny of living creatures in the world in the present and ensuing life. Paap and Punya often have different connotations and perceptions in different cultures and religions depending upon their reference and context. For instance, Hinduism has professed ‘Ahimsa Parmo Dharma’ (Non-violence is ultimate righteous duty) and killing any creature a sin since ancient age while Islam treats animal sacrifice as a sacred offering to seek God’s pleasure and reward.

Legends of Sin and Virtue

Origin of life on earth has a paradoxical contrast between the Hinduism and Abrahamic religions as the former hinges upon the virtuous conduct of the primordial “man and woman” while the latter on sinful part of it. According to the Christian belief, and Islam too has similar concept with little variation, the life on earth is the consequent of the Original Sin, or Ancestral Sin. According to this concept, the humanity has existed since the sinful fall of man, stemming from Adam and Eve's misdemeanour in Eden, where the first man and woman, namely Adam and Eve, committed the sin of disobedience to God in consuming the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Thus, expelled from the Eden, Adam and Eve became the progenitor of human species on earth. Accordingly, in Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Judaism, sin is an act that goes against the wishes of God thereby depriving people with the grace of God and true happiness. Islam goes a step further to define sin and sinner; those who are not faithful to Allah (God), commit kufr (sin) and are kafirs (sinners) liable to severe punishment including death.

No such concept of original sin is found in Hindu mythology; instead, going by the Hindu mythology, earth has gone through many cycles of total destruction and creation in the past. The current creation of living beings on earth started after a great deluge hundreds of thousand years ago by King Swayambhu Manu (also Shraddhadeva in some versions) and his wife Shatrupa (also known as Shraddha), and the legend is associated with Lord Vishnu’s Matsyavatara well documented in Matsya Purana. According to this theory, Vishnu appeared as a small fish Shaphari while the king washed his hands in the river down the Malaya Mountains and asked him to save him. The king initially saved him in a water jar but the fish soon had a magnanimous growth and was soon deposited in a well, then a tank and finally to ocean. At this stage, the fish revealed its true identity informing the king about the imminent an all-destructive great deluge in near future.

Following his instructions, the king built a huge boat that housed his family, seven sages, different types of seeds and animals to repopulate the earth. At the time of deluge, Vishnu appeared as the horned fish with Shesha as a rope; the king fastened the boat to the horn of the fish, which safely sailed through deluge and perched the boat on the top of the Malaya Mountains. When the waters receded to oceans and seas after deluge subsided, Manu's family and the seven sages repopulated the earth with human, animal and plant life. Manu was chosen to become progenitor of the human race by God because he was a man of great wisdom and virtue and the human race was named after him as Manavas. Thus, mythological prognosis of human race revolves around virtue in Hinduism while original sin is quoted as this basis in Abrahamic religions.

Papam in Hindu Scriptures

Papam finds numerous references in Hindu scriptures in the context of sin and sinful acts as also possible remedies thereagainst. Scriptures define divine and demoniac attributes which are associated with virtue and sin, respectively. The sin and virtue form the core components to determine ethics and morality and thereby regularity and order in the Sanatana Dharma since ancient age. For the sinful acts of people, ego and selfishness in combination of the impurities like delusion and attachments are responsible and sufferers are both the sinner and victim. Upanishads, more particularly Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanishads, consider human ego and selfish desires responsible for human sufferings such as rebirth, mortality, transience, sinful thinking and sinful acts. With the deluded sensory organs, the mind fails to discern virtue, the eyes fail to distinguish right and wrong, the speech is full of falsehood, and ears can’t discern truth, and so on.

The Garuda Purana deals with different kinds of sins and their consequences as well. It describes at length how after committing sins, the sinners suffer in this world as well as in the domain of Yama with torments of hell. As no one has actually seen what happens afterlife, the purpose of listing out various punishments commensurate with the sins appear to inculcate fear in the minds of people so that they pursue virtuous course of life and stay away from sins. According to this Purana, People commit sins when they indulge in evil conduct and deeds due to selfish desires, greed, lust, delusion, pride and unrighteousness. The commensurate punishments in the material world could be disease, deformities in the body, disorders of body and mind, loss of vitality, breathing problems, and painful death etc. Following the death, they are punished in hell too in the world of Yama with various types of punishments commensurate with the sin committed. Numerous hells have been visualized of which 21 are considered the most dreaded ones.

The Garuda Purana lists out 17 different kinds of sins which are briefly as follows: Killing a priest, living through inebriated state, breaking holy vows and promises, killing foetus and destroying an embryo; killing a woman including pregnant one or disrobing her modesty of a woman; betrayal of trust and poisoning someone to kill; looking down upon places of holy pilgrimages and scriptures, deceiving good people; lack compassion and torment the weak; deliberate refusal of food and water to guest or someone in dire need; snatching away someone’s livelihood for own selfish interest; buying and selling of meat and liquor, and consorting with someone other than own spouse; killing animals for personal gratification; being lustful towards women of the noble class and own family, slandering the virtue of innocent; giving false witness, bad deed to trouble innocent; causing harm and destruction to Mother Nature (cutting trees, burning forest, etc.); destroying chastity of widows or soliciting a man beyond the boundaries of marriage; disregarding forefathers, neglecting and assaulting the spouse and children; blasphemy; malign and commit transgression with woman under the guise of giving refuge; and throwing their bodily refuse in the holy fire, water, garden or cowshed. All such sinners are tormented in commensurate hells after death.

Another Dharmashastra Manu Smriti placed a lot of emphasis upon Dharma. By sticking to one's righteous duties as per the prescribed code of conduct one could avoid sin and earn the merit to achieve liberation. Manu lists out different kinds of sins and sinners who undergo different kinds of punishments in this world and in the Yama’s domain. He even suggests that the sins of a person in the past life may manifest following his rebirth as various kinds of disabilities, deformities, diseases and sufferings. For instance, the murderer of a Brahmin suffers with pulmonary tuberculosis; the slayer of cow becomes hump-backed; one who violates spouse of own Guru or murders a virgin become leprous; person who steals grains suffers with indigestion; those who engage in illicit sex become eunuchs; one who insults Guru and teachers become epileptic; those who despise Vedas and other scriptures become jaundiced; and those who do not atone for their sin are born idiot, blind, deaf or dumb in next life – these are just a few illustrations..

Patanjali’s Yogsutra identifies egoism, ignorance, desires, lust, aversion and attachments as the impurities of minds and source of suffering, modifications and afflictions. The same attributes are narrated as demoniac properties in the Bhagavad Gita, which lead to sinful behaviour of the person. Yogsutra recommends that these impurities can be removed through the eightfold practice of Yoga, of which Yamas and Niyamas are particularly useful in purifying the body and mind. Their regular practice enhances the sattva guna whereby the mind starts perceiving things in right spirit and perspective. Similarly, scriptures recommend various purifiers that help in cleansing bad karma and sin. Some of these including austerity, restraints of the body, sacred rituals, smearing of consecrated materials such as turmeric, roli and cow dung, sacrificial food, fire, water, wind and Sun are considered good purifiers.

Bhagavadgita and Papam

In Chapter 16 of this scripture, good and bad attributes have been described as divine and demoniac properties along with their impact and consequences to the person. Sin is, as it appears, a secondary attribute as an outcome of demoniac properties in man such as desire, egoism, arrogance, hypocrisy, lust and ignorance. The following verse of the Bhagavad Gita identifies desire under the influence the Gunas as the principal sinner. Desire-ridden actions or seeking fruits of own actions often lead to sinful karma and bondage of soul.

Shri bhagavan uvacha:
Kama esha krodha esha rajo-guna-samudbhavah,
Mahashano maha-papma viddhyenam iha vairinam


(Shree Bhagwan said: It is lust alone, which is born of contact with the mode of passion, and later transformed into anger. Know this as the most sinful, all-devouring enemy in the world.) (BG: Chapter 3, Verse 37)

Shree Krishna recognized the play of the Gunas in inducing demonic properties which leads to sinful actions but the person can escape from it by offering all actions to God by shunning desire for the fruit. The Vedas use the word Kam, or lust, not only for sexual desires but also for all other desires for material enjoyment based on the bodily concept of the self. Thus, lust shows itself in many ways—the urge for money, physical cravings, the drive for power, craving for self-reputation, etc. The predominance of Rajas and Tamas Gunas define the demonic nature (asura pravritti), which is characterized with vanity, arrogance, pride, anger, lust and so on; whereby people become caught in the web of delusion and commit sinful deeds. Lust, anger and greed are said to be the triple gates of hell, which one must renounce by engaging in righteous actions.

Api ched asi papebhyah sarvebhyah papa-krit-tamah,
Sarvam jnana-plavenaiva vrijinam santarishyas.


(Even those who are considered the most immoral of all sinners can cross over this ocean of material existence by seating themselves in the boat of divine knowledge.) (BG: Chapter 4, Verse 36)

After describing sin (Papam) and as the discourse advanced, Shree Krishna explained the ways and means to avoid sin and its possible adverse consequences. Material existence is akin to a vast ocean wherein a soul is subjected to birth, diseases and miseries, old age and death – only to born again in bondage of the karmic cycle. The alleged miseries are tripartite: due to own body and mind (Adiatmik); due to other living beings (Adibhautik); and consequent to climatic and environmental conditions (Adidaivik). Thus in a state of material bondage, soul may be elevated to the celestial abode, dropped down to hellish planes, and back to earthly realm, depending upon its karmas of rightful or sinful deeds. From this vicious cycle, the divine knowledge (Jnan Yoga) can rescue it from the harshness of material bondage. This endorsement of Jnan Yoga has been done by Upanishads too; for instance, the Katha Upanishad glorifies Jnan as follows:

Vijnanasarathiryastu manah pragrahavan narah,
So ’dhvanah paramapnoti tadvishnoh paramam pada.


(Illumine your intellect with divine knowledge; then with the illumined intellect, control the unruly mind, to cross over the material ocean and reach the divine realm.) (Katha Upanishad 1.3.9)

In yet another verse, the power of divine knowledge to overcome Maya driven material impurities has been highlighted as under:

Yathaidhansi samiddho ’gnir bhasma-sat kurute ’rjuna,
Jnanagnih sarva-karmanmi bhasma-sat kurute tatha.


(As a kindled fire reduces wood to ashes, O Arjun, so does the fire of knowledge burn to ashes all reactions from material activities.) (BG: Chapter 4, Verse 3)

The aforesaid analogy fits well because even a spark of fire has the potential to burn down a huge heap of waste and useful material. Our karmas are nothing but heaps of sinful and righteous deeds accumulated over the infinite lifetimes. The true knowledge has potential to exhaust all accumulated karmas in this lifetime itself paving way for liberation. True knowledge is not only the realization of the nature and qualities of Brahman and Self, relationship of the two and transitory nature of material world but also finetuning Self (soul) accordingly in mind, thoughts and deeds.

Shree Krishna insists on shunning of desires, relinquishing all worldly attachments and to engage in righteous duties with equanimous mind to stay away from sin in this material world, which functions under the tight grip of Maya and associated temptations.

Brahmanyadhaya karmani sangam tyaktva karoti yah,
Lipyate na sa papena padma-patram ivambhasa.


(Those who dedicate their actions to God, abandoning all attachment, remain untouched by sin, just as a lotus leaf is untouched by water.) (BG: Chapter 5, Verse 10)

Indian religions particularly Hinduism and Buddhism frequently give analogies of the lotus flower. The lotus is used as a venerable epithet while describing organs of God’s divine manifested body in native languages. For instance, charan-kamal is lotus-like feet, kamalekshana is lotus-like eyes, and kar-kamal is “lotus-like hands. Another name for Kamal (lotus) is Pankaj which signifies its origin from the mud. The lotus grows in the mud but its stalk rises above the water and blossoms under the Sun. The essence of lotus analogy is that the way it remains untouched and unaffected by the impurities of water, the same way a person should conduct in the material world with the light of knowledge (Jnan) and stay away from sinful deeds.

True knowledge is one path that many karmayogis pursue but for many it could be quite difficult and demanding. So Shree Krishna recommended an easier course too to achieve same goal with minimum stress and hardship. This path is seekers total indulgence in Bhakti Yoga i.e. devotion to God. Yogis who indulge in devotion of God with sampurna samarpan (complete dedication) can easily stay away from sin. Even the most depraved sinners can get rid of consequences of past sins by dedicating self to true devotion of God.

Api chet su-duracharo bhajate mam ananya-bhak,
Sadhur eva sa mantavyah samyag vyavasito hi sah.


(Even if the vilest sinners worship Me with exclusive devotion, they are to be considered righteous, for they have made the proper resolve.) (BG: Chapter 9, Verse 30)

The truthful and honest devotion to God is so strong and overpowering that it can reform even the vilest sinner. In Hindu scriptures, there are several legends and tales of such reforms but two classical examples of Sage Valmiki and Ajamil are worth mentioning here.

Valmiki: The legend of Valmiki exists in the Nagara Khanda of Skanda Purana and some other places. According to these descriptions, Valmiki though hailed from a Brahmin family but turned a dreaded robber and thief to support his family. Over a period, his accumulated sin became so overbearing that he was unable to pronounce even holy name of God. However, during the course of this life, he had a brief encounter with the seven sages when he tried to rob them as well. The sages felt pity on him and showed him way to reform with devotion to Lord Rama. He was, however, unable to enunciate syllables “Ra..Ma,” so sages advised him to chant the reverse “Ma Ra”. This chant suo moto created the sound of “Rama…” The power of devotion reformed a sinful soul to a devoted and legendary sage over a time, who wrote the famous epic “Ramayana” based on Lord Rama’s life.

Ajamil: He was a Brahmin with Vedic learning, who lived with a beautiful and devoted wife. One day he happened to see a drunken man and a prostitute engage in sexual act in the fields. He was so bewildered and infatuated with the woman that he brought her to his home initially posing as maid servant, and later became so entangled and obsessed with the woman that he even abandoned his wife and children to live with her. Consequently, he lost his brahmanic values and virtues due to his sinful life and had even children with this illicit relationship. When he was about to breath last, he called his son named “Narayana” which is another name of God. The very effect of this unintentional address of the holy name was that he was instantly granted Moksha by God cleansing him off his lifetime’s sins.

Such is the power of Bhakti (devotion), that even the vilest sinners can get riddance of their sins with pure and truthful worship of God. This truth is also narrated in the Bhagavad Gita as under:

Om ityekaksharam brahma vyaharan mmm anusmaran,
Yah prayati tyajan deham sa yati paramam gatim.


(One who departs from the body while remembering me, the Supreme Personality, and chanting the syllable Om, will attain the supreme goal.) (BG: Chapter 8, Verse 13)

Those who had Karma of the highest order in the material life are able to do so to attain Moksha but ones who has bad Karma and a life full of sins too can achieve this by remembering God with complete surrender and devotion. At another place in Gita, Shree Krishna said, “To those whose minds are always united with me in devotion, I give the divine knowledge by which they may easily attain me.” Attaining God means attaining the supreme bliss free from all sins and its consequences.

Sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam sharanam vraja,
Aham tvam sarva-papebhyo mokshayishyami ma shuchah.


(Abandon all varieties of dharmas and simply surrender unto me alone. I shall liberate you from all sinful reactions; do not fear.) (BG: Chapter 18, Verse 66)

During His discourse to deluded Prince Arjuna in Kurushetra, Shree Krishna had earlier asked Arjuna to do two things in essence i.e. engage his body in fulfilling his material duty as a Kshatriya warrior and engage his mind in devotion, which is essentially the principle of karmayoga. But in the aforesaid verse, Shree Krishna says that there is no need to fulfil varieties of duties and one could simply surrender to God. This is the principle of karmasanyasa. To the doubt if renouncing of material Dharmas, one would not incur sin, the answer is there is no need to fear, He (god) will absolve from sins and liberate him from material existence.

Prima facie, it might appear confusing but to comprehend this, one needs to truly understand two sides of Dharma i.e. material Dharma and spiritual Dharma. When we identify ourselves as the body, Dharma is determined in accordance with our designations, obligations, duties, and functions. Therefore, attending to parents, fulfilling obligations to society, nation, etc. are all part of material Dharma. However, in our identity as soul, we are not bound by material bonds and obligated only to God through the spiritual Dharma. This position has been well explained in the Bhagavad Purana which says that those who do not surrender to God, have five debts to perform; to the celestial gods, to the sages, to the ancestors, to other humans, and to other living beings. But those who surrender to God are automatically released from all these debts, just as by watering the roots of a tree, all its branches, twigs, leaves, flowers, and fruit get watered. Hence, no sin is incurred by renouncing material Dharma, provided one is truely placed in spiritual Dharma.

Sin Typology and Atonement

The Hindu Dharmashastras have dealt with the philosophy of Papam (sin), its varieties, consequences and redemption at length. Sin is a dominant theme of almost all religions; while in Abrahamic religions it is linked with the violation of God’s dictum or laws, it is treated as an impurity of the desire-ridden actions, evil deeds, karma, Maya and dereliction of Dharma in Hinduism. Sin constitutes a drag and evil on Hindu ethics and morality and its removal is considered essential for the order and regularity in the world. As already mentioned earlier, the consequences of sin include various sicknesses and diseases, anxiety, imperfections, evil intentions and qualities, immorality, mental afflictions, demonic nature, sorrow, suffering, and so on; but it can be redressed or neutralized through various Yogas and transformative practices.

The scriptures use yet another term “Pataka” to denote sin, which is derived from Sanskrit root word pat, means “to fall”. Pataka becomes the cause of the person’s downfall; for instance, if a woman indulges in the sin of adultery, she becomes a patita (fallen one). On the consideration of the gravity of sin, Patakas are classified in three categories of Mahapataka, Upapataka and Prakirnapataka. The Mahapatakas are the gravest sins that cannot be neutralized without utmost sufferings as dire consequences. It may not be comprehensive yet five such Mahapatakas or mortal sins are snatching or stealing away wealth that belongs to someone else, consuming intoxicating drinks, abusing Guru or teacher, killing a Brahmana, and association with the sinners who commit these sins (Chandogya Upanishad: 5:10.9). The Upapatakas are relatively minor offences but grave enough for punishment and atonement. These sins include selling intoxicating drinks, giving false witness, making false claims, blasphemy and incurring displeasure of Guru, violating celibacy, minor theft, and so on. The third category of Prakirnapatakas are minor offences committed due to ignorance and carelessness. The list is rather long but some such offences include killing other creatures including insects, adultery, cruelty to parents, reading forbidden Shastras, accepting gifts without performing austerities, and so on.

The Dharmashastras such as Manu Smriti and Garuda Purana have listed punishments against different kinds of sins that include corporeal as well as pecuniary punishments. In addition, depending upon the gravity of sin, the sinner might suffer in various ways in the hell and in the following birth. On earth, the authority to inflict punishment on sinners rests with the rulers. In the material world, Manusmriti accorded the power of such punishments to the ruler or king; by and large the same practice is followed in the modern age too with relevant changes and amendments of the law books with revised definition and categorization of offenses and commensurate punishments as well. These powers have been assigned to rulers or king commensurate with their duty to protect the lives and property of all subjects while maintaining regularity and order in the society.

Punishment under human and godly laws is one way of redressing sinful acts, in addition there are several ways and means by which the sinner himself carries out reparation and atonement to neutralize sin incurred by him on realization. For instance, in Christianity there is regular method whereunder the sinner goes to church and confesses before the reverend father. In Hinduism, there is no such structured system and it is obligated to the sinner how he conducts before the God, society or own elders. Accordingly, sinner usually directly seeks forgiveness of God by confessing their sin; in other cases, he makes public confession or even goes to jury, high officials, minister, king, or any other respected public figure or elder to seek punishment/forgiveness. In Rigveda, the oldest and most revered scripture, there are numerous verses on repentance and forgiveness. Besides, in Vedic tradition there was a provision to neutralize sinful acts through Prayashchitta i.e. penance, atonement or expiation. The formal law books are not very firm and unanimous on the subject; in many cases, the person does it on own wisdom while in other situations the priests facilitate it with reference to expiatory remedies given in scriptures to deal with defects, misconduct, sinful behaviour, dereliction of duty, and so on.

Apart from the aforesaid tools of punishment and atonement, the impurities and sins of the body and mind of the sinners are also redressed through self-mortification, being truthful, fasting, self-control, amends, austere living, virtuous behaviour, non-violence, celibacy, meditation and practicing silence, and so on. For illustration, a rigorous self-mortification or penance generate tapah (intense heat) that removes impurities of the body and mind and add to medha (cerebral brilliance) and tejas (vigour). Similarly, exercising celibacy transforms the sexual energy into spiritual energy cleansing the body and mind. In Hinduism, various yogic practices, tapah and self-restraint have always been considered standard and reliable means to cleanse body and mind of the practitioner. Apart from this, recitation of prayers and mantras from scriptures, sacrificial rituals, regular yoga, pranayama and meditation, fasting, pilgrimage, bathing in sacred rivers like Ganges, seeking blessings of Guru and saints, inculcating virtues and charity, etc. are some other practices that people resort to wash their past sins as also to be virtuous in life.

Sin – A Novel Perspective

While Dharmashastras categorize different kinds of offences under verities of sins, the moral ethos of the contemporary society, and individual circumstances and perceptions too have their own reflections on ethics and morality, and consequent outlook towards sin and virtue. This aspect was best expressed and explained in a famous novel “Chitralekha” authored by Shri Bhagwati Charan Verma in 1934. The plot revolves around a courtesan, young feudal lord, an ascetic, king, another elite feudal lord, his daughter Yashodhara, and hermit and his two disciples on probation. The hermit runs an Ashram and one day both disciples pose him a question to define the “sin and sinner”. The thoughtful hermit ponders for a while and then decides to send both disciples to own erstwhile disciples, one was the young feudal lord and other an accomplished ascetic, to give them exposure of the material world for a year. Yashodhara had a crush on the young feudal lord and nurtured a desire to marry him; the feudal lord was in love with the beautiful and wise courtesan; the king sought intervention of the ascetic to persuade the courtesan to set free the feudal lord for marrying Yashodhara; though the ascetic succeeds in his venture but not without falling himself falls for courtesan’s beauty and graceful charm.

In a swift turn of events, the feudal lord relinquished his title, wealth and fortune in favour of the disciple Swetank attached to him to pave way of the latter’s matrimony with Yashodhara; by this act, the penniless feudal lord wins back the love and company of his beloved courtesan and the remorseful and guilt ridden ascetic returns back to his Ashram along with Vishaldev, the other disciple. The first disciple held high reverence to the sacrifice of the feudal lord for love and declared him a virtuous man and that the ascetic was a sinner by committing a grave sin of falling for the courtesan and violating Sanyasa Dharma. The other disciple was equally firm in his opinion about the ascetic being a great man and virtuous soul, while the feudal lord a sinner for his lavish living and lustful life. The hermit summarized: In this universe, there is nothing like sin or virtue; instead, we are all slaves of circumstances, our values and vision evolve accordingly, and so also our perceptions about sin and virtue. Accordingly, what is sin to one person’s eyes may turn out to be virtue for others; the reverse is also equally true. This of course is only yet another viewpoint without prejudice to universal ethics and morality as also the scope and application of scriptures and Dharmashastras on the subject in a religion that goes for tolerance and allows everyone to put forth his own perspective.

Continued to Part LII 
  

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19-Jul-2020
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