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Ch. 30: Eastern Mythology, Zoroaster, Hindu, Castes, Buddha

During the last fifty years new attention has been paid to the
systems of religion of the Eastern world, especially to that of
Zoroaster among the Persians, and that which is called Brahmanism
and the rival system known as Buddhism in the nations farther
east. Especial interest belongs to these inquiries for us,
because these religions are religions of the great Aryan race to
which we belong. The people among whom they were introduced all
used some dialect of the family of language to which our own
belongs. Even young readers will take an interest in such books
as Clarke's Great Religions and Johnson's Oriental Religions,
which are devoted to careful studies of them.

Our knowledge of the religion of the ancient Persians is
principally derived from the Zendavesta, or sacred books of that
people. Zoroaster was the founder of their religion, or rather
the reformer of the religion which preceded him. The time when he
lived is doubtful, but it is certain that his system became the
dominant religion of Western Asia from the time of Cyrus (550
B.C.) to the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great. Under
the Macedonian monarchy the doctrines of Zoroaster appear to have
been considerably corrupted by the introduction of foreign
opinions, but they afterwards recovered their ascendancy.

Zoroaster taught the existence of a supreme being, who created
two other mighty beings, and imparted to them so much of his own
nature as seemed good to him. Of these, Ormuzd (called by the
Greeks Oromasdes) remained faithful to his creator, and was
regarded as the source of all good, while Ahriman (Arimanes)
rebelled, and became the author of all evil upon the earth.
Ormuzd created man, and supplied him with all the materials of
happiness; but Ahriman marred this happiness by introducing evil
into the world, and creating savage beasts and poisonous reptiles
and plants. In consequence of this, evil and good are now
mingled together in every part of the world, and the followers of
good and evil the adherents of Ormuzd and Ahriman carry on
incessant war. But this state of things will not last forever.
The time will come when the adherents of Ormuzd shall everywhere
be victorious, and Ahriman and his followers be consigned to
darkness forever.

The religious rites of the ancient Persians were exceedingly
simple. They used neither temples, altars, nor statues, and
performed their sacrifices on the tops of mountains. They adored
fire, light, and the sun, as emblems of Ormuzd, the source of all
light and purity, but did not regard them as independent deities.
The religious rites and ceremonies were regulated by the priests,
who were called Magi. The learning of the Magi was connected
with astrology and enchantment, in which they were so celebrated
that their name was applied to all orders of magicians and

"As to the age of the books of the Zendavesta, and the period at
which Zoroaster lived, there is the greatest difference of
opinion. He is mentioned by Plato, who speaks of 'the magic (or
religious doctrines) of Zoroaster the Ormazdian.' As Plato
speaks of his religion as something established in the form of
Magism, or the system of the Medes in West Iran, which the Avesta
appears to have originated in Bactria, or East Iran, this already
carries the age of Zoroaster back to at least the sixth or
seventh century before Christ.

"Professor Whitney of New Haven places the epoch of Zoroaster at
'least B.C. 1000,' and adds that all attempts to reconstruct
Persian chronology or history prior to the reign of the first
Sassanid have been relinquished as futile. Dollinger thinks he
may have been 'somewhat later than Moses, perhaps about B.C.
1300,' but says 'it is impossible to fix precisely' when he
lived. Rawlinson merely remarks that Berosus places him anterior
to B.C. 2234. Haug is inclined to date the Gathas, the oldest
songs of the Avesta, as early as the time of Moses. Rapp, after
a thorough comparison of ancient writers, concludes that
Zoroaster lived B.C. 1200 or 1300. In this he agrees with
Duncker, who, as we have seen, decided upon the same date. It is
not far from the period given by the oldest Greek writer who
speaks of Zoroaster, Xanthus of Sardis, a contemporary of
Darius. It is the period given by Cephalion, a writer of the
second century, who takes it from three independent sources. We
have no sources now open to us which enable us to come nearer
than this to the time in which he lived.

"Nor is anything known with certainty of the place where he
lived, or the events of his life. Most modern writers suppose
that he resided in Bactria. Haug maintains that the language of
the Zend books is Bactrian. A highly mythological and fabulous
life of Zoroaster, translated by Anquetil du Perron, called the
Zartrisht-Namah, describes him as going to Iran in his thirtieth
year, spending twenty years in the desert, working miracles
during ten years, and giving lessons of philosophy in Babylon,
with Pythagoras as his pupil. All this is based on the theory
(now proved to be false) of his living in the time of Darius.
'The language of the Avesta,' says Max Muller, 'is so much more
primitive than the inscriptions of Darius, that many centuries
must have passed between the two periods represented by these two
strata of language. These inscriptions are in the Achaemenian
dialect, which is the Zend in a later stage of linguistic
J. Freeman Clarke - Ten Great Religions

Wordsworth thus alludes to the worship of the Persians:

" the Persian, zealous to reject
Altar and Image, and the inclusive walls
And roofs of temples built by human hands,
The loftiest heights ascending from their tops,
With myrtle-wreathed Tiara on his brows,
Presented sacrifice to Moon and Stars
And to the Winds and mother Elements,
And the whole circle of the Heavens, for him
A sensitive existence and a God."
Excursion, Book IV

In Childe Harold, Byron speaks thus of the Persian worship:

"Not gainly did the early Persian make
His altar the high places and the peak
Of earth o'ergazing mountains, and thus take
A fit and unwalled temple, there to seek
The Spirit, in whose honor shrines are weak,
Upreared of human hands. Come and compare
Columns and idol-dwellings, Goth or Greek,
With Nature's realms of worship, earth and air,
Nor fix on fond abodes to circumscribe thy prayer."
III., 91.

The religion of Zoroaster continued to flourish even after the
introduction of Christianity, and in the third century was the
dominant faith of the East, till the rise of the Mahometan power
and the conquest of Persia by the Arabs in the seventh century,
who compelled the greater number of the Persians to renounce
their ancient faith. Those who refused to abandon the religion
of their ancestors fled to the deserts of Kerman and to
Hindustan, where they still exist under the name of Parsees, a
name derived from Pars, the ancient name of Persia. The Arabs
call them Guebers, from an Arabic word signifying unbelievers.
At Bombay the Parsees are at this day a very active, intelligent,
and wealthy class. For purity of life, honesty, and conciliatory
manners, they are favorably distinguished. They have numerous
temples to Fire, which they adore as the symbol of the divinity.

The Persian religion makes the subject of the finest tale in
Moore's Lalla Rookh, the Fire Worshippers. The Gueber chief

"Yes! I am of that impious race,
Those slaves of Fire, that moan and even
Hail their creator's dwelling place
Among the living lights of heaven;
Yes! I am of that outcast crew
To lean and to vengeance true,
Who curse the hour your Arabs came
To desecrate our shrines of flame,
And swear before God's burning eye,
To break our country's chains or die."


The religion of the Hindus is professedly founded on the Vedas.
To these books of their scripture they attach the greatest
sanctity, and state that Brahma himself composed them at the
creation. But the present arrangement of the Vedas is attributed
to the sage Vyasa, about five thousand years ago.

The Vedas undoubtedly teach the belief of one supreme God. The
name of this deity is Brahma. His attributes are represented by
the three personified powers of CREATION, PRESERVATION, and
DESTRUCTION, which, under the respective names of Brahma, Vishnu,
and Siva, form the TRIMURTI or triad of principal Hindu gods. Of
the inferior gods the most important are, 1. Indra, the god of
heaven, of thunder, lightning, storm, and rain; 2. Agni, the god
of fire; 3. Yana, the god of the infernal regions; 4. Surya, the
god of the sun.

Brahma is the creator of the universe, and the source from which
all the individual deities have sprung, and into which all will
ultimately be absorbed. "As milk changes to curd, and water to
ice, so is Brahma variously transformed and diversified, without
aid of exterior means of any sort. The human soul, according to
the Vedas, is a portion of the supreme ruler, as a spark is of
the fire.

"BRAHMA, at first a word meaning prayer and devotion, becomes in
the laws of Manu the primal God, first-born of the creation, from
the self-existent being, in the form of a golden egg. He became
the creator of all things by the power of prayer. In the
struggle for ascendancy, which took place between the priests and
the warriors, Brahma naturally became the deity of the former.
But, meantime, as we have seen, the worship or Vishnu had been
extending itself in one region, and that of Siva in another.
Then took place those mysterious wars between the kings of the
Solar and Lunar races, of which the great epics contain all that
we know. And at the close of these wars a compromise was
apparently accepted, by which Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva were
united in one supreme God, as creator, preserver, and destroyer,
all in one.

It is almost certain that this Hindoo Triad was the result of an
ingenious and successful attempt, on the part of the Brahmans, to
unite all classes of worshippers in India against the Buddhists.
In this sense the Brahmans edited anew the Mahabharata, inserting
in that epic passages extolling Vishnu in the form of Krishna.
The Greek accounts of India which followed the invasion of
Alexander speak of the worship of Hercules as prevalent in the
East, and by Hercules they apparently mean the god Krishna. The
struggle between the Brahmans and Buddhists lasted during nine
centuries (from A.D. 500 to A.D. 1400), ending with the total
expulsion of Buddhism and the triumphant establishment of the
Triad as the worship of India.

"Before this Triad or Trimurti (of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva)
there seems to have been another, consisting of Agni, Indra, and
Surya. This may have given the hint of the second Triad, which
distributed among the three gods the attributes or Creation,
Destruction, and Renovation. Of these Brahma, the creator,
ceased soon to be popular, and the worship of Siva and Vishnu as
Krishna remain as the popular religion of India. . . ..

"But all the efforts of Brahmanism could not arrest the natural
development of the system. It passed on into polytheism and
idolatry. The worship of India for many centuries has been
divided into a multitude of sects. While the majority of the
Brahmans still profess to recognize the equal divinity of Brahma,
Vishnu, and Siva, the mass of the people worship Krishna, Rama,
the Singam, and many other gods and idols. There are Hindoo
Atheists, who revile the Vedas; there are the Kabirs, who are a
sort of Hindoo Quakers, and oppose all worship; the RAMANUJAS, an
ancient sect of Vishnu worshippers; the RAMAVATS, living in
monasteries; the PANTHIS, who oppose all austerities; the
MAHARAJAS, whose religion consists with great licentiousness.
Most of these are worshippers of Vishnu or of Siva, for Brahma-
worship has wholly disappeared." J. Freeman Clarke. TEN GREAT


Vishnu occupies the second place in the triad of the Hindus, and
is the personification of the preserving principle. To protect
the world in various epochs of danger, Vishnu descended to the
earth in different incarnations, or bodily forms, which descents
are called Avatars. They are very numerous, but ten are more
particularly specified. The first Avatar was as Matsya, the
Fish, under which form Vishnu preserved Manu, the ancestor of the
human race, during a universal deluge. The second Avatar was in
the form of a Tortoise, which form he assumed to support the
earth when the gods were churning the sea for the beverage of
immortality, Amrita.

We may omit the other Avatars, which were of the same general
character, that is, interpositions to protect the right or to
punish wrong-doers, and come to the ninth, which is the most
celebrated of the Avatars of Vishnu, in which he appeared in the
human form of Krishna, an invincible warrior, who by his exploits
relieved the earth from the tyrants who oppressed it.

Buddha is by the followers of the Brahmanical religion regarded
as a delusive incarnation of Vishnu, assumed by him in order to
induce the Asuras, opponents of the gods, to abandon the sacred
ordinances of the Vedas, by which means they lost their strength
and supremacy.

Kalki is the name of the TENTH Avatar, in which Vishnu will
appear at the end of the present age of the world to destroy all
vice and wickedness, and to restore mankind to virtue and purity.


Siva is the third person of the Hindu triad. He is the
personification of the destroying principle. Though the third
named, he is, in respect to the number of his worshippers and the
extension of his worship, before either of the others. In the
Puranas (the scriptures of the modern Hindu religion) no allusion
is made to the original power of this god as a destroyer; as that
power is not to be called into exercise till after the expiration
of twelve millions of years, or when the universe will come to an
end; and Mahadeva (another name for Siva) is rather the
representative of regeneration than of destruction.

The worshippers of Vishnu and Siva form two sects, each of which
proclaims the superiority of its favorite deity, denying the
claims of the other, and Brahma, the creator, having finished his
work, seems to be regarded as no longer active, and has now only
one temple in India, while Mahadeva and Vishnu have many. The
worshippers of Vishnu are generally distinguished by a greater
tenderness for life and consequent abstinence from animal food,
and a worship less cruel than that of the followers of Siva.


Whether the worshippers of Juggernaut are to be reckoned among
the followers of Vishnu or Siva, our authorities differ. The
temple stands near the shore, about three hundred miles southwest
of Calcutta. The idol is a carved block of wood, with a hideous
face, painted black, and a distended blood-red mouth. On
festival days the throne of the image is placed on a tower sixty
feet high, moving on wheels. Six long ropes are attached to the
tower, by which the people draw it along. The priests and their
attendants stand round the throne on the tower, and occasionally
turn to the worshippers with songs and gestures. While the tower
moves along numbers of the devout worshippers throw themselves on
the ground, in order to be crushed by the wheels, and the
multitude shout in approbation of the act, as a pleasing
sacrifice to the idol. Every year, particularly at two great
festivals in March and July, pilgrims flock in crowds to the
temple. Not less than seventy or eighty thousand people are said
to visit the place on these occasions, when all castes eat


The division of the Hindus into classes or castes, with fixed
occupations, existed from the earliest times. It is supposed by
some to have been founded upon conquest, the first three castes
being composed of a foreign race, who subdued the natives of the
country and reduced them to an inferior caste. Others trace it
to the fondness of perpetuating, by descent from father to son,
certain offices or occupations.

The Hindu tradition gives the following account of the origin of
the various castes. At the creation Brahma resolved to give the
earth inhabitants who should be direct emanations from his own
body. Accordingly from his mouth came forth the eldest born,
Brahma (the priest), to whom he confided the four Vedas; from his
right arm issued Shatriya (the warrior), and from his left, the
warrior's wife. His thighs produced Vaissyas, male and female
(agriculturists and traders), and lastly from his feet sprang
Sudras (mechanics and laborers).

The four sons of Brahma, so significantly brought into the world,
became the fathers of the human race, and heads of their
respective castes. They were commanded to regard the four Vedas
as containing all the rules of their faith, and all that was
necessary to guide them in their religious ceremonies. They were
also commanded to take rank in the order of their birth, the
Brahmans uppermost, as having sprung from the head of Brahma.

A strong line of demarcation is drawn between the first three
castes and the Sudras. The former are allowed to receive
instruction from the Vedas, which is not permitted to the Sudras.
The Brahmans possess the privilege of teaching the Vedas, and
were in former times in exclusive possession of all knowledge.
Though the sovereign of the country was chosen from the Shatriya
class, also called Rajputs, the Brahmans possessed the real
power, and were the royal counsellors, the judges and magistrates
of the country; their persons and property were inviolable; and
though they committed the greatest crimes, they could only be
banished from the kingdom. They were to be treated by sovereigns
with the greatest respect, for "a Brahman, whether learned or
ignorant, is a powerful divinity."

When the Brahman arrives at years of maturity it becomes his duty
to marry. He ought to be supported by the contributions of the
rich, and not to be obliged to gain his subsistence by any
laborious or productive occupation. But as all the Brahmans
could not he maintained by the working classes of the community,
it was found necessary to allow them to engage in productive

We need say little of the two intermediate classes, whose rank
and privileges may be readily inferred from their occupations.
The Sudras or fourth class are bound to servile attendance on the
higher classes, especially the Brahmans, but they may follow
mechanical occupations and practical arts, as painting and
writing, or become traders or husbandmen. Consequently they
sometimes grow rich, and it will also sometimes happen that
Brahmans become poor. That fact works its usual consequence, and
rich Sudras sometimes employ poor Brahmans in menial occupations.

There is another class lower even than the Sudras, for it is not
one of the original pure classes, but springs from an
unauthorized union of individuals of different castes. These are
the Pariahs, who are employed in the lowest services and treated
with the utmost severity. They are compelled to do what no one
else can do without pollution. They are not only considered
unclean themselves, but they render unclean every thing they
touch. They are deprived of all civil rights, and stigmatized by
particular laws, regulating their mode of life, their houses and
their furniture. They are not allowed to visit the pagodas or
temples of the other castes, but have their own pagodas and
religious exercises. They are not suffered to enter the houses
of the other castes; if it is done incautiously or from
necessity, the place must be purified by religious ceremonies.
They must not appear at public markets, and are confined to the
use of particular wells, which they are obliged to surround with
bones of animals, to warn others against using them. They dwell
in miserable hovels, distant from cities and villages, and are
under no restrictions in regard to food, which last is not a
privilege, but a mark of ignominy, as if they were so degraded
that nothing could pollute them. The three higher castes are
prohibited entirely the use of flesh. The fourth is allowed to
eat all kinds except beef, but only the lowest caste is allowed
every kind of food without restrictions.


Buddha, whom the Vedas represent as a delusive incarnation of
Vishnu, is said by his followers to have been a mortal sage,
whose name was Gautama, called also by the complimentary epithets
of Sakyasinha, the Lion, and Buddha, the Sage.

By a comparison of the various epochs assigned to his birth, it
is inferred that he lived about one thousand years before Christ.

He was the son of a king; and when in conformity to the usage of
the country he was, a few days after his birth, presented before
the altar of a deity, the image is said to have inclined its
head, as a presage of the future greatness of the new-born
prophet. The child soon developed faculties of the first order,
and became equally distinguished by the uncommon beauty of his
person. No sooner had he grown to years of maturity than he
began to reflect deeply on the depravity and misery of mankind,
and he conceived the idea of retiring from society and devoting
himself to meditation. His father in vain opposed this design.
Buddha escaped the vigilance of his guards, and having found a
secure retreat, lived for six years undisturbed in his devout
contemplations. At the expiration of that period he came forward
at Benares as a religious teacher. At first some who heard him
doubted of the soundness of his mind; but his doctrines soon
gained credit, and were propagated so rapidly that Buddha himself
lived to see them spread all over India.

The young prince distinguished himself by his personal and
intellectual qualities, but still more by his early piety. It
appears from the laws of Manu that it was not unusual, in the
earliest periods of Brahmanism, for those seeking a superior
piety to turn hermits, and to live alone in the forest, engaged
in acts of prayer, meditation, abstinence, and the study of the
Vedas. This practice, however, seems to have been confined to
the Brahmans. It was, therefore, a grief to the king, when his
son, in the flower of his youth and highly accomplished in every
kingly faculty of body and mind, began to turn his thoughts
toward the life of an anchorite.


He first visited the Brahmans, and listened to their doctrines,
but found no satisfaction therein. The wisest among them could
not teach him true peace, that profound inward rest, which was
already called Nirvana. He was twenty-nine years old. Although
disapproving of the Brahmanic austerities as an end, he practised
them during six years, in order to subdue the senses. He then
became satisfied that the path to perfection did not lie that
way. He therefore resumed his former diet and a more comfortable
mode of life, and so lost many disciples who had been attracted
by his amazing austerity. Alone in his hermitage, he came at
last to that solid conviction, that KNOWLEDGE never to be shaken,
of the laws of things, which had seemed to him the only
foundation of a truly free life. The spot where, after a week of
constant meditation, he at last arrived at this beatific vision,
became one of the most sacred places in India. He was seated
under a tree, his face to the east, not having moved for a day
and night, when he attained the triple science, which was to
rescue mankind from its woes. Twelve hundred years after the
death of the Buddha, a Chinese pilgrim was shown what then passed
for the sacred tree.


Having attained this inward certainty of vision, he decided to
teach the world his truth. He knew well what it would bring him,
what opposition, insult, neglect, scorn. But he thought of
three classes of men: those who were already on the way to the
truth and did not need him; those who were fixed in error and
whom he could not help; and the poor doubters, uncertain of their
way. It was to help these last, the doubters, that the Buddha
went forth to preach. On his way to the holy city of India,
Benares, a serious difficulty arrested him at the Ganges, namely,
his having no money to pay the boatman for his passage. At
Benares he made his first converts, "turning the wheel of the
law" for the first time. His discourses are contained in the
sacred books of the Buddhists. He converted great numbers, his
father among the rest, but met with fierce opposition from the
Hindu Scribes and Pharisees, the leading Brahmans. So he lived
and taught, and died at the age of eighty years.

The Buddhists reject entirely the authority of the Vedas, and the
religious observances prescribed in them and kept by the Hindus.
They also reject the distinction of castes, and prohibit all
bloody sacrifices, and allow animal food. Their priests are
chosen from all classes; they are expected to procure their
maintenance by perambulation and begging, and, among other
things, it is their duty to endeavor to turn to some use things
thrown aside as useless by others, and to discover the medicinal
power of plants. But in Ceylon three orders of priests are
recognized; those of the highest order are usually men of high
birth and learning, and are supported at the principal temples,
most of which have been richly endowed by the former monarchs of
the country.

For several centuries after the appearance of Buddha, his sect
seems to have been tolerated by the Brahmans, and Buddhism
appears to have penetrated the peninsula of Hindustan in every
direction, and to have been carried to Ceylon, and to the eastern
peninsula. But afterwards it had to endure in India a long
continued persecution, which ultimately had the effect of
entirely abolishing it in the country where it had originated,
but to scatter it widely over adjacent countries. Buddhism
appears to have been introduced into China about the year 65 of
our era. From China it was subsequently extended to Corea,
Japan, and Java.

The charming poem called the Light of Asia, by Mr. Edwin Arnold,
has lately called general attention to Buddhism. The following
is an extract from it:

"Fondly Siddatha drew the proud head down
Patted the shining neck, and said 'Be still,
White Kantaka! Be still, and bear me now
The farthest journey ever rider rode;
For this night take I horse to find the truth,
And where my quest will end yet know I not.
Save that it shall not end until I find.
Therefore to-night, good steed, be fierce and bold!
Let nothing stay thee, though a thousand blades
Deny the road! Let neither wall nor moat
Forbid our flight! Look! If I touch thy flank
And cry, "On, Kantaka!" let whirlwinds lag
Behind thy course! Be fire and air, my horse!
To stead thy lord, so shalt thou share with him
The greatness of this deed which helps the world;
For therefore ride I, not for men alone,
But for all things which, speechless, share our pain,
And have no hope, nor wit to ask for hope.
Now, therefore, hear thy master valorously!'"


It is a doctrine alike of the Brahminical Hindus and of the
Buddhist sect that the confinement of the human soul, an
emanation of the divine spirit, in a human body, is a state of
misery, and the consequence of frailties and sins committed
during former existences. But they hold that some few
individuals have appeared on this earth from time to time, not
under the necessity of terrestrial existence, but who voluntarily
descend to the earth to promote the welfare of mankind. These
individuals have gradually assumed the character of reappearances
of Buddha himself, in which capacity the line is continued till
the present day in the several Lamas of Thibet, China, and other
countries where Buddhism prevails. In consequence of the
victories of Gengis Khan and his successors, the Lama residing in
Thibet was raised to the dignity of chief pontiff of the sect. A
separate province was assigned to him as his own territory, and
besides his spiritual dignity, he became to a limited extent a
temporal monarch. He is styled the Dalai Lama.

The first Christian missionaries who proceeded to Thibet were
surprised to find there in the heart of Asia a pontifical court
and several other ecclesiastical institutions resembling those of
the Roman Catholic church. They found convents for priests and
nuns; also, processions and forms of religious worship, attended
with much pomp and splendor; and many were induced by these
similarities to consider Lamaism as a sort of degenerated
Christianity. It is not improbable that the Lamas derived some
of these practices from the Nestorial Christians, who were
settled in Tartary when Buddhism was introduced into Thibet.


An early account, communicated probably by travelling merchants,
of a Lama or spiritual chief among the Tartars, seems to have
occasioned in Europe the report of a Presbyter or Prester John, a
Christian pontiff, resident in Upper Asia. The Pope sent a
mission in search of him, as did also Louis IX of France, some
years later, but both missions were unsuccessful, though the
small communities of Nestorial Christians, which they did find,
served to keep up the belief in Europe that such a personage did
exist somewhere in the East. At last in the fifteenth century, a
Portuguese traveller, Pedro Covilham, happening to hear that
there was a Christian prince in the country of the Abessines
(Abyssinia), not far from the Red Sea, concluded that this must
be the true Prester John. He accordingly went thither, and
penetrated to the court of the king, whom he calls Negus. Milton
alludes to him in Paradise Lost, Book XI, where, describing
Adam's vision of his descendants in their various nations and
cities, scattered over the face of the earth, he says,

"----- Nor did his eyes not ken
The empire of Negus, to his utmost port
Ercoco, and the less maritime kings,
Mombaza and Quiloa and Melind."

Thomas Bulfinch

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