Diwali lights

Diwali (Festival of Lights) in late October or early November is regarded as the happiest festival in India. It is a five-day event that climaxes on a new moon in the Hindi month of Kartick. Celebrated by most of India's people including Muslims and Sikhs, Diwali commemorates the homecoming of Lord Rama and his wife Sita to north India after the victory over Ravana, the demon-king of Lanka in the epic Ramayana. People light rows of lamps and place them on sills around their houses, set off gigantic amounts of fireworks, pray for wealth and good fortune, distribute sweets, and send greeting cards to friends and business associates.

Diwali is short for “Deepa-wali”(‘Dipawali’) — the Night of Lamps or Array of Lamps — with “deepa” meaning light and representing knowledge” and “vali” meaning a line or ray, as in rays that cut through darkness. Commemorating the victory of good over evil, it is the only festival celebrated through India by people of all religions. It s celebrated over five days with the aim of harmonizing the five major faiths of India. For some people Diwali marks the beginning of the new year. It is believed that Diwali began as a harvest festival held after the karif crop was harvested in the autumn.

Diwali falls in the Hindu month of Kartika (October-November). It is officially a one-day holiday, but in reality it becomes a week-long event when many people take vacations. Diwali is a time of joy, splendor, illumination and happiness. It is held after the monsoons end when much of India is vibrant green. Diwali marks the day when a team of virtuous people, including the warrior Rama and Sita, returned to the homelands after destroying an army of evil. To celebrate their return, people give out sweets set off fireworks and set out lighted lamps.

Diwali is a festival of joy, splendor, brightness and happiness. It celebrates the victory of good over evil, light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance, The Times of India summed up the modern meaning of Diwali: “Regardless of the mythological explanation one prefers, what the festival of lights really stands for today is a reaffirmation of hope, a renewed commitment to friendship and goodwill, and a religiously sanctioned celebration of the simple - and some not so simple - joys of life.”

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; Heart of Hinduism (Hare Krishna Movement) iskconeducationalservices.org ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Shyam Ranganathan, York University iep.utm.edu/hindu ; Vedic Hinduism SW Jamison and M Witzel, Harvard University people.fas.harvard.edu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), Wikisource ; Hinduism by Swami Nikhilananda, The Ramakrishna Mission .wikisource.org ; All About Hinduism by Swami Sivananda dlshq.org ; Advaita Vedanta Hinduism by Sangeetha Menon, International Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of the non-Theistic school of Hindu philosophy) ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press academic.oup.com/jhs

Diwali, Hinduism and Other Religions

lighting a Diwali display

Diwali (also known as Divali, Dipavali and Deepavali) is the biggest Hindu festival. It symbolizes prosperity and good will. Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is particularly worshipped during the festival of Diwali. People celebrate by inviting Lakshmi, into the house. Lamps are lit to drive out the demon Alakshmi and help Rama and Sita find their way home. The holiday is also linked with trade and the beginning of the financial year.

“Lead me from darkness into light” is a prayer from the Upanishads (an ancient Hindu scripture) associated with Diwali. Things like sorrow, failure, poor health loss, disappointment, laziness are all related to darkness. To get rid of the darkness of sorrow you have to light a lamp of happiness. To get rid of the darkness of disease you have to light a lamp of good health. To get rid of the darkness of failure and loss you have to light a lamp of prosperity.

Diwali is the most popular festival in South Asia. It is celebrated with great enthusiasm by people in Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as well as India and by all Indians all over the world. Diwali is also an important celebration for Jains and Sikhs, members of two major religions in India. It is also observed by many Muslims. The date of Diwali is set by the Hindu calendar so it varies in the Western calendar. Diwali is a New Year festival in the Vikrama calendar, where it falls on the night of the new moon in the month of Kartika. Business people regard it as a favourable day to start a new accounting year because of the festival's association with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. The goddess Kali is celebrated at Diwali in the Bengali and Oriya areas of India. [Source: BBC |::|]

According to the BBC: “For many Indians the festival honours Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. People start the new business year at Diwali, and some Hindus will say prayers to the goddess for a successful year. Some people build a small altar to the goddess and decorate it with money and with pictures of the rewards of wealth, such as cars and houses. Hindus will leave the windows and doors of their houses open so that Lakshmi can come in. Rangoli are drawn on the floors - rangoli are patterns and the most popular subject is the lotus flower. This because images of Lakshmi traditionally show her either holding a lotus or sitting on one. There is much feasting and celebration, and the Diwali lamps are regarded as making it easy for Lakshmi to find her way to favoured houses.” |::|

Diwali snacks

“For Sikhs, Diwali is particularly important because it celebrates the release from prison of the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind, and 52 other princes with him, in 1619. The Sikh tradition holds that the Emperor Jahangir had imprisoned Guru Hargobind and 52 princes. The Emperor was asked to release Guru Hargobind which he agreed to do. However, Guru Hargobind asked that the princes be released also. The Emperor agreed, but said only those who could hold onto his cloak tail would be allowed to leave the prison. This was in order to limit the number of prisoners who could leave. However, Guru Hargobind had a cloak made with 52 pieces of string and so each prince was able to hold onto one string and leave prison. Sikhs celebrated the return of Guru Hargobind by lighting the Golden Temple and this tradition.” |::|

A poem by Sri Sathya Sai Baba said during Diwali goes:
Beings are many, Breath is one.
Nations are many, Earth is one.
Stars are many. Sky is one.
Lamps are man. Light is one.

Diwali Stories, Legends and Myths

Legends associated with Diwali vary in different parts of India. According to one Indian myth there was a time when good people had to fight against evil to establish the rule of law, which they called Ram Rajya. Through the enforcement of its laws, Ram Rayja protected people against the forces of evil, The lighting of lamps signifies the chasing away of darkness and lighting up the inner light of the soul.

According to another story: On the auspicious new moon day of 'Amavasyaa' in the Hindi month of Kartik, Lakshmi the Goddess of wealth and prosperity, was incarnated. She appeared during the churning of the ocean, which is known as 'Samudra Manthan', with demons on one side and 'Devataas' (Gods) on the other side. The worship of Lakshmi with the Lakshmi Puja, on the day of Diwali, is a long-practiced tradition.

The great Hindu epic 'Mahabharata' has another interesting story related to the 'Kartik Amavasyaa' called “The Return of The Pandavas.” According to the story, 'the Pandavas', the five brothers Yudhishthhira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahdeva, were sentenced to thirteen years exile as a result of their defeat against 'the Kauravas' - Duryodhana and his ninety nine brothers, at the game of dice. Therefore, the Pandavas spent thirteen years in the jungles and returned to their kingdom on the day of 'Kartik Amavasyaa'. On their return, the people of their kingdom welcomed the Pandavas by celebrating the event by lighting the earthen lamps all over in their city. Coronation of King Vikramaditya Another legend or story about Diwali celebrations relates to one of the greatest Hindu King - Vikramaditya. It was the day when he was coroneted and the people celebrated this event by lighting tiny earthen 'diyas'.

Krishna’s Diwali Story

Krishna Cleaves the Demon Narakasura with his Discus

One tradition links Diwali to Lord Krishna’s defeat of the demon king Narakasur (Naraka, Narkasura), who was ruler of Pragjyotishpur, a province to the South of Nepal. Krishna was the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Narakasur was the dirt-covered demon of filth who enjoyed snatching away beautiful women and forcing them to live with him. Narakasur imprisoned 16,000 daughters of Gods and saints in his harem.

After defeating Lord Indra in a war, Narakasur stole the magnificent earrings of the Mother Goddess Aditi, who was the ruler of Suraloka and a relative of Lord Krishna's wife --- Satyabhama. Hearing the cries of the imprisoned women, Vishnu decided to do something and took the form of Krishna. Krishna’s first challenge was destroying the five-headed monster that guarded the demon’s home. With the support of Lord Krishna, Satyabhama defeated Narakasur, released all the women and restored the magnificent earrings of Mother Goddess Aditi.

The rescue of the 16,000 girls is said to be the origin of the story that Krishna had 16,000 wives. After his victory Krishna returned very early in the morning and was bathed and massaged with scented oils. Taking an early morning bath with oil is still a Diwali tradition. [Source: BBC]

This story is another fable on how good can win out over evil. The inner meaning of the destruction of Narakasura is that man, within his body, shuns the Atma-jyoti (spiritual light) within him. The demon’s demise represents victory of over the six enemies of man — desire, anger, greed, attachment, lust and jealousy. The light lamps both dispel darkness and commemorate Krishna’s victory over it. Each person has to fight and destroy the demonic forces within him or her through “sathya (truth) and “sathyameva jayate” (truth alone triumphs).“Speak the truth” is a Vedic injunction, which is the national motto of India.

Rama’s Homecoming and Diwali

For most devotees, Diwali is a recreation of Rama's triumphant return with Sita, his wife, from his adventures in the great Hindu epic The Ramayana. The festival commemorates the homecoming of Rama and Sita to north India after the victory over Ravana, the wicked ten-headed and ten-armed demon-king of Lanka. Rama was great warrior prince exiled from Ayodhya with Sita and his brother Lakshman for 14 years on the orders of his father, Dashratha, the King of Ayodhya, because of a disagreement over whether he or his brother should be the next king in Ayodhya.. The evil king of Lanka, Ravana, kidnapped Sita from the jungle, where they were staying on the instructions of King Dashratha. To free Sita, Rama attacked him. This was followed by a war, in which, Rama defeated Ravana and helped Sita escape. To celebrate the arrival in Ayodhya of Rama and Sita, people in Ayodhya decorated their homes as well as the city of Ayodhyaa by lighting tiny diyas (earthen oil lamps), marking Rama’s victory of good over evil. See The Ramayana.

Rama Returns in Victory to Ayodhya

According to the BBC: “The Ramayana is the legend of Lord Rama's battle with the demon Ravana, in which Lakshmi features. In the story of Ramayana, Sita is married to Lord Rama. Hindus believe Sita is an incarnation of Lakshmi. The story tells us that Rama had been cast out of his rightful kingdom, and had gone to live in a forest with his wife and brother. The battle between Rama and the demon Ravana begins when Ravana abducts Sita from the forest. [Source: BBC |::|]

“After a great battle Rama killed the demon and recovered his wife. The return of the three heroes, Rama, his brother Lakshman and Sita, to Ayodhya and Rama’s subsequent coronation as king are celebrated at Diwali. When Rama and Sita first returned to Ayodhya it was a dark moonless night and they couldn't see where they were going. Their people put little lamps outside their houses so that the new king and queen could find their way, thus beginning the tradition of the festival of lights. |::|

Diwali Activities

Like New Year's Day in the West, Diwali is a time to usher out the old and ring in the new. Small flickering lamps are placed in front of freshly-cleaned houses and clay lamps are sent drifting down the rivers and waterways. Markets are hung with tinsel. Sparklers, firecrackers, Roman candles and rockets are set off. Large fireworks displays are held. Puju is performed at homes and temples. People exchange gifts, give each other sweetmeats, and send Diwali cards to one another and party in the streets.

Affluent families enjoy lawn parties and the poor light up their sections of sidewalks with the few lamps they can afford. People pray for their troubles to end and for children to grow to be men and women. Outside the cities, villagers start the day by patching their houses with dung and mud, and fisherman gamble with cowrie shells. In the Punjab structures are outlined with oil lamps and people ask the gods for prosperity. Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims generally take part in the celebration.

Life comes to a standstill except for events involving family and friends. People wear new clothes, gather and meet family and friends, decorate buildings with fancy lights, light rows of lamps (diyas), place the lamps on sills around their houses, set off huge amounts of fireworks, pray for wealth and good fortune, distribute sweets, and send greeting cards to friends and business associates. In many places electric Christmas-tree-style lights have replaced traditional earthen lamps.

People do major house cleaning and decorate their homes with rangoli — paintings made out of rice powder mixed with powdered dried flower petals of different colors . Gifts of clothes and money are given; sweets such as ladoo and barfi are exchanged. In the wee hours of the morning in Chennai, around 4:00 to 5:00am, people are woken up by the sound of sara vedi (string firecrackers). In Kolkata people set off golf-cart-size hot air balloons.

According to the BBC: Diwali is known as the 'festival of lights' because houses, shops and public places are decorated with small earthenware oil lamps called diyas. These lamps, which are traditionally fueled by mustard oil, are placed in rows in windows, doors and outside buildings to decorate them. The lamps are lit to help the goddess Lakshmi find her way into people's homes. They also celebrate one of the Diwali legends, which tells of the return of Rama and Sita to Rama's kingdom after fourteen years of exile. In India oil lamps are often floated across the river Ganges - it is regarded as a good omen if the lamp manages to get all the way across. Fireworks are a big part of the Diwali celebrations, although in recent years there has been a move against them because of noise and atmospheric pollution and the number of accidental deaths and injuries. [Source: BBC |::|]

“Many Indians see Diwali as an occasion to gamble. This comes from a legend in which the goddess Parvati played dice with her husband on this day and she said that anyone who gambled on Diwali night would do well. Diwali is very much a time for buying and exchanging gifts. Traditionally sweets and dried fruit were very common gifts to exchange, but the festival has become a time for serious shopping, leading to anxiety that commercialism is eroding the spiritual side of the festival. In most years shopkeepers expect sales to rise substantially in the weeks before the festival.

Five Days Of Diwali

Each day of Diwali has a special name and meaning associated with a special thought or ideal though the names of meanings of the day can vary according to locality and tradition. The first day of Diwali is called Dhanteras (or Dhanvantari Triodasi, or Dhan Theras). For most Indians this day is dedicated to the worship and celebration of Lakshmi. People consider it an very auspicious day (shubh) and buy something precious — often made of gold, silver, or gemstones or something useful such a new utensils and clothes. In the evening, diyas are lit outside the houses to welcome the goddess. For those that follow the Krishna story of Diwali, the first day of Diwali occurs on the 13th lunar day of Krishna Paksh and is known as the dark forthnight or the waning moon in the month of Kartik. On this day, for Lord Dhanwantari came out of the ocean with Ayurvedic medicine for mankind. At sunset, Hindus are expected to bathe and offer a lighted diya with Prasad (an offering of sweets) to Yama, the Lord of Death and pray for protection from untimely death. This offering should be made near a Tulsi tree, the Holy Basil or any other sacred tree that one might have in their yard. [Source: indiatoday.intoday.in, diwalifestival.org]

The second day of Diwali is called Chorti Diwali (or Narak Chaturdasi or Roop Chaturdashi). In some places in India, people light candles in their homes to guide Lakshmi, in the hope that she will bestow good fortune on their home for the coming year. After worshipping Lakshmi, many Hindus gamble and spend profusely, believing that Lakshmi has bestowed good fortune upon them. In addition to this, two days before Diwali, a festival called Dhantares is celebrated to seek more blessings from her. During this time Hindus buy gold and silver and start new business ventures. [Source: BBC]

In other parts of India, the second day of Diwali is when Lord Krishna slayed the demon Narakasur and made the world free from fear. In these places, people bathe, relax and massage the body with oil to relieve it of tiredness so the remainder of Diwali can be celebrated with enthusiasm and devotion. Many believe that at night, Yama Diya (lamps for the God Death) should not be lit. The Shastras (Laws of Dharma) declares that Yama Diya should be offered on the first night (Triodasi) night with Prasad.

The third day of Diwali is Lakshmi Puja Day or simply Diwali. This is the day when people worship Lakshmi. cleanse themselves and join with their families and a priest to pray and receive the blessings of wealth and prosperity. Lakshmi and Ganesha are worshipped in the evening during a subh muhrut (auspicious time) with proper aarti (part of puja, in lit wicks soaked in ghee or camphor are offered to deities) and bhajans (Hindu hymns) are recited. It is believed that goddess Lakshmi enters homes and blesses devotees with good fortune and wealth on this day. People light diyas and candles and decorate their homes with lights. After worshipping the gods, people visit their neighbors and relatives to exchange sweets and gifts. [Source: indiatoday.intoday.in]

The fourth day of Diwali is Govardhan Puja and Padwa. On this day, prayers and offerings are made to Mt. Govardhan for long life and protection against disasters. It is said in some parts of India, many thousands of years ago, Lord Krishna urged the people of Vraja to perform Govardhan Puja and since then Hindus have carried out the same duty to honor the first puja made by the people of Vraja. Delicacies eaten on this day include pounded cooked rice called Poha or Pauva made from newly harvested rice. In northern India, people make a small mound, usually of cow dung, and worship it. In western India, this day marks the beginning of the New Year and is celebrated as Bestu Varas.

The fifth day of Diwali is called Bhai Dooj (Duj) or Bhai teeka. It is a day dedicated to sisters. In some parts of India, people believe that in the Vedic era, Yama visited his sister Yamuna on this day. He gave his sister a Vardhan (a special gift) that whosoever visited her on this day would be liberated from all sins and achieve Moksh (final emancipation). To honor this, brothers visit their sisters on this day to give them a warm greeting and ask how they are doing. In some places, brothers visit their sisters and perform a 'tilak' ceremony in which rice and vermilion is applied to the forehead, is followed by aarti. Sisters pray for their brother's long lives while they promise to protect their sisters. This day marks the end of the five days of Diwali. Bhai Dooj is also known as Bhai fota among Bengalis. Here traditions are reversed a bit as sisters pray for their brother's safety, success and well being.

There are also celebrations leading up to Diwali. Sometimes people get carried away. In 2005, 63 people were killed in Kolkatta on the weekend before Diwali.

family time during Diwali

Boss Gives Cars, Flats and Jewelry to Workers for Diwali

On several occasions, Savjibhai Dholakia, who runs the diamond export firm Hare Krishna Exports, has rewarded employees ahead of Diwali with lavish gifts. In 2016, AFP reported: “A diamond tycoon in India has once again given away hundreds of cars and flats to his employees as a bonus for meeting company targets. Savjibhai Dholakia, who runs a diamond export firm in the booming west coast city of Surat, announced his company would give 1,260 cars, 400 flats and pieces of jewellery to his employees ahead of Diwali. ur aim is that each employee must have his own home and car in the next five years. So we have decided to gift cars, homes and jewellery to employees,” Dholakia, owner of the Hare Krishna Exports, told Agence France-Presse. [Source: Agence France-Presse, 28 October 2016 =]

“He said the rewards were in recognition of the outstanding performance and dedication shown by employees in the last five years. The company would spend an estimated 500m rupees ($7m) under the loyalty programme to reward an unknown number of staff from a total workforce of 5,500. Most employees receive presents of some kind from their bosses during Diwali, the festival of lights, but they are usually boxes of Indian sweets. But Dholakia has been making headlines by giving expensive gifts to his employees since 2012, when three employees received cars for their performance. The generous boss gave 491 cars and 207 flats to his employees under a similar programme in 2014. His firm is one of the leading polishing companies in India’s diamond hub Surat and exports diamonds to some 75 countries.” =

In 2014, AFP reported: “A generous boss in western India has given 1,200 of his workers new cars, deposits for flats and thousands of dollars’ worth of diamond jewellery as rewards for loyalty. The presents, including those for worker’s wives, were part of Savjibhai Dholakia’s company loyalty programme worth a total of 50 billion rupees ($815 million). “We have rewarded those employees who have contributed to the development of the company over the years,” Dholakia, chairman of Hari Krishna Exports, told AFP. “They have sacrificed their family lives for the progress of the firm and hence they deserve the reward,” Dholakia said from Surat, a diamond polishing and export hub. [Source: AFP, October 20, 2014 /*/]

“Dholakia’s complex loyalty programme, in which employees earn points in 25 criteria, has been in place for five years — but this year the rewards have reached new heights. “We gave apartments to 207 employees, cars to 491 and jewellery to 500 employees,” Dholakia said. “The (deposits on) apartments were given to those who did not own one,” he said, while cars were given to those workers who already have their own home. Jewellery, worth a maximum $5,860 apiece, was given to some employees as presents for their wives because spouses “have also contributed indirectly to the progress of the firm”, he said. Employee Gaurav Duggal said his two-odd years of working for the company had been “indescribable” “The jewellery which they have given me is not only priceless, it shows the sentiment that the company has towards me and other employees,” he told the NDTV network. Dholakia’s firm exports polished diamonds to 75 countries.”

Enjoying Diwali Treats in Queens

In 2016, Shivani Vora wrote in the New York Times, “On a recent Saturday afternoon at a Hindu temple in Queens, a crowd assembled there was spilling out onto Holly Avenue. It was two weeks before Diwali and the din from inside sounded more like a busy train station than a serene temple. The crowd was mostly Indian — families with young children, couples and friends — but there were also many adventurous visitors at the Hindu Temple Society of North America, known to many as the Ganesha Temple. They occupied nearly all of the 300 seats in the brightly lit, no-frills room that looks like a high school cafeteria, with its pinkish Formica tables and folding chairs. Some waited for a gray-haired woman in a sari at a microphone to announce their numbers, a signal that their food was ready, while others were midway through their oversized dosas (thin rice crepes), mounds of tamarind rice and various mithais (sweets). More still stood in the ever-growing line to order. [Source: Shivani Vora, New York Times, October 28, 2016 |^|]

“According to the temple’s president, Dr. Uma Mysorekar, the canteen feeds 4,000 people a week, but during the Diwali season, as many as 10,000 eat there in a week. The holiday, which falls on Oct. 30 this year, always inspires a celebratory and indulgent mood. Practicing Hindus come to the temple to pray and ask the gods for their blessing and good luck. But this time of year, the burfis (fudgy confections of condensed milk and sugar) and badushas (cardamom-infused South Asian doughnuts) also have something to do with the crowds. Ramesh Krishna, 45, who lives in Bohemia on Long Island, was there on a recent Saturday with his wife, Rupa, and their teenage daughter, Preeti. “I look forward to Diwali all year,” he said, “because I know the canteen has these special foods.”|^|

“In addition to the badusha, his favorite snack is the murukku, a crunchy and salty treat of rice and lentil flours, and that afternoon, he waited around an hour to place his family’s annual Diwali order. All told, Mr. Krishna’s list had 100 pieces of mithai and several packets of savory snacks to be distributed to relatives in honor of the holiday. |^|

“His order, however, was barely a blip compared with the 16,000 pieces of mithai and several hundred pounds of savory snacks handmade by the canteen’s dozen cooks around Diwali. Besides those sweets, the season keeps the cooks busy turning out 5,000 to 6,000 dosas a week — triple the usual amount. The canteen’s current selections are quite a contrast to its start in 1993, in a small basement room in the main temple building. There was one cook who made rava kesari, a soft pudding of semolina, sugar, cashews and ghee. That rich treat is still a canteen staple. And Mr. Krishna and many other diners, despite their oversize mounds of tamarind rice and dosas, still managed to find the room to indulge in a generous scoop of rava kesari.|^|

“As the afternoon went on, the line to order grew, more people streamed in and the noise picked up. The mood at the canteen was upbeat. Narendra Desai, of Teaneck, N.J., was there with his wife, Prema, as he is most Saturdays. “We pray for an hour and then we come here to eat,” he said. “It’s worth the wait.”“ |^|

Diwali celebrations at Kotah

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Indian History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin; “A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples” by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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