Spiritual Liberation from Gunas to Trigunatita – A Study of the Moral Trajectory of Hamlet and Arjuna as liberated Heroes

London Journal of Research in Humanities and Social Sciences
Volume | Issue | Compilation
Authored by Salia Rex , NA
Classification: For Code: 130205p
Keywords: Gunas, Bhishmaparva, Swadharma, Sattva, Rajas Tamas.
Language: English

The study attempts a comparative analysis of the mental and moral trajectories of the Shakespearean hero, Hamlet and the Pandava prince Arjuna, as heroes who undergo an inner transformation as princely heroes of their kingdoms. The two princes hail from dissimilar milieus but undergo similar moral and ethical conflicts and identical problematic period of dilemma and despondency at a crucial point of their lives .In the end the heroes succeed in surmounting these hurdles in life as a result of their moral enlightenment. The focus is on their earlier disability to surmount the tragic flaws in the characters which is termed as “gunas” in the Indian philosophy and their final victory over them which make the heroes of selfless action.


Spiritual Liberation from Gunas to Trigunatita – A Study of the Moral Trajectory of Hamlet and Arjuna as liberated Heroes

Dr. Salia Rex



The study attempts a comparative analysis of the mental and moral trajectories of the Shakespearean hero, Hamlet and the Pandava prince Arjuna, as heroes who undergo an inner transformation as princely heroes of their kingdoms. The two princes hail from dissimilar milieus but undergo similar moral and ethical conflicts and identical problematic period of dilemma and despondency at a crucial point of their lives .In the end the heroes succeed in surmounting these hurdles in life as a result of their moral enlightenment. The focus is on their earlier disability to surmount the tragic flaws in the characters which is termed as “gunas” in the Indian philosophy and their final victory over them which make the heroes of selfless action.

Keywords: gunas, bhishma parva, swadharma, sattva, rajas tamas.


The study attempts a comparative analysis of the mental and moral trajectories of the Shakespearean hero, Hamlet and the Pandava prince Arjuna, as heroes who undergo an inner transformation during their cataclysmic life. Comparative approach to literature aims to have an overall view of literature in order to attain an inclusive understanding of the cultural universe to see a unity of human consciousness which surpasses all apparent differences and cultural patterns is attempted.  The literary analysis enables to understand interrelationships among national literatures above all cultural differences and help to perceive art as an instrument of universal harmony. In the view of Jost the comparatists attach as much importance to confluences as to direct influences, to simple convergences as to established ancestries since they believe that affinities are better than direct influences for proving the fundamental homogeneity of a particular civilization and the literary intelligence common to all national elites (37).

An analogy between Hamlet and Arjuna at the philosophical level by focusing their tragic flaws that deter them from their heroic action is attempted. Hamlet and the Indian hero Arjuna as members of royal families, men of similar missions and temperaments undergoing similar problems in life make interesting topic for comparative analysis. Prince Hamlet and prince Arjuna   hail from dissimilar milieus but undergo similar moral and ethical conflicts and identical problematic period of dilemma and despondency at a crucial point of their lives .In the end the heroes succeed in surmounting these hurdles in life as a result of their moral enlightenment. The focus is on their earlier disability to surmount the tragic flaws in the characters which is termed as “gunas” in the Indian philosophy and their final victory over them which make the ultimate heroes of selfless action.        

The Bhagavad Gita is an  integral part of the epic Mahabharata , forming chapters 23 to 40 of its  ‘Bhishma Parva’ which  contains  Lord Krishna’s teachings  to relieve Arjuna  from his  dilemma regarding the propriety of waging war against  his teachers and  revered relatives. The focal point of the Bhagavad Gita is the philosophical advice offered by the divine teacher Sri Krishna to make the irresolute Arjuna agrees to the proposal of participating in a righteous war against his family members. Hamlet presents a similar protagonist who is fully aware of his duty to atone for the death of his father but lacks proper resolution for its execution.  The two heroes belong to the princely class whose Swadharma or prime responsibility is to safeguard truth and justice in their respective kingdoms. But both the characters are dominated by a similar emotional crisis caused by their intense attachments to their relatives and negative impulses which have to be curbed to be men of selfless action.

When Arjuna confronts his grandsire, relatives and gurus in the realistic plain of the battlefield he gets overtaken with grief and shows external signs of fear and depression leading to the complete abandonment of warfare Thephilosophical advice of Sri Krishna serves as an eye opener to Arjuna regarding the perfect methodology and attitude to be followed in his action. The following line spoken by Krishna pacifies the tumultuous mind of Arjuna as well as empowers him for a rightful action:  “Thou grievest for those whom thou shouldst not grieve for, and yet thou speakest words about wisdom. Wise men do not grieve for the dead or for the living” (II .11).  In a nutshell Bhagavad Gita discusses the question of the problem of human action – a subject dealt by the great dramatist, Shakespeare in his play Hamlet.

According to S.Radhakrishnan  “ The mood of despair in which Arjuna is found in the first chapter of the Gita is what the mystics call the dark night of the soul,  an essential step in the upward path ” (Indian Philosophy , 520 ) .Swami Rama in Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita  states that the physical and psychological symptoms that are experienced by Arjuna exemplify that his objection to fighting is not caused by non- attachment and renunciation but  due to his attachment (   35 )  . There are several reasons for Arjuna’s despair. First of all, Arjuna is aware that he is to get involved in a heinous war that could cause severe damage to both camps. Secondly the fact that the war is fought between both camps of the same house disturbs him. Thirdly, Arjuna is taking up arms against his teachers and elders. Fourthly the hero is expected to fight a fierce battle to regain his and his brother’s rights in the mundane world. Finally Arjuna is doubtful whether the prevailing order of the society will be toppled by the battle.  

The first, second, third and fourth Acts of Hamlet   present Hamlet as a young prince of exceptional caliber and charisma, who is fully aware of his duty and responsibility to one’s self,   his family and kingdom .But the protagonist lacks proper resolution for its execution until the final act of the play. A bird’s eye view of the vicissitudes in Hamlet’s life and their impact on his attitude to life is necessary to understand the negative traits in him. In the first Act of Hamlet the prince loses his right perspective of revenge of king Hamlet’s murder due to his intensive emotional attachment to his father. Shakespeare throughout the play portrays Hamlet as a truly devoted son who looks upon his father with high esteem and respect. Hamlet’s melancholy gains prominence in the play not only by his emotional exuberance but due to the absence of similar spontaneous expression of grief in other characters viz. Gertrude, Claudius. The following lines present Gertrude’s philosophical counsel tinged with her indifference and easy acceptance of the king’s death which has a reverse effect on Hamlet. In fact her words   fan the flames of Hamlet’s rage against her due to his unique moral values and paternal devotion:

Do not forever with thy vailed lids

  Seek for thy noble father in the dust:

  Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives  must die,

  Passing through nature to eternity (I .ii 70- 73).

The deep emotional attachment between the father and son can be considered as the reason behind Hamlet’s intense sorrow for King Hamlet’s death .The ghostly revelation eventually turns his silent disapproval in to a revengeful spirit which culminates in a sacrificial act of purgation.  The hero’s hatred towards Claudius, his anxiety and doubts regarding the consequences of his actions are caused by his inability to approach the act of retribution with a complete sense of detachment. Hamlet acknowledges that his emotional attachment towards his father is comprised of “[…]one part wisdom, /And ever three parts coward ” (IV.iv .)
42- 43) and expresses it in his   initial spurt of enthusiasm to face an ordeal for the dead father:

     If it assume my noble father’s person,

     I’ll speak to it, though hell itself should gape

 And bid me hold my peace.    ( I . ii . 243- 245 ) .  

These lines remind one about Arjuna’s initial stand in the Gita: “I wish to look at those who are assembled here, ready to fight and eager to achieve in battle what is dear to the evil – minded son of Dhrtarastra” (I.23) . Arjuna’s uncertainty about whether he should fight or retire is clearly obvious in his intense argument in the battlefield. The dilemma in Arjuna springs from his ignorance about the metaphysical implications of his actions and his concern for his future: “Alas, what a great sin have we resolved to commit in striving to slay our own people through our greed for the pleasures of the Kingdom!” (I.45).

In a similar way Hamlet understands the magnitude of his mission only after his tryst with the ghost of King Hamlet which made him think deeply on the moral and ethical consequences of his actions. But unlike Arjuna, Hamlet lacks a confidant to advise him the right attitude to his duty  and proper approach to solve  his problems in life .

Radhakrishnan in his commentary  The Bhagavadgita  observes  that  Arjuna  is obsessed by both the fear of being victorious and the fear of being defeated since he is tormented by an ardent wish for certainty ( 100 ). Even though the  pandava prince  is aware of his responsibility as a warrior the series of doubtful thoughts that arise in his mind questions the ethics  and morality in the  warfare with Kauravas . The Indian hero is unable to fix his mind entirely on his duty instead his concentration is focused on the righteousness of his action.  The dilemma of Arjuna originates from the clash between the incongruous principles of the domestic,    political and ethical worlds because he has to perform diverse functions as a prince,  as a householder , and as a human being  . The moral uncertainty in Arjuna  is caused by  his  ignorance  about the permanent nature of the soul and wrong attribution of  himself as the doer of all action. Radhakrishnan comments on Arjuna as a character who typifies the struggling individual who feels the burden and mystery of the of the world but has not yet empowered his inner spirit to understand the unreality of his own desires and passions and the true status of the world against him (Indian philosophy 520) .

The term ‘gunas ’is an important part in the Gita ethics that   bears a positive expression in spite of its negative concept. According to Chinmayananda in  Sreemad Bhagavad Gita: Chapter XIV & XV  the three gunas like chords  bind the spirit to matter and create in the Infinite Spirit, the painful sense of limitations and sorrows ( 19 ). Gita introduces the term “gunas ” to denote   the  presence and influence of certain negative qualities  in the  self which prompt  the hero  to indulge in vices that finally lead to his disintegration. Radhakrishnan discusses the doctrine of the gunas and their negative effect on human beings in Indian Philosophy :

The constituents of prakrti are the three qualities of sattva (goodness ), rajas (passion) , and tamas (darkness). They are present throughout all things , though in different degrees . Beings are classified into gods, men and beasts according as the one or the other quality predominates. These three are the fetters of the soul (502).

The expression ‘gunas’ is an equivalent for ‘human frailty’ a Greek concept propounded by Aristotle to denote the presence of tragic traits in an individual which obstruct him from attaining fulfillment in life . Aristotle in Poetics  states that a tragedy describes the predicament of a person “ […] neither eminently virtuous or just,  nor yet involved in misfortune by deliberate vice or villainy , but by some error of human frailty ; and this person should also be someone of high fame and flourishing prosperity ” ( 238 ).

Ila Ahuja in Bhagavad Gita: A New Perspective A Universal Message for the Modern Society opines that the three types of gunas present in man bind and imprison the indestructible Self and block it from self realisation . The gunas are responsible for the variety, diversity, and heterogeneity in all human beings since they are ropes of attachment that fetter the Self and hamper self – realisation(  106- 107 )

H.D.F.Kitto in Form and Meaning in Drama enumerates on the Greek poets’ concept of tragic error by considering it as  the breaking of a divine law whereas Shakespeare identified it as an evil quality which once broken loose will annihilate all until it reaches the natural end (337). A.C.Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy views that the tragic trait, which is the greatness of a tragic hero   proves fatal to Hamlet in the end. The hero fails to meet the circumstance with proper resolution, which a smaller man might have given and he errs by action or omission which get coupled with other causes lead to his end (14).

Radhakrishnan in Indian Philosophy observes the three gunas as capable of causing bondage or a feeling of limitedness to the self. The presences of gunas make Arjuna consider himself as the doer of all action:

The bondage to gunas causes the feeling of limitedness. The bonds belonging to mind are erroneously attributed to the self. Though action saturated with sattva is said to be the best kind of action , it is also urged that even sattva binds , since a nobler desire brings about a purer ego . For full freedom all egoism should cease. The ego, however pure it may be, is an obstructing veil and binds itself to knowledge and bliss.  Getting beyond all qualities and occupying an impersonal cosmic outlook form the ideal state (570).

The Gita concept of the gunas can be seen operating on the nature of Hamlet, who is dissuaded from his duty and responsibility as a prince and as a son by his earnest desire to do good in order to win heaven. The hero’s reliance on religion and morality persuade him to do the right action. The moral dilemma in Hamlet is caused by his ignorance on how to perform an action and yet be free from its possible evil consequences.  Hamlet is haunted by his Sattwic desire to perform only the right action and thereby save his soul from the flames of hell which torments his father. The impact of sattwa guna  in Hamlet prompts him to be meticulous about the  purity of his actions .

Earlier  while standing  upon the battlements with Horatio and Marcellus , Hamlet had the  ability to overcome their requests to guard himself  from the ghost of king Hamlet .The presence of pure inner strength derived from a divine  sense of composure , total negation of the physical being self , belief in the immortality of the soul   and  complete reliance on God empowered Hamlet to utter the following words:

 HAMLET .    Why , what should be the fear?

I do not set my life at a pin’s fee,

And for my soul, what can it do to that

Being a thing immortal as itself?  (I. iv .64- 67)

Later the Shakespearean hero loses his grip over himself and breeds erroneous thoughts and principles .In the end he regains his lost inner strength and becomes mentally fit for an open combat by shedding his egoistic desire to lead a sattvic life free from sin and wipes off his deeply rooted hatred towards Claudius.          

In the Bhagavad Gita Sri Krishna cautions Arjuna about the presence of the three gunas in varied degrees in all human beings and the importance of rising above the modes of nature to become trigunatita.Radhakrishnan asserts the malevolent nature of the gunas and their decisive role in human beings:

Evil is caused by the bondage to the gunas . It arises because the seed of life or the spirit cast into matter becomes fettered by the gunas .According to the preponderance of one or the other of the gunas the soul rises and falls ( The Bhagavadgita 55 -56).

Like Arjuna’s vacillation, Hamlet’s irresolution is caused by his innate desire to retain his conscience free from sinful action. The hero’s just desire to avenge his father’s death turns into an egoistic enterprise when it rises from his hatred, anger toward Claudius. Similarly Arjuna ponders over the rightness of killing the opposite force: “So it is not right that we slay our kinsmen, the sons of Dhrtarastra . Indeed, how can we be happy, O Madhava  [ Krsna ] , if we kill our own people ? ”                ( I  .37 ) .

The delay by Hamlet in the fulfillment of his revenge is caused by his anxiety on the after effects of his actions on him and his selfish motive to murder Claudius while engaged in a selfish act so that “[…] his heels may kick at heaven, / And that his soul may be as damn’d and black/ As hell, whereto it goes” (III .iii. 93 –95).  The first four Acts of Hamlet present the hero caught in a maze of moral and metaphysical doubts created by five negative character traits: ignorance, egoism, desire  , fear and hatred . A detailed reading will disclose that these inappropriate behavioral features in Hamlet   led to his tragic end. Hamlet’s ignorance about the secrets of life after death turns him an egoist. The egoistic nature makes him consider himself as the doer  of all his actions and  the sufferer of their consequences .The tragic hero wants to ascertain  the veracity of the ghost and doubts  the righteousness of his actions  due to his  self-concern for salvation.

  In a similar way, Arjuna’s intense attachment to his gurus and relatives and his inherent hatred for the Kaurava clan prohibits him from performing a selfless and righteous duty for sustaining peace in the kingdom. Arjuna expresses his egoism caused by ignorance in the lines: “ Nor do we know which for us is better , whether we  conquer them or they conquer us . The sons of Dhrtarastra , whom if we slew we should not care to live , are standing  before us in battle array ”  ( II . 6).

Swami Ramdas in Gita Sandesh comments on the ill effects of Moha and egoism in Arjuna:

It is Moha or attachment arising from the individual sense of ‘I’ in relation to the   body and therefrom to the bodies of those near and dear to him by the ties of blood  or friendship or material obligations . This Moha causes the mind of   man , as a  result of its narrow vision , to move in a limited circle identifying  itself with the  interests of this circle ( Gita Sandesh 1 ).      

A reading of Hamlet will reveal the exuberance of three burning emotions _ disillusionment, depression, and despair which block Hamlet from accepting his father’s death and his mother’s incestuous marriage. The hero is changed into a disillusioned idealist owing to the stark incongruity between appearance and reality in his domain. Hamlet’s attachment to his dead father instantly dichotomized his world into two halves : firstly the world that accommodates people who loved his dead father and  secondly  the world encompasses the people who are against him . The hero realized that he is a lonely inhabitant in the former world since his kinsmen have deserted him for the latter. The dismal realization of reality is the cause for his lack of enthusiasm for life which gets culminated in the loss of faith in man. The initial escapist tendency of the hero is a proof for his lack of ambition for the throne of Denmark and his silent disapproval of the sudden turn of events that followed the death of king Hamlet.

The preoccupation towards oneself makes Hamlet self-retrospective by nature .The Danish prince feels fearful of sin, hatred towards the opponents and nurtures selfish desire for the attainment of personal salvation as well as eternal damnation of Claudius. Hamlet holds an inflated self-image of himself as the doer of meritorious action for his dead father and an angel of justice who wages war against the miscreants. The self-consciousness makes him consider as the doer of all actions and be fearful about the aftereffects. The princely hero aims to avenge his father’s death but simultaneously gets entangled in the fearful thoughts about the results of his action. Hamlet’s  concern for the veracity of the ghost and doubts regarding the righteousness of his actions rise from his self-concern for his salvation. The hero aims to avenge his father’s death but his mind is simultaneously disquieted by the fearful results of his action .

Bhave comments that “[e]goism is conquered by constancy in Sattva ; attachment is conquered by giving up desire for results , and dedicating to the Lord even the fruits of Sattva-Guna ” ( Talks on The Gita 212) . The initial four acts of the play present Hamlet’s personal feelings as a bereaved son of a dead king. The hero’s thoughts are self – centered and born out of his deep attachment to his father and stark hatred for his uncle and mother .Hamlet fails to respond to the plea of ghost not to tarnish his conscience in the course of action against injustice. The revenge motive in Hamlet would have gained prominence as a solemn act if he had conducted it as a sacrificial act done for purging his country from evil. But it lost  its  grandeur when  it  turned out to be a calculated enterprise specially implemented for making Claudius deprive of temporal and eternal happiness .Hamlet postpones his  possible murder of  Claudius in the prayer scene in order to deny Claudius the eternal bliss which was treacherously refused to king Hamlet by him . This ulterior motive of Hamlet which deflected his revenge motive originates from his inherent hatred for Claudius .He expresses his malicious desire to permit the ultimate punishment for Claudius:

HAMLET.     Now might I do it pat, now a is a – praying,

And now I’ll do’t : and so a goes to heaven;

And so am I revenged. That would be scanned:

A villain kills my father; and for that,

I, his sole son, do this same villain send

To  heaven.  (III .iii. 73- 78)

The two heroes, Hamlet and Arjuna present the predicament of a human being caught in the labyrinth of emotional distress which make them totally unfit for action. The motivating factor that drags these heroes to vengeance is the call of their duty as the custodians of their family’s honour. Arjuna and Hamlet are two royal princes who are entrusted with the responsibility of retrieving the lost honour of their families as well as their lost kingdoms from their vicious kinsmen . Lord Krishna teaches brahmavidya to his aspirant Arjuna in order to focus his attention on the presence of the three gunas and egoism in his nature which are the fundamental causes that deter him from salvation. The predominance of rajo guna in Arjuna and Hamlet make them consider their responsibility as a gargantuan task which would cause immense loss in their lives . Both the heroes were motivated by their personal desires and attachments as they are swayed by the rajo guna.  The heroes have not been men of equanimity and they were easily moved by the “pairs of opposites” which are detrimental for a trigunatita.  in order to make them perform their acts as an obligatory and selfless service for their countrymen.

In the final Act of Hamlet and in the tenth chapter of The Bhagavadgita the two heroes reveal signs of sattva guna as they get free from the shackles of attachment, irresolution, egoism in them. The dawn of the spirit of discernment is vital to achieve enlightenment in a man  According to Sri Krishna a being’s understanding can be influenced by the gunas :

The understanding which shows action and non- action, what ought to be done and what ought not to be done, what is to be feared and what is not to be feared, what binds and what frees the soul (that understanding), O Partha (Arjuna ), is of the nature of “goodness”. That by which one knows in a mistaken way the right  and wrong , what ought to be done and what ought not to be done – that understanding, O Partha ( Arjuna ) is of  the nature of “ passion.”  That which enveloped in darkness as right  what is wrong and sees all things in a perverted way (con- trary to the truth ), that understanding, O Partha (Arjuna ) , is of the nature of “dullness ”   ( XVIII .30 -32 ).

Aurobindo in The Message of Gita   states that one must attain  perfect equality in the soul , mind and heart  and sustain  oneness with all beings, their thoughts , expressions and experiences in  order to attain a divine consciousness and to perform a divine action free from attachment                         (The Message 48 – 49 ) . Sri Krishna advocates the necessity of performing the right  action, selfless  and  free from the gunas , selfish desire and hatred in order to attain freedom  from the cycle of births and deaths .

In the third chapter termed Karma Yoga, Sri Krishna inculcates Arjuna the cardinal methods to perform one’s duty in the name of God Almighty without any regard for reward. According to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita every human act should be performed in a spirit of total disinterestedness by being free from all delusions caused by the three gunas and egoism . In the following lines Krishna stresses the importance of selfless action: “Resigning all thy works to Me, with thy consciousness   fixed in the Self, being free from desire and egoism , fight  delivered from thy fever .II. . 30)      

Hamlet’s contemplation can be explained in the light of the Gita philosophy .In the beginning of the play Hamlet expressed the qualities of rajo guna such as doubt, anger, attachment, vacillation in his activities and attitudes towards his opponents. Initially various behavioral patterns of tamoguna such as melancholy, inertia was also evident. But in the final Act his self is liberated from the barriers of  the three gunas .The predicament of Hamlet is caused by his obsession with morality and self-consciousness which constantly remind him about the righteousness of his actions in life .  Hamlet’s desire to lead a sattvic life arises from the presence of sattva guna in him. The mental state of Hamlet is similar to the state of Arjuna in the battlefield. The heroes are aware of their inability to do their duty in spite of all the necessary reasons for a rightful act. Hamlet’s egoistic thoughts, fears, hatred, and anxiety hindered him from performing the right action with the right attitude .Arjuna’s ignorance of the metaphysical life of man is the predominant reason for his dilemma in the battlefield.  

The initial four Acts of the play Hamlet present Hamlet as a highly egoistic man who focuses his attention entirely on the possible consequences of his revengeful action on his life. The hero’s sole concern to kill his father’s murderer is triggered by his inner hatred and anger toward Claudius and the intense attachment to his dead father. The prince fails to consider the murder of Claudius as a therapeutic treatment administered to save Denmark and his people. The hero could not accept himself as an instrument ordained by the king Hamlet to avenge his death for the wellbeing of Denmark.  The ulterior motive of Hamlet is to deny Claudius of his boon of eternal life which was treacherously refused to his father by him. The hatred which culminated in his revenge motive is evident in his inner desire to permit the ultimate punishment for Claudius.  Arjuna also experiences an identical spiritual tension which detaches him from social obligations and makes him preoccupied with awareness about himself as an individual. Hamlet would have succeeded in his mission if he had undertaken his revenge as a crusade against the unlawful heir to the Danish throne. Personal vendetta in Hamlet for Claudius tainted the clarity of his otherwise just cause which should have performed with a sense of detachment.

A parallelism is found in the initial inability of the heroes to be passive and detached in one’s action. Arjuna in the first chapter of the Gita decides to be an inactive warrior in the battle field in order to safeguard him from committing a sinful act against his brothers. He got struck by grief by his attachment to his relatives and forgot his purpose: “How shall I strike Bhishma and Drona who are worthy of worship, O Madhusudana (Krsna ), with arrows in battle O Slayer of foes ( Krsna ) ? (II.4). Then Krishna reminds him : “ But if thou doest not this lawful battle , then thou wilt  fail thy duty and glory and will incur sin ” ( II..33). The valiant warrior forgot the ultimate goal of his life and became a victim of mundane and transitory relationships. Radhakrishnan in his interpretation on Gita states that “when the struggle between right and wrong is on, he who abstains from it out of false sentimentality, weakness or cowardice would be committing a sin” (The Bhagavadgita  113) .

The two heroes, Arjuna and Hamlet belong to two different cultural backgrounds and periods but their dilemma which arise out of their life situations appear to be similar. The heroes are confronted by a fundamental issue involving their personal, family and social spheres. The contemplative and righteous nature do not equip them due to the presence of gunas  which obstructed them from fulfilling their responsibility as a trigunatita . The heroes prove that the  egocentric misconception and ignorance were part and parcel of their lives until they decide to break off their shells of  gunas.


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