Advaita - Buddhism in disguise?

Nandakumar Chandran
Nandakumar Chandran / 5 yrs ago /

I bow to the One who is the chief among all persons, who has known fully the souls resembling the infinite sky, through his knowledge that is comparable to space and is non-different from the object of knowledge.
                                     - Alaatashaanti Praakarna, Gaudapaadiya Kaarikaa

From the day Bhaskara, the Vedaantin of the Bhedaabheda school noticed the affinity between Advaita and Mahaayaana Buddhism - maahaayaanika bauddhagaathitam maayaavaadam (Bhaskara's Bhaasya on the Brahma Sutras) - the alleged link between Advaita and Buddhism has been a subject of hot controversy.

Critics note the apparent similarities between the maya doctrine in both Advaita and Mahaayaana Buddhism and insist that Advaita is but re-chauffe Buddhism. The similarity in the Mahaayaana Buddhist style of dialectic especially in the Alatashanti Prakarna chapter of the Gaudapaadiya Kaarikaas and Gaudapaada openly endorsing the Ajaativaada doctrine of the Shunyavaadins and accepting the Vijnaanavaadin's equation of the dream state with the waking state only serves to strengthen the charge of the detractors of Advaita. On top of this Shankara himself affirms that Gaudapaada accepts the arguments of the Vijnaanavaadins regarding the unreality of the world - vijnaanavaadino bauddhasya vachanam baahyaarthavaadipakshapratishedhaparam aachaaryena anumoditam (Shankara's commentary on the Gaudapaadiya Kaarikaa).

Apart from the traditional opponents of Advaita, all this has led quite a few modern scholars too to conclude that Advaita is only Buddhism in disguise. Surendranath Dasgupta in his History of Indian Philosophy goes so far as to say that Advaita is only the product of the fusion of Shunyavaada and Vijnaanavaada Buddhism.

Opposed to this are the traditional Vedaantins who condemn all such attempts to link the pristine philosophy taught by their revered acharya with the philosophy of the despicable naastikas. According to them there's absolutely no connection between Advaita and Buddhism.

It is our view that "Advaita is crypto Buddhism" and "Buddhism has absolutely no influence on Advaita" are both extreme positions and as in most matters the truth is in the middle - though there's some influence of the Mahaayaana in Advaita, there's also a great deal of originality in Advaita which is essentially true to the actual Vedaanta - the Upanishads. In our attempt to explore this issue we shall first consider the subject from its historical perspective, then analyze the technical differences between Advaita and the schools of Buddhism and also see how Advaitins themselves viewed Buddhism.


The central problem in Astika or orthodox philosophy is that though the Upanishads assert that Brahman made the world out of itself and the relation between Brahman and the world is like the relation between gold and an ornament made of gold, still they could not bring out a full fledged philosophical system based on this. How could all the diversity in the world be reconciled with the one truth? Thought does not leap directly from one level to another. It only develops step by step and as we saw the early philosophical systems all could envision only a pluralistic world made up of infinite souls, matter or atoms and in some cases - a creator God.

With the Buddha comes an incredibly important breakthrough - the doctrine of anatta. It is only because of the "I", that we have "you" and "that" - plurality. When there's no "I", where's "you" and "that"?

Actually the Buddha never uses the word "Atman", to refer to the metaphysical self of man. The only self that we know, is our normal self which experiences pain and suffering - this the Buddha refers to as "pudgala". By "Atman" the Buddha means an eternal, unchanging substance. So when he teaches "anatta" or "nairaatmaya", he only says that nothing that we know has any substance. When he teaches nairaatmaya with reference to the self of man, he only uses it in conjunction with the pudgala - pudgala nairaatmaya i.e, the phenomenal self is without substance. Here it is very vital to remember that the Buddha himself strongly asserted that his was not a darshana (school of philosophy) but a yaana or a vehicle to liberation. So anatta was not intended as a metaphysical theory by the Buddha but as a psychological teaching to remind the aspirant about the falseness of the empirical self.

But the human mind being what it is, it is only natural that the early Buddhists - the Hinayanists - interpreted anatta in metaphysical terms. They leaned too heavily on the anatta and denied any permanent essence in man. For them nirvaana is an unknown quantity, which comes after the cessation of consciousness.

But Mahaayaana Buddhism corrects this misinterpretation of anatta : If the self as we know it, is itself the truth, then why do we suffer? But again, if the self is not the truth then truth would be something apart from us - then where's the meaning in personal liberation? As Naagaarjuna says in his Mahaayaana Vimshaka : "To think of Self or not Self is not the truth; they're discriminated by the confused".

Mahaayaana Buddhism true to the teachings of the Buddha refrains from indulging in metaphysical speculation and concentrates on forging the perfect path to enlightenment. While the Maadhyamika concentrates on epistemology and points out the futility of conceptual construction, the Vijnaanavaada shifts the focus to psychology to point to the reality within - pure consciousness.

The extent of Vedaantic influence upon Ashvaghosa, one of the earliest exponents of Mahaayaana Buddhism, is not really clear. Ashvaghosa's Shradothpaada Shaastram reads like an Advaita manual and he is said to have been a Vedaanti before his conversion to Buddhism. DT Suzuki in his translation of the text cites many similar passages from the Gita itself. Ashvaghosa as a Vedaantin himself could have been the turning point in Buddhism, which steered it towards Vedaanta.

A strange thing in Indian philosophy is that the history of Vedaanta itself is shrouded in mystery. Between Badarayana and Gaudapaada, there's no available text. What texts that we know of in this period seems to be mainly from references by later Vedaantic authors. Rival schools don't seem to have been really aware of Vedaantic doctrines. For e.g, in the Jainaa work "Saddarshana Samuccaya" of Haribhadra Suri, there's no mention of Vedaanta at all.

One of the reasons for this might have been in that Vedaanta represents orthodox Vedic thought. Upanishads normally was considered "rahasya" or secret doctrines, jealously guarded and taught only to qualified aspirants and predominantly only inside Brahmanical circles (Shankara himself is very particular about the qualifications of the aspirant and a "viprata - one who vibrates with knowledge", according to the orthodox tradition has always meant a Brahmin male only). Plus it might also have been that since the school was heavily based on the Veda, the Vedaantins much like the Buddha were more inclined towards a practical way to liberation, than metaphysical speculation. So it is quite possible that they were not the technical/theoretical philosophers. They might have just believed in Advaita based on the shruti and practiced it, without bothering about the logical consistency. Even Baadaraayana in his Brahma Sutras asserts the essential unity underlying all phenomena, not based on any logical argument, but on the authority of the Vedas.

So when Naagaarjuna comes out with his world denying dialectic the Vedaantins might have simply adopted it, since it fitted quite well with their doctrine. And Naagaarjuna himself might only have built on Vedaantic ideas to develop his dialectic (the philosophical gap between Naagaarjuna and his Buddhist predecessors - the Hinayanists - is too wide to support the claim that Naagaarjuna was building only on Buddhist thought. Without external influence, the leap in thought - from no-soul/material nirvaana to spiritual absolutism - is not too convincing). One thing to be noted here is that though Gautama Siddharta was himself a kshatriya and opposed to Vedic Brahminism, after his death the religion that he founded was developed and sustained by Brahmins themselves. Almost without exception Gautama's most intellectual disciples as well as the later acharyas who formed the various schools of Buddhism were Brahmins. According to Buddhist sources, Gautama's most intellectual disciples - Kaashyapa and Mogallapatissa, the earliest exponent of the anatta doctrine - Nagasena, the founder of the Sarvaastivaada school - Kaatyaayaniputra, the first systamatizer of the Mahaayaana - Ashvaghosa, the great Maadhyamika dialectician Naagaarjuna, the greatest exponents of Vijnaanavaada - the brothers Asanga and Vaasubandhu, the greatest of the Buddhist logicians - Dignaaga and Dharmakirti, the foremost of the Pali scholars - Buddhaghosa, were all Brahmins. Even the future Buddha-to-be - Maitreya, according to Buddhist prophecy, will be born as a Brahmin. Given such Brahminic involvement in the development of Buddhism, it is only natural that the Vedic influence should seep into Buddhist philosophy.

It is also worth noting that Bhartrhari, the great grammarian philosopher, who lived before Gaudapaada, considers maya to be a Vedaantic concept. So it might be that there were Advaita Vedaantins earlier than Gaudapaada but still they could not logically reconcile Brahman with the phenomenal world ie though maya was an integral part of their philosophy they did not have a logical explanation for it. Gaudapaada endorsing Naagaarjuna's dialectic itself might signal the Vedaantin's acceptance of the dialectic since it provided logical base to his own theory, which was only derived from the Upanishads.

But again Advaita only means non-dualism - that man in his essence is not different from reality itself. It is a spiritual experience as taught in the Upanishads. And it is not really necessary to read either the Maadhyamika dialectic or Advaita Vedaanta theory to attain liberation. Else Yaagnavalkya and Uddhaalaka Aruni would not have been jnaanis. What is essential is inward search which brings true knowledge. Advaita Vedaanta as a theoretical philosophy is basically reconciliation of such experience with reason. But however great might one's understanding of Advaita theory be, still it cannot effect liberation. You still have to probe inward and know yourself - for that is higher knowledge which the jnaanis possessed. Shankara himself confirms this when says all the philosophies and even the shruti are only lower knowledge (apara vidhya) and knowledge of the Self - Atma Jnaanam - alone is the highest knowledge (para vidhya). He also says that he would not be bothering with dialectic and philosophy, if it were not for too many false views being prevalent.

So when Shankara says that the Upanishadic Rishis taught Advaita, he only means that they taught that truth was non-dual with ones own self and can be spiritually experienced. Non-duality in Advaita has a twin implication : that phenomenal world itself is non-dual with the ultimate reality and the inner truth in man itself is non-dual with the Absolute. Naagaarjuna was the first philosopher to come out with a logically consistent absolutistic vision. Even in him, it is only implied. Advaita Vedaanta just uses his dialectic to produce a full fledged spiritual absolutism from the Upanishads.

Advaita only means non-dual spiritual experience, which is very clearly taught in some Upanishadic passages - Yaagnavalkya/Maitreyi dialogue, Uddhaalaka/Shvetaketu dialogue etc. So Advaita Vedaanta is firmly rooted in the Upanishads in its main tenet that reality is non-dual but it is indebted to the Maadhyamika for its dialectic which provides the dialectical support for its non-dual philosophy.

The Vaishnava criticism of Advaita as prachanna bauddham or Buddhism in disguise, is also only directed at this. The Vaishnavas complain only about the concept of Maya in Advaita. Ofcourse, that itself is the linchpin of Advaita philosophy - for without maya the phenomenal world itself would be real. If the world is real then where would Brahman be? Since Brahman made the world out of himself, we could only have either Brahman or the world - nirvaana or samsaara. To have both Brahman and the world would be like having darkness and light together - logically impossible.

Hence the dialectic which shows us the world is not what we think it is. This is the driving logic behind maya and non-dual absolutism.


The Hinayaana theories of momentariness and atomism have little in common with Advaita and has been criticized bitterly by Shankara. But in its psychological stance of no-soul/anatta which on the surface seems diametrically opposed to Advaita it shares something in common with Advaita. According to Advaita the nature of Atman is pure consciousness. Though the Hinayaanists denied a soul, still in their basic conception of man as a product of the aggregates (skandhas) they accepted consciousness as one of the principles which makes up a human being. Along with form, feeling, perceptions and predispositions, Vijnaana or consciousness is also one of the skandhas even in Hinayaana. So ultimately the difference between Advaita and Hinayaana lies only in the interpretation of the connection between the individual self and consciousness. According to Advaita the individual self is a product of ignorance but its essence is consciousness. For Hinayaana there's no substance (anatta) to the individual self and consciousness is one of the underlying principles in man. It is fundamentally saying the same thing from different angles with a shift in emphasis. The false self of the Mundaaka Upanishad and the anatta of the Buddha have as their basis the non-substantiality of the individual self.

Man is a compound of the mind, body and spirit. A compounded thing as it is dependent on the parts that make it, has no substance in itself. In this sense, man as a compounded entity has no substance (anatta) - but this view doesn't deny the reality of the entities which make up a compound - in themselves they are real.

But again when we see the three states of human experience viz waking, dream and deep sleep - while the body is dependent on the mind and spirit (waking), the mind is dependent on the spirit (dream), the spirit is not dependent on either the body or mind and exists by itself in deep sleep. So in this sense since the spirit is higher up in the hierarchy over the mind and the body, the teaching of the Self as the soul or substance in man, gains its relevance.

So while anatta means the non-substantiality of compounded things and the atman doctrine teaches the reality of the spirit as the thing in itself. Though philosophically the latter is the higher teaching, but such a teaching has its own problems in a spiritual discipline as the Atman will inevitably be confused with the ego and thus hinder spiritual progress.

The Buddha never taught "anatta" as a metaphysical doctrine as later interpreted by the Hinayaanists. The Buddha's teaching, in his own words was not a school of philosophy (darshana) but a vehicle (yaana) to liberation. The teaching of anatta was intended by the Buddha to be a psychological blow to the Ego, which presents the greatest obstacle to liberation. All philosophy is only words and thoughts and not reality itself - the thing in itself. So teachings are at best a pointer to reality and conceptions of reality are not to be confused with reality itself. Whether we say Self or no-Self, what is - is. Just because we adopt the metaphysical doctrine of the no-Self, our self is not going to disappear because of it. The teaching of the anatta is meant to deal a death blow to the ego which is the greatest obstacle to liberation.

So the true difference between Advaita and Buddhism in general is not the acceptance or non-acceptance of the Self, but the relationship of the individual self to the reality within.


According to Naagaarjuna, the phenomenal world is shunya (empty) and maya (an illusion) because it is ultimately unintelligible. His dialectic which is fundamentally epistemological in nature, explores the relative nature of the intellectual categories and reveals that they're not ultimately true. But Naagaarjuna doesn't stop with proving the unreality of the world. The Mulamaadhyamika Kaarikaa contains some ontological suggestions too. Naagaarjuna accepts that there's an ultimate truth - paramaartha satya. He says that this ultimate truth is not something totally divorced from our phenomenal world. "All things in the world are pure and calm in their true nature" and ontologically "there's not the slightest difference between samsaara and nirvaana". The ultimate truth is nothing but the phenomenal world itself removed from our conceptual constructions - in short it is the mind which is the cause of samsaara and chitta vritti nirodha - the cessation of the working of the mind - leads to nirvaana. According to Naagaarjuna, chitta vritti nirodha leads to cessation of plurality. When there's no cognizance of "I" or "you" then there's no attachment to "mine" and "yours" either and thus the end of suffering.

As far as the phenomenal world goes, both the Shunyavaadins and the Advaitins are together condemning it as unreal as it is neither real, nor unreal, nor both, nor neither.

But when it comes to analyzing the relationship between the phenomenal world and the reality, the Shunyavaadins are non-committal. And this is the key difference which leads to a fundamental distinction between both schools with respect to causality. For Naagaarjuna the cause and effect are both shunya as they've no existence apart from each other. For the Advaitins the effect is only an appearance and the cause alone is the truth. The substance in the universe is the Atman, which is the innermost essence of ourselves and everything else in the universe - it is the eternal truth which underlies phenomenal existence.

Also we have to note that the non-duality (advaya) taught by Naagaarjuna is epistemological by nature and is not the ontological Advaita of the Vedaantins. Nowhere does Naagaarjuna say that reality is one - as the Vedaantins say of Brahman. Cessation of plurality doesn't necessarily mean unity and given Naagaarjuna's epistemological inclinations it could only mean the cessation of the "sense" of plurality. So for all practical purposes the Buddha as per Maadhyamika may only be a separate physical being who only lacks the sense of individuality.

For the Advaita Vedaantins the truth is Brahman - one without another.


Naagaarjuna's dialectic had eliminated the objective world as unreal. So the Vijnaanavaadins step back and explore the subjective side. The Vijnaanavaadins are not subjective idealists who say that the external world is unreal and only the perceiving subject is real; nor are they absolutists who teach of a mystical consciousness permeating both the subject and object.

No, the Vijnaanavaadins as we have shown in our exposition are only talking about epistemology and psychology and not about metaphysics. For them both the external world as well as the perceiving subject is unreal. They try to find reality in the consciousness which underlies both the subject and object - here the object is not the external object, but the mental representation of it. According to the Vijnaanavaadins, consciousness by itself contains the necessary ingredients to shape the world as we know it to be. This doesn't mean that consciousness creates external objects in the physical sense, but simply that it gives identities to all the objects it perceives and shapes our conscious life. Simply put the world is only what we know it to be and it is consciousness with its natural power of conception which shapes the world as we know it. And it is only with reference to all the objects experienced that the self identity of an individual is built up.

Vijnaaptimaatrata or pure consciousness only means detaching consciousness away from objects - consciousness as a thing in itself. It is both the path as well as the end - using yoga consciousness is detached from objects and it is this consciousness in itself that is not dependent on anything else the reality.

The first clear distinction between Vijnaanavaada and Advaita is that the latter deals with metaphysics which the former clearly avoids. Vasubandhu's motive in denying reality to the world because the waking state is no different from the dream state is only to shift the focus away from the objects of perception to the subject who perceives - from metaphysics to psychology. But in contrast Shankara reveals Advaita's metaphysical inclinations when he argues : though we know the unreality of the dream state in the waking state, its converse - the unreality of the waking state in the dream state is not known. So the waking state is of a higher level of reality than the dream state and deserves further consideration.

According to the Vijnaanavaadins, it is consciousness which transforms itself into both the subject and the object. The psychological implication of the Vijnaanavaada doctrine of transformation, which advocates the purification of consciousness for liberation is also contrary to the basic tenet of Advaita which holds that the Atman is ever pure and hence already liberated. The latter's stand is mainly due to its clear distinction of the world, mind and the Self.

To sum it up : Nagarjuna's attention is mainly concerned with epistemology - he denies absolute validity to knowledge. With the external world thus negated the Vijnaanavaadins explore psychology and try to determine the nature of the individual. Their main contribution lies in mapping out the complex nature of the subject and improving upon the concept of the non-dual consciousness. Advaita's main enterprise is to improve upon Vijnaanavaada psychology and integrate it with maya and also provide the necessary metaphysical base to the theory.

There're also some fundamental differences regarding Mahaayaana Buddhism's and Advaita's view of non-dualism and knowledge. For the Maadhyamikas non-duality means that samsaara is non-dual with nirvaana. For the Vijnaanavaadins it is the non-dual consciousness (vijnaaptimaatra) that is nirvaana. For Advaita, non-duality means : 1. the non-duality of the jiva (individual self) with Atman and 2. the non-duality of the Atman (the innermost essence of man - his self) with Brahman (essence of the world).

With respect to knowledge (jnaana), like Patanjala Yoga, the Mahaayaana schools teach the control of the body and mind to effect liberation. According to them, you cannot "know" reality and thus they make a clear distinction between jnaana and praana. While the former is only intellectual knowledge useful to know the unreality (shunya) of the world and the individual self, the latter is the intuitive knowledge of the non-dual reality. The understanding of shunya is supposed to help de-conceptualize the mind and pave the way for chitta vritti nirodha after which reality is supposed to manifest itself. Naagaarjuna's advice that "the wise one does not act" and the Vijnaaptimaatra or the "contactless consciousness" of the Vijnaanavaadins shows that the Buddhists were aware of the effectiveness of the path of inaction and silence. It is in relation to this silent surrender that the Mahaayaana teaches bhakti. So the Mahaayaana schools teach a combination of jnaana+yoga+bhakti to attain salvation.

Advaita on the other hand teaches the path of jnaana or knowledge, where the aspirant takes the subjective approach - he tries to know himself - his true self. What this means is the underlying pure awareness tries to revert back and fall into itself and thus the means of liberation is direct. According to Shankara knowledge is the only means to liberation. The method of yoga as followed by the Mahaayaana schools of Buddhism, which tries to straighten the mind is an indirect method where the reality is reflected in the purified mind. So while the Advaitic path is subjective the path of the Mahaayaana schools is objective. But again it is also to be noted that even as per Shankara it is only due to the grace of the Lord that liberation is obtained. So whatever be the nature of self-effort, subjective or objective, surrender/bhakti is inevitable in the end. This is the underlying meaning of Gaudapaada's Asparsha Yoga as well as Advaita's stand that karma is totally opposed to jnaana - for even to know is only action/karma. Advaita's atma jnaanam or the knowledge of the Self is the same as the Mahaayaanic Praana which is to be obtained only by letting go of all effort - total surrender (As Gaudapaada says : one should neither wish to live nor die - we should abandon our will - the sense of doership which is what sustains the identification of the spirit with the body). We also note that not all Advaitins have inclined towards the subjective way of jnaana - Madhusudhana Sarasvathi in his Advaitasiddhi himself notes this distinction : "for some yoga is suitable and for others jnaana is suitable".


Many Advaitins themselves have shown profound respect for Buddhism. The affinity between Gaudapaada and Buddhism is well known. Not only does the acharya repeatedly show deep veneration to the Compassionate One, his Kaarikaas also reveal a deep understanding of Maadhyamika and Vijnaanavaada doctrines. The greatest of the Advaita dialecticians - Sri Harsha - openly employs the Maadhyamika dialectic to establish the Advaitic truth. His commentator Chitsukha takes up the Maadhyamika cause by defending their concept of samvritti against the attacks of the Mimaamsakas. The great Vachaspati Mishra in his Bhaamati lauds the high intellect of the Maadhyamikas though mocks the Vijnaanavaadins and the Sarvastivans of having middling and low intellect.

With Shankaracharya the case is a bit more complex. At the end of his refutation of the Buddhist systems in his Brahma Sutra Bashyam he says : "The more we examine the Buddhist systems, the more it gives way like a well dug in sand. It has no solid foundation. There's no truth in it and it can serve no useful purpose. The Buddha by teaching three mutually contradictory systems of Baahyaarthavaada, Vijnaanavaada and Shunyavaada, has proved it beyond doubt that either he was fond of making contradictory statements or his hatred of people made him teach three contradictory doctrines so that people may be utterly confused and deluded by accepting them. Therefore all persons who desire the good should at once reject Buddhism"!

Shankara's words reveal an open hatred towards Buddhism. But still when we consider the shared philosophical and spiritual values between his school and Mahaayaana Buddhism and also the discipline and organization that he borrowed from the Buddhist order and implemented in his own order of ascetics, we urge that such animosity is primarily due to the negative turn Buddhism itself had taken. In his criticism of the Buddhist schools Shankara dismisses Maadhyamika as nihilism since it refuses to endorse a higher reality after negating the phenomenal world. This charge is unjustified and in our exposition of the Maadhyamika we have shown that the Maadhyamika actually endorses a higher reality - the tattva which is to be directly experienced here and now. The Maadhyamika either teaches spiritual absolutism or an epistemological state of non-difference - but definitely not nihilism.

In his criticism of the Vijnaanavaada, Shankara's most serious objection against the Vijnaanavaadins is that they consider consciousness to be momentary. This shows that Shankara is actually criticizing the Svatantra Vijnaanavaada school of Dignaaga and Santarakshita and not the original Vijnaanavaada school of Asanga and Vaasubandhu, who held consciousness to be permanent (nityam). With the original Vijnaanavaadins - Asanga and Vasubandu - teaching the reality of a permanent non-dual consciousness, Buddhism had indeed moved closer to the Vedaanta. Instead of accepting and reconciling both systems as Gaudapaada and Bhaavaviveka attempt, later Buddhists like Dignaaga, Dharmakirti and Saantarakshita had stubbornly revived the doctrine of momentariness with the sole aim of projecting Buddhism as teaching a truth contrary to the Upanishads. Under the banner of Vijnaanavaada, the Svatantra Vijnaanavaadins were actually teaching something contrary to what was taught by the original teachers of Vijnaanavaada. It is this needless obstinacy of the Svatantra Vijnaanavaadins that Shankara's spite is really directed at and not against the Buddha or the Maadhyamikas or the original Vijnaanavaadins, with whose teachings Advaita has a lot in common. It is also to be noted that while centuries separate Shankara from Naagaarjuna and the original Vijnaanavaadins, Saantarakshita and Kamalasila were his contemporaries. So Maadhyamika and Vijnaanavaada to Shankara only meant what was taught in their names by Saantarakshita and Kamalasila or their immediate predecessors like Dharmakirti. And all the quotes on Buddhist doctrines that we find in Shankara's works are from the works of these authors only.

So Shankara's antagonism towards Buddhism seems more a case of misunderstanding due to misrepresentation, than any genuine difference between the teachings of the Buddha and the Vedaanta.

Purva Mimamsa
Shaiva Siddhanta
Kashmir Shaivism
Life & Personality
Attitude to God
Metaphysical Views
Anatta - No Self?
The Buddha & The Upanishads
Svatantra Vijnanavada
Buddhism in disguise?
The Doctrine
Buddhism and Hinduism
Validity of the Buddist Path
Development and demise

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