Thursday, March 15, 2018

Mahatma Gandhi demystified

(Written on request for the Mumbai daily DNA, sent in on 17 Feb. 2018, heard nothing about it after that.)

On 30 January 1948, after Mahatma Gandhi’s murder, India’s political landscape changed dramatically. In the preceding year, the Hindu Nationalist movement had received a strong boost due to Congress’s confused stand on Partition. But then, Nathuram Godse’s bullets squandered its newly-gained political capital in one go. It would need decades to recover.

Prelude to Partition

Until the end of 1945, Partition had seemed to be a mirage existing only in the minds of some Muslim League diehards. With the British, the Congress and even, as per the 1937 elections, most Muslim voters lined up against the Muslim League’s plan, India’s unity seemed assured. But the League understood the essence of politics: “making the inevitable possible”. By fully using the possibilities created by the British need for friends during World War 2, it changed the power equation. The elections of that winter threw up an unexpectedly large majority in favour of the creation of Pakistan among the Muslim electorate. Now, Partition became the central question of Indian politics.

The British began to waver in their resolve to keep India united. Contrary to the Congress propaganda that most Indians swallow till today, the British had not imposed the Partition on India, on the contrary: they wanted to keep their empire in one piece even if they had to abandon it. But like Congress, they were sensitive to changing circumstances. The dawning Cold War made them see the advantages of a divided Subcontinent, with one part joining the Western camp. And after the Great Calcutta Killing in August 1946, they understood that opposing the Muslim League would come at a cost for which they did not have the stomach anymore. When Louis Mountbatten became Viceroy in March 1947, it was with the single purpose of transferring power to a bifurcated India.

Fortunately for the Hindus in West Panjab, Sindh and East Bengal, there was at least the Indian National Congress you could count on; or so they thought. But one after another, top Congress leaders were crossing the floor to a hesitating acceptance of Partition. Yet even then, Mahatma Gandhi stood firm. Had he not promised that India would only be vivisected over his dead body? And with his record of fasts unto death, was this not a solid assurance?

Karmic price

However, by June 1947, the Mahatma too gave up. He justified this broken promise with a weasel explanation: if one of the shareholders withdraws from the joint account that is India, no Mahatma could coerce him to do otherwise. Pray, what had all his other fasts been but successful attempts to coerce the other party into doing what it would otherwise have refused to do? Now that numerous lives were at stake, he refused to stake his own because his tender conscience suddenly had discovered how evil it is to pressurize people.

With that, Gandhi conceded defeat to Mohammed Ali Jinnah. It was a karmic come-uppance: in 1920, he had humiliated Jinnah on the dais of a Congress meeting where the still-moderate Muslim leader had opposed the plan to involve Congress in the Khilafat movement. Jinnah had pleaded against mass politics and especially against mixing religion with politics, warning that this would bring disaster. Gandhi’s cheering crowds had sent him packing, and when he returned to politics years later, he had learned his lesson. 

Mind you, the Partition plan could have been reasonable, as in the version thought up by Dr. BR Ambedkar immediately after the Muslim League’s Pakistan resolution of 1940. He had worked out a peaceful exchange of population, with all Muslims resettling in Pakistan and all non-Muslims in India. That lucid scheme would have avoided the massacres of 1947 and also those of 1971 and of all the smaller-scale communal riots. But some decision-makers seem to prefer bloodbaths clothed in high principles to this modest and pragmatic accommodation of the inevitable.

Godse’s achievements

There had been lots of criticism of Gandhi during his lifetime, now obscured and tabooed by his halo of martyrdom. For a single example, it was clear to all that he himself became the killer of Gandhism as a political vision when he dictatorially foisted Jawaharlal Nehru on the Congress, and therefore as national leader, as if he didn’t know what this “last Viceroy” stood for. The democratic alternative would have been to nominate Sardar Patel, Congress’s own preference. Later developments confirmed that Gandhi’s choice had been a Himalayan blunder, giving India the Kashmir problem and the proverbial poverty resulting from Nehru’s option for socialism.

When you read Godse’s speech delivered during his trial, you will notice that many of his criticisms were widely shared. In many respects he had been a Gandhian himself, such as activism against untouchability. In others, he simply agreed with many observers, e.g. in frowning on Gandhi’s irrationality. He was an extremist not because of his views, but because he tied the consequence of murder to his views.

That act was indeed unforgivable. Perhaps Godse could not have been dissuaded by its inherent moral evil. But at least he could have retreated before its formidable strategic foolishness. It spectacularly smashed the windows of his own movement for decades to come. But it also achieved something else he would not have wanted: it turned a fallible politician into an immortal saint elevated above normal human judgment.

Dr. Koenraad Elst is a Belgian scholar of India’s ancient as well as contemporary history, presently working at the Indus University in Ahmedabad. Rupa has freshly published a new edition of his detailed review of Nathuram Godse’s stated motives.

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Thursday, March 8, 2018

"The founder of my religion" and the wisdom of crowds

The question of what sources of religious insight are valid, comes up whenever you meet people of various religions who take the truth claims of their own tradition seriously. Is the authority of the founder or prophet sufficient as reason for accepting his truth claims? What follows is the text of my speech at the Ahmadiya interreligious colloquium of May 2009 in the Basilica of Koekelberg.

When an official of the Indian Embassy in Brussels told me he was looking for someone who could speak on Hinduism at the present colloquium on the theme of "The Founder of My Religion", I told him that among the numerous Westerners who do Hindu things (and this includes myself), he would not find anyone willing to self-identify as a Hindu. The word "Hindu" has a connection with the geographical unit India, and is in that sense irrelevant to anyone who does not have this connection. But more importantly, it is, just like "Christian", a label on a box. The type of people involved in the Western discovery of Hindu wisdom tend to reject labels of religious membership. Indeed, it is usually this very refusal to be boxed into a single religion that predisposed them towards attraction to Hinduism. They believe that, in contrast with Christian Christ-centric monolatry, there are numerous teachers who embody the Way, the Truth and the Life; which is what Hindus have understood all along.

I am a member of the largest faith community in Belgium, viz. the ex-Catholics. That is not a community with a sense of unity and structures of its own, like the Catholic Church. As the former EU commissioner Karel Van Miert, ex-Catholic and a leading unbeliever in Belgium, once said (quoting from memory): “No, freethinkers don’t need structures of their own. It’s not because diabetics get together in their own self-help group, that non-diabetics should likewise get together.” So, I have not been mandated to represent the millions who fall in the category of ex-Catholics, I am only representative in the sense that I am a typical case. I am an apostate, I no longer espouse the beliefs I was brought up with.

An earlier generation of ex-Catholics, when they were still a small minority of the Belgian population, often became anti-Catholic, anti-Christian and anti-religious with a vengeance. Today’s far more numerous ex-Catholics no longer have serious accounts to settle with the Church of their childhood. They, i.e. we, are simply skeptical of its defining beliefs. No hereditary sin of Adam and Eve, no virgin birth of Jesus, no resurrection.

Not that we reject everything about Jesus. He’s still popular for some of his sayings, especially when he was being anti-authoritarian like ourselves, when he went against the stifling weight of tradition and prejudice. But Son of God, no, most baptized Belgians don’t believe this anymore. That defining belief of Christianity is doubted now even by many of those who still go to church on Sundays. I understand that Muslims likewise venerate Jesus but reject his divine status. This at least proves that it is possible to be religious and yet not believe in Jesus as the divine Saviour. Which is the position where numerous ex-Christians have now landed themselves, viz. belief in "Something" but not in Jesus as the resurrected Saviour.

One component that recurs in many though not all religions, is God. People who have had bad experiences with a tough and authoritarian religion, tend towards a wholesale rejection of religion, including and especially God. They find something heroic in atheism, like standing on top of a mountain with no one above you. Or as John Lennon used to sing: “Above us only sky.” To assert human freedom, they would find it a crucial point to reject God. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s words: “Si Dieu existe, l’homme est un néant. Si l’homme existe, Dieu n’existe pas.” ("If God exists, man is a nothing. If man exists, God does not exist.") Among ex-Muslims, this is still common, e.g. Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes her discovery of atheism as a liberation. By contrast, now that Catholicism has lost its teeth, most ex-Catholics don’t bother to rebrand themselves as atheists or God-deniers anymore.

The anti-authoritarian generation dislikes the idea of a monarch in the sky, but then He can be redefined as something hazier, genderless, faceless, a mere “something”. We are the Something-ists. If you ask us whether we believe in God, we say: “It depends on how you define God.” Tongue-in-cheek, God is still okay, though the old expression “the fear of God” can now only be used in an ironical sense. Conversely, long-standing atheists have lately explored the idea of an “atheist religiosity”. Their rejection of the Pope and of Biblical authority need no longer imply a wholesale rejection of religion. Or “spirituality” as some insist on calling it, with studied vagueness.

We learn that Buddhism and some lesser-known Asian tradition also fall into this category of “religion without God”. That’s why the Buddha is so popular in modern culture: he reputedly doesn’t want you to submit to some omnipotent authority in heaven. At the same time, the millions of modern Westerners who do Buddhist things, like practising “mindfulness”, don’t become card-carrying Buddhists. They don’t want to put all their eggs into a single basket.

It is like in science. Everybody accepts that many pioneers have contributed to the present state of our scientific knowledge. Nobody swears by only one of them, nor denies the importance of all the others. Everybody knows that Aristotle’s work was, by all accounts, path-breaking, yet his knowledge was tentative and often clumsy. Both these facts, glorifying as well as belittling Aristotle, are equally true, and uncontroversial. Of course his work was a tremendous contribution to science, and of course it was very incomplete, in need of improvement by others who came after him. Nobody faults him for the immaturity of his theories, because everybody knows a single man couldn’t have created the whole edifice of science. Nobody says that Aristotle was the science god's only-begotten son, nor that he was the seal of the scientists, never to be equalled.

A poet has said that after Isaac Newton, “all was light”, so decisive was his breakthrough in physics. Yet to those who would dismiss the preceding generations of thinkers and researchers as merely caught in darkness, Newton admonished that he could only see as far as he did because he stood on the shoulders of giants, meaning his predecessors in thought and research. No scientist would ever say that he received the whole of scientific knowledge in a flash, devoid of any prehistory nor in need of any additions or improvements.

In the experience of most moderns, the same is true in religion. Earlier, a very monarchical view of religion prevailed: one founder, a single leader with a single book, and the rest are either devout and obedient followers, or outsiders to and enemies of the religion. Today, we are evolving towards a more democratic view of religion. It is open-ended on all sides.

It is open-ended in a geographical sense: valid religious teachings have originated in many parts of the world. In the colonial age, Christian travellers were puzzled to find noble people in China, in Arabia, in Africa and other heathen countries: “How can they be so good and not be Christian?” And they had qualms of conscience: “How sad that this Chinese new friend of mine, this thoroughly good man, will have to go to hell because he wasn’t baptized!” Today, ex-Christians and quite a few Christians are confident that even God hasn’t put all his eggs in a single basket: non-Christians had been provided with their own Zarathustra, their own Yajñavalkya, Confucius, Bodhidharma, or Shankara. Post-Christian people quote from Jesus, Laozi, Kabir or Jalaluddin Rumi with equal respect.

It is open-ended towards the past. Every teacher was a pupil once. Everyone has a navel as visible proof that he was born from a mother and is indebted to earlier generations. The Buddha, who is often venerated by Buddhists as totally unique and original, acknowledged that he had merely walked the path that all the earlier Buddhas before him had walked. After him, his tradition spawned equally important masters like Nagarjuna, Bodhidharma, Huineng or Dogen. Mahavira Jina, the supposed founder of Jainism, saw himself as the 24th of a lineage of "ford-makers" (tirthankara-s) stretching back into prehistory. The leading lights of Daoism and Confucianism in the 6th-3rd century BC traced their own vision back to ancient sages like Fu Xi, Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor), Yu the Great or king Wen. They had no notion of "Jahiliya", the Age of Ignorance preceding the arrival of the Prophet.

Evolutionary psychology shows that the germs of religion go back very far. We now know that a sense of morality, of altruism and fellow-feeling, which religious teachers usually claim as a special merit of religion, is present already in the higher animal species. Apes already have an (admittedly very embryonic) sense of religion. Some of you may have seen the documentary in which a gorilla flares up in anger against a burst of lightning and throwing a bone into the sky: he is filmed in the act of inventing a personal god behind the phenomenon of thunder and lightning. Right there, he just thought up a thunder god, like Jupiter or Indra or Thor. Later mankind has discarded this belief in personal agents behind the natural phenomena, but it was a step on the way forward and upward. While it is still controversial here and there to say we are the descendents of apes, I dare say that we are, moreover, the pupils of apes. But we did them the honour of not remaining their pupils forever.

Modern religiosity is open-ended towards the future. More teachers are bound to come, equal in rank with the ancient teachers. Nobody is the last prophet. We’ve heard that after Mohammed, some Muslims had a Baha’ullah or a Mirza Ghulam Ahmed. Without going into the merits of these specific individuals, we can generally say that most people influenced by modernity agree that renewals are called for once in a while, and that even in religion, progress can be made. In the post-Christian religious scene in particular, nobody is credited with a monopoly on the road to truth or salvation.

This approach has always prevailed in Hindu civilization. It has no founder, yet it has many founders of tributaries to its mainstream. The Vedas were composed by a whole constellation of seers, whose names are practically unknown to non-Hindus and even to numerous Hindus. Have you heard of Bhrgu, Vishvamitra, Jamadagni or Dirghatamas?

Realistiscally, you cannot expect guidance in every field from a single human being, no matter how saintly or wise. The Buddha was an outstanding organizer of a monastic order that made its mark on all of Asia, and more importantly, he developed or at any rate practised and taught a highly effective meditation technique, Vipassana or "Mindfulness". And yet, on family values he was a disaster. He had no way of honourably integrating the indispensible functions of marriage and child-rearing into his vision. Shall we renounce the Buddha then? The whole and indivisible Buddha, perhaps. But not the Buddha who matters, the meditation teacher. For family values, we can simply look elsewhere.

It is always a funny sight, religious people trying to find guidance in their scriptures for typically modern questions. The exercise may be interesting and may sharpen our wits: trying to churn or shake a modern message out of an ancient scripture. And interesting it remains even if we don't (as I don't) accept the believers' assumption that their scripture contains the words of the omniscient and prescient God, who must have foreseen the modern problems centuries or millennia ago when his words were recorded. But it is only an exercise.

Hinduism looks up to the accumulated wisdom of numerous sages. The possible excesses of one among them are outweighed and neutralized by the input of all the others. None of them was totally the first, or the absolute authority. Even before the dawn of mankind, Hindu tradition envisions divine incarnations in the shape of the Fish, the Tortoise, the Boar, the Hobbit... There are ancient sages, but no founder-sage, and no chosen people, no only-begotten son or final prophet.

In Hinduism, authority rests with a vast array of scriptures: the Veda-s and the Bhagavad-Gita most famously, but also in the Agama-s or doctrinal scriptures of all the various sects, such as the Nanak Panth (= Sikhism)'s Guru Granth. But more importantly, it rests with every enlightened master, everyone who visibly embodies the sacred. It rests with your parents and personal teachers, and ultimately also with yourself. Your own common sense and intuition are the most important guide in your life's choices, informed by the plethora of Hindu sources of light, and not excluding even the non-Hindu sources. Living Hinduism is an application to the religious sphere of "the wisdom of crowds", the principle the combined insights of many provide a more accurate guide than the insights of an individual, be he prophet or messiah. I note with satisfaction that the Ahmadiya movement has incorporated a bit of this Hindu attitude by acknowledging Krishna and the Buddha as legitimate religious teachers.

May all beings in the Universe be happy.

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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Hindus and Neo-Paganism

The late Ram Swarup (1920-98), definitely the most important Hindu philosopher of independent India's first half-century, liked to point out that other cultures had traditions similar to Hinduism before Christianity or Islam wiped them out. As he put it in his path‑breaking study of polytheism, The Word as Revelation (1980):

"There was a time when the old Pagan Gods were pretty fulfilling and they inspired the best of men and women to acts of greatness, love, nobility, sacrifice and heroism. It is, therefore, a good thing to turn to them in thought and pay them our homage. We know pilgrimage, as ordinarily understood, as wayfaring to visit a shrine or a holy place. But there can also be a pilgrimage in time and we can journey back and make our offerings of the heart to those Names and Forms and Forces which once incarnated and expressed man's higher life. (...) The peoples of Egypt, Persia, Greece, Germany and the Scandinavian countries are no less ancient than the peoples of India; but they lost their Gods, and therefore they lost their sense of historical continuity and identity. (...) What is true of Europe is also true of Africa and South America. The countries of these continents have recently gained political freedom of a sort, but (...) if they wish to rise in a deeper sense, they must recover their soul, their Gods (...) If they do enough self-churning, then their own Gods will put forth new meanings in response to their new needs. (...) If there is sufficient aspiration, invoking and soliciting, there is no doubt that even Gods apparently lost could come back again. They are there all the time." (p.131-133)

The cultural process of self-rediscovery after centuries of Christianity is already in full swing in many parts of Europe and North America (I have only little information about other continents and will leave them outside the scope of this article). In Europe, two organizations try to unite the various national groups: the England based 'Pagan Federation' and the Lithuania based 'World Congress of Ethnic Religions'. Both have made a brief acquaintance with Hinduism. Leading Pagan thinker Prudence Jones had a correspondence with Ram Swarup, whose articles on polytheism have also been published in other Pagan media, e.g. in the California based Church of All Worlds' magazine 'Green Egg'. The opening conference of the WCER (Vilnius 1998 was attended by three NRI Hindus; one of them was present again this year, and a delegation from India itself was on its way but couldn't make it because of Lithuania's slowness in handling the visa applications. The WCER's leading ideologues Jonas Trinkunas (Lithuania) and Denis Dornoy (French, living in Denmark) also sent a message to the Dharma Sansad, the "religious parliament", in February 1999:

To the delegates at the Dharma Sansad, Ahmedabad, 5-8 February 1999:

Respectful greetings,

As workers for the revival of the religion of our ancestors, and as convenors of the World Congress of Ethnic Religions, we are happy and honoured to communicate with the representatives of the world's largest surviving ancient religion, the Sanatana Dharma. We want to pay our respect to the people who have kept alight the Vedic fire for thousands of years, even when besieged by hostile forces, and who are currently guiding Hindu society through the challenges of the modern age.

We wish to draw the attention of the Hindu leaders to the efforts currently made to maintain the ancestral religions of the Native Americans, Africans, and other "Pagan" peoples in the face of the subversion of their cultures and aggression against their dharmic practices by agents of self-righteous missionary religions. We support the peaceful efforts of all nations to safeguard their cultural and spiritual heritage against subversion and destruction. We also wish to draw your attention to the efforts to revive or reconstruct the ancestral religions of those nations who were overwhelmed by Christianization or Islamization in the past. By common origin or simply by a common inspiration, these ancient religions share a lot with the Sanatana Dharma, in both its tribal and its Sanskritic manifestations. We therefore wish to express our hope and intention of establishing a friendly cooperation."

Clearly, there is a measure of common ground between Hinduism and Pagan revivalism, both typologically (as non-Abrahamic religions) and strategically. At Ram Swarup's suggestion, I have done some participant observation of this movement, or spectrum of movements, in the last couple of years. I have made many friends in these circles, and I sympathize with the whole idea of the revival of the wrongfully eliminated ancestral religions. That said, I do have mixed feelings about the actual performance of this fledgling new incarnation of the old religion, which suffers from some serious childhood diseases. In particular, I would like to draw attention at present to a few problems in the encounter and budding cooperation between Hinduism and Pagan revivalism.

Lifestyle : One thing which is bound to strike Hindu newcomers in certain neo-Pagan circles as uncomfortable, is the seeming predominance of what Indians know all too well as hippyism, the kind of loose and undisciplined behaviour which Western rucksack travellers have displayed while sojourning in India. Wiccas (neo-witches) dancing naked in the moonlight may not be the Shankaracharya's idea of Dharma. And while nakedness as such need not be immoral in any way, the fact is that the looser morality which Asians tend to identify as typically modern-Western is entirely the norm in most neo-Pagan circles. As Fred Lamond candidly admits in his must read introduction Religion without Beliefs, Essays in Pantheist Theology, Comparative Religion and Ethics (Janus Publ., London 1997, p.111): "Our practical ethics are 90% the same" as those of established religions, but "the only area where our principles differ sharply from theirs is in sexual ethics. To Pagans, sexual intimacy before marriage is neither sinful nor immoral (...) we regard shared sexual passion under most circumstances as a sacrament which, far from harming our souls, can be a gateway to self-transcendence and unity with the divine."

The Church of All Worlds even promotes "polyamory" as an alternative to the monogamous household. The Germanic oriented neo-Pagans (Odinism, Asatru / "loyalty to the gods") are more mainstream in this regard, partly because they recruit more among working class people, who are less attracted to artistic variations in lifestyle; nonetheless, one of their most gifted ideologues in the 1980s, Stephen Flowers a.k.a. Edred Thorsson, subsequently touted himself as � in Freudian terms � a zealous polymorphous pervert. Hindus in India, and perhaps even more the overseas Hindus who have experienced a close knit family structure and the concomitant "family values" as a great asset in their professional success (Margaret Thatcher's "model immigrant community"), would probably feel closer to the prudish morality of Evangelicals than to the libertine neo‑pagans.

Other Hindu taboos, as on beef-eating or meat-eating in general, are equally foreign to Western neo-Pagans. Though vegetarianism is a major trend in some circles, others celebrate hunting and do-it-yourself slaughtering of your next meal as part of the return to a more natural way of life. Even among the vegetarians, the motive is more often health and ecology (meat production requiring a much larger land surface than the production of vegetable food with the same nutritional value) rather than Hindu considerations such as compassion with all sentient beings and the taboo on touching, let alone digesting, animal tissue in a state of decomposition.

From an orthodox Hindu viewpoint, most neo-Pagan groups would have a status similar to the tribals of forested Central India. Though the tribals are recognized as Indian fellow Pagans, Hindus by Savarkar's definition, they are nonetheless commonly perceived as savages because of their disregard for certain taboos and because of their not so strict morality (as in the common youth dormitories where sexual experimentation is encouraged). The city jungles of the West have somehow spawned a lifestyle similar to that of the tiger infested and snake haunted jungles of India.

Absence of a yogic tradition : Another point which neo-Pagans have in common with the Indian tribals as compared with the literate Hindu-Buddhist mainstream, is that they do not have an established tradition of yoga.

One of the most important fruits of civilization is a system of techniques allowing man to reach beyond the ordinary, world-absorbed (c.q. dream-absorbed) consciousness. This does create an inequality within the broad category of non-Abrahamic or "Pagan" religions. I am aware that this is bound to put some readers off as being elitist, but there is a real difference between the systematically developed techniques of consciousness as practised in Hindu and Buddhist monasteries (and by laymen every morning and evening), on the one hand, and the whole spectrum of ordinary religious experience on the other: ritual, celebration, devotional practices, even erratic mystical experiences as anyone may have in exceptional moments (from first love to near death experiences). The best way to realize this difference is to meet an accomplished yogi: the quality of profound peace he radiates is unlike anything else. This doesn't mean that other activities, religious and secular, are somehow bad and to be shunned. Not at all: whereas Western adepts of yoga often deride "organized religion" with its rituals, I have never heard of an Indian or East Asian practitioner who did not observe some calendar of rituals (e.g. Zen as a tradition of meditation is heavily ritualized). Advanced students of yogic techniques don't set themselves against the surrounding folk religion, but adapt to it and add their own insights to it as a jewel to the crown. Both in Chinese Taoism and in Hinduism, we see how folk religion gets transformed by having the spiritual tradition as a point of reference in its midst. Contrary to what early Orientalists imagined, 99% of the people in the Orient are not sages; yet, they are aware of the existence and nearness of such a class of seers, and this infuses their religion with a quality absent in the purely naturalistic Pagan religions.

Did such a spiritual tradition exist within the pre-Christian religions of Europe? In Greek and Hellenistic culture, we certainly see traces of it, but they are usually attributed to Egyptian or Asian influence. The Druids are usually credited with such a tradition, but as far as we can see, their central claim to honour within Celtic society was their memorization of a whole library of mythological and historical narratives. This was similar to the Brahmins learning the Vedas and other classics by heart, which is part of their "karmakanda", "ritualism", distinct from the "jnanakanda", the search for absolute knowledge developed in the younger layers of the Vedas, the Upanishads. Moreover, as a serious blemish on their reputation as dreamy sages, the Druids were also officiates at bloody sacrifices, allegedly even human sacrifice, which even the robust Romans found repulsive and barbaric. In the development of Vedic religion, we see animal sacrifice phased out in favour of symbolic replacement sacrifices (coconuts etc.), but Druidic religion was prevented from making such progress from barbarity to civilization because it was killed by Roman armies and Christian missionaries. When the neo-Druids in organizations like OBOD, the "Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids", practise an altogether more peaceful religion, they can justify that (e.g. when The Times derided them on 22 June 1998 as "milk-and-water Pagans" for not even sacrificing human virgins on Summer Solstice in Stonehenge) by explaining that they supply the evolution which Druidry would have gone through, had it survived through the last two thousand years.

At any rate, a perusal of the remaining (often distorted) Pagan literature of the Celts and also of the Germanic peoples shows a lot of celebration of life, of courage and passion, and some insightful meditations on the mysteries of life and death, but nothing like a yogic tradition. Neo-Pagans who understand that something is missing make up for it by borrowing heavily from the living traditions of Asia. Thus, the OBOD has imported a lot of Hindu-Buddhist lore into its curriculum as a substitute for the unknown and irretrievable doctrines which the ancient Druids must have taught. To some extent, this is historically justified because European and Asian Pagan traditions did have certain doctrines in common, e.g. the belief in reincarnation is well-attested by Greco-Roman observers of the Druidic tradition, in Virgil's Aeneis and other European Pagan sources. But to some extent, it may be just fantasy: it is really possible that our Celtic and Germanic ancestors did miss out on some philosophical developments which were taking place in more civilized parts of the world. And whatever they did know and teach has largely been lost, or only been registered by Christian monks who didn't understand much of it anymore. So, either way, neo-Pagans trying to supply the innermost teachings to a tradition of which folklore and scanty surviving texts have only preserved a skeleton, have no choice but to look to surviving traditions like Hinduism.

Xenophobia : Alternatively, some neo-Pagan ideologues reject any input from Asian or other traditions. In the Netherlands, the late Noud van den Eerenbeemt, a Germanic heathen, used to teach something he called "Runic yoga", meaning a series of body postures imitating the shapes of the old Germanic alphabet signs or Runes. I think this was a bit silly, as Hatha-yogic postures are designed to produce certain effects in the energetics of the body, not to impersonate certain visual shapes. However, some heathens rejected it for a wholly different reason: yoga is a non-European invention, hence "unfit for European people". They were apparently unaware that the Runic alphabet itself was once imported from the south, and that the Indo-European languages themselves, and the religious lore they carried, were once imported from the East: at least from Russia, according to the dominant theory, or perhaps even from Afghanistan or India.

Those are the people who reject Christianity on grounds of its foreign origin: an "Asian religion unfit for Europeans", just like Hinduism. That is wholly mistaken: if Christianity was an erroneous belief system, it was erroneous even for people in its countries of origin, just as Islam was initially rejected even by the compatriots of the Prophet, the Arabs. Conversely, if Christianity is true, it stands to reason that we should all drop our ancestral religion and embrace Christianity, just like Paul did, and Constantine, and Clovis, and Vladimir.

Hindus stand warned that a minoritarian but activist strand within the Pagan reawakening is motivated by such xenophobia, which is largely based on ignorance or at least on the insufficient realization of the syncretic nature of even their own ancestral religions. Often they are people who care little about religion and more about ethnicity, using religion only to give some colour to their assertion of ethnic identity. My impression is that in the Odinist movement in the USA, with its increasing racial polarization, this "white pride" tendency is not just an embarrassing fringe, as it is in Europe, but may well represent the mainstream. And if it isn't that yet, it will become predominant in the near future: as whites slip into minority status in the USA, those whites who are on the receiving end of the social changes (remember that Odinists are largely working-class) will probably lose their current inhibitions about racial self-identification on the African-American model. Whereas Christians have their own variety of white racism (KKK, Christian Identity), the large floating mass of secularized white Americans will increasingly find a cultural rallying-point in European, esp. Germanic neo-Paganism. Those Odinists who take their distances from such development will soon find themselves outnumbered by the new recruits for whom colour is more important than religious experiences.

In Europe too we see that purely secular nationalist or racist circles affect Pagan terminology (the Flemish group Odal, the Austrian periodical Ostarra, the German periodical Sleipnir, the widespread use of the Celtic Cross by Euro-nationalists), but because of the more thorough secularization of European culture, this remains more purely a political code which does not interfere with the actual revival of ancestral religion. Most neo-Pagan including Odinist groups in Europe statutorily exclude neo-Nazis, Satanists and other such fringe characters.

In efforts at cooperation, Hindus will not much come into contact with the xenophobic faction among the Pagan revivalists, precisely because the latter are not interested in brown immigrants, except negatively. And except for the identification of Hinduism with the caste system, which in turn has been identified with a kind of racial apartheid system. As you can check in David Duke's book My Awakening, the Bible of the racialist Right in the USA, the Hindu caste system is widely understood as a system imposed by the "Aryan invaders" on the "dark skinned natives" to preserve their racial purity. That the Indo-Aryans didn't succeed in the alleged endeavour of race preservation and ended up brown skinned themselves is another matter; fact is that the Vedas are regarded by ignorant Westerners as a description of the subjugation of the browns by the whites, and as an injunction to racial self-preservation.

In continental Europe too, there is a movement of so-called Traditionalists, inspired by Rene' Gue'non and Julius Evola, who take a similar view of the caste system, and who see it as part of the Indo-European heritage, hence relevant also for the European branches of the great Indo-European family. Obviously, these aren't the friends you need, and if such people approach you, do patiently explain to them that the basis of modern science was laid by dark skinned people like the Harappans: mathematics, astronomy, writing etc. Perhaps that will change their outlook on racial and cultural differences.

Monotheism vs. polytheism : A very minor philosophical point of disagreement concerns the notion of polytheism. To many Western neo-Pagans, this is the central point of difference with the Abrahamic religions, and so they brandish their polytheism as the defining trait of their religion. Thus, the Belgian periodical Antaios calls itself a medium for "polytheist studies". While most Hindus have no problem with polytheism, they will find the issue in itself less important: depending how you define "god", something can be said for both monotheism and polytheism. The ancient Greek philosophers, though undoubtedly Pagan, nonetheless sought for a unifying principle underlying the whole of creation. It is only because of the Judeo-Christo-Islamic crusade against polytheism that this has become such a crucial issue for Westerners trying to revive their Pagan roots. As Ram Swarup puts it:

"And yet the birth of Many Gods will not herald the death of One God; on the other hand, it will enrich and deepen our understanding of both. For One God and Many Gods are spiritually one. (...) A purely monotheistic unity fails to represent the living unity of the Spirit and expresses merely the intellect's love of the uniform and the general. Similarly, purely polytheistic Gods without any principle of unity amongst them lose their inner coherence. (...) The Vedic approach is probably the best. It gives unity without sacrificing diversity. (...) Monotheism is not saved by polytheism, nor polytheism by monotheism, but both are saved by going deep into the life of the soul. (...) Depending on the cultures in which they were born, mystics have given monotheistic as well as polytheistic renderings and interpretations of their inner life and experiences." (The Word as Revelation: Names of Gods, 1980, p.128-133)

Is Hinduism an ethnic religion? When the WCER constituted itself, there was a lot of discussion about how to formulate its Pagan identity. The term Pagan or Heathen was avoided because members, esp. from Eastern Europe, said that the term had come to sound so negative after centuries of Christian indoctrination, that it simply carried the wrong connotations: immorality, violence, backwardness. The term "polytheistic" was also not acceptable, because Paganism admits also of pantheistic and even atheistic viewpoints, and within polytheistic frameworks we find that religious practice often takes the form of henotheism, i.e. worship of a single god chosen from among many (what Hindus call the ishta devata, the "chosen deity"). Another proposal was the "old religion" or the "ancestral religion", terms already used by some Pagan revivalist groups, esp. in Scandinavia (e.g. Forn Sidr, "the earlier customs"). Personally, I think that would have been the best, as it describes exactly the status of the religion being revived, regardless of its being polytheistic or pantheistic or whatever. It would also be similar to the Sanskrit term Sanatana Dharma, "the eternal mores / duty / order".

The founding conference settled for the term "ethnic", indeed a Greek term by which the Hellenized Jews and first Christians designated the Pagans. Note, however, that as the equivalent of Hebrew Goyim, "the nations", it would nonetheless include Judaism itself, this being the ethnic religion par excellence. The founding declaration of the WCER (see makes it unambiguously clear that no narrow ethnic exclusivism is meant, it puts the ethnic religions in the framework of "universalism". This will prove necessary, for the term "ethnic" all by itself may well attract all kinds of cranky political ethnicists who will need to be educated about the interwovenness of Pagan religions across ethnic frontiers. Thus, Germanic religion is at the very least composed of the pre-Indo-European native religion of northern Europe plus the religion of the incoming Indo-Europeans, the latter having lots in common with the neighbouring Baltic and Slavic religions, and even with the more distant Greek, Roman, and Hindu religions. When we study the ancient religions, we find that they have lots in common, e.g. their focus on the starry sky as the manifest locus of the gods at play.

For Hindus, the question should be faced whether Hinduism qualifies as an "ethnic" religion. Historically, that description has a point, yet Hinduism has, starting from the riverine plains of northern India, spread to the farthest corners of the south and the inland hills and forests, assimilating ever new tribes or ethnic groups. It has also spread to Central and Southeast Asia. Today, it is spreading in the West, both by migration and by attracting spontaneous Western converts. So, that is something to think about.

Conclusion : Hindus should welcome the revival of the pre-Christian religions of the West, often cognate religions through the common Indo-European origins, otherwise at least typologically related religions which are not based on a monopolistic prophet or scripture. At the same time, they should be watchful for impure motives and degenerative trends, or for phenomena which may be acceptable in a multicultural framework but with which they need not involve themselves. The ancestral religions of Europe are at present in a formative stage, a stage of groping in the dark, of gradual rediscovery or self‑reconstitution. At this stage they attract people with a variety of motives and divergent levels of knowledge and understanding. Still immature, these religions often look to Hinduism for guidance.

 25 September, 1999.

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The Sarna: a case study in natural religion

(ca. 1999)

Whatever one might have against the Christian missionaries, one cannot deny their enormous energy in mapping the world's religious landscape, not just by processing secondhand data in their armchairs, but by collecting facts first-hand at the price of great discomfort and sometimes at the risk of their lives. At a later stage, during the implementation of their plans for conversion, the data are sometimes twisted for propaganda purposes (e.g. by labelling the Indian tribals as "monotheist" to distance them from the Hindus and bring them closer to Christianity), but by and large, Christian fact-finding literature about tribal religions is a treasure-trove of authentic information.
Let us consider, for example, the excellent introduction to the religion of the Munda tribals in Chotanagpur by Y. Philip Barjo: "The religious life of the Sarna tribes", Indian Missiological Review, June 1997. The Mundas, along with the Santals, are what is left of an originally much larger and more widely spread Austro-Asiatic population in the Ganga basin. In the plains, they got assimilated into the Indo-Aryan speech community, but in the isolation of the hills of Chotanagpur (southern Bihar, western Orissa, northeastern Madhya Pradesh) they retained their linguistic and cultural identities. The visible mark of their religious identity is the Sarna, the sacred grove where rituals for the gods are performed.

Ethnocentrism and endogamy

Like most tribes worldwide, the Mundas are quite ethnocentric: "The Mundas call themselves Horoko, which means 'men'." (p.43) Just as Ba-ntu means "men", and likewise many other ethnonyms.
The Mundas maintain their tribal identity by prohibiting intermarriage with other tribes: "The tribals of Chotanagpur are an endogamous tribe. They usually do not marry outside the tribal community, because to them the tribe is sacred. The way to salvation is the tribe." (p.43)
Among literate religions, there is one clear parallel, viz. Judaism, which frowns upon intermarriage and has no notion of salvation outside the prospering of the Chosen People. In fact, far from being a unique case, Judaic ethnocentrism, like Munda ethnocentrism, is but the preservation of an attitude which was near-universal at the tribal stage of human development. That is why Christians with their universalism tend to see Jewish ethnocentrism as a "Pagan" element in Judaism (along with Jewish ritualism as opposed to the Christian emphasis on the "spirit"). Conversely, it is also why ethnicist neo-Pagans, of whom some are avowedly racist, tend to show no inclination to anti-Semitism, for they see Judaism as a fellow ethnic religion.
Tribal endogamy explains the Hindu caste system. As Vedic society, an advanced and differentiated society characterized by class (varna) hierarchy, expanded from the Northwest into India's interior, it absorbed ever more tribes but allowed them their distinctive traditions and first of all their defining tradition, viz. their endogamy. This way, endogamous self-contained units or tribes became endogamous segments of Hindu society, or castes.

The supreme God

Christian apologists in India have invested heavily in the proposition that tribals, unlike Hindus, are monotheists, almost-Christians who only need to learn of Jesus: "Sarna spirituality is marked by a strong belief in one God. A careful study of their religious beliefs and ceremonies shows that they believe in a Supreme Being whom they call Singbonga which literally means Sun God." (p.46)
To be sure, "sun god" hardly exonerates the Mundas from the suspicion of Paganism and idolatry. The Inca Athahualpa was killed precisely because he refused to trade in his Sun God for the Christian God and Saviour. The Roman Empire's dominant religion which was replaced and annihilated by Christianity was devoted to the Sun God, Sol Invictus. But modern Christians can explain the anomaly: they will say (like the iconodoulic party in Byzantine said of their icons) that the sun is merely a symbol, an icon which should not be confused with the immaterial divine reality which it represents. And so, Munda Sun worship gets incorporated into the monotheist tradition.
Singbonga looks a bit like the Biblical Creator-God: "Tribal religions generally believe in one God, in a Supreme Being who goes by such names as the Great Spirit, the Great One, the Creator, the Mighty Spirit (...), etc. Although at times God is identified with the rain, light, dawn, fire, water, hills, the Supreme Being of the tribal people is usually independent of the material or astral world. (...) He has dominion over the entire universe." (p.44)
In character, Singbonga seems to have more in common with the charitable God of the New Testament than with the vindictive one of the Old: "Singbonga is eternal. (...) He is also omniscient and omnipresent. (...) Singbonga of Sarna religion is a gentle god, not a malignant deity. He is an all-pervading benevolent power, ever intent on doing good to humanity." (p.46)

An ethnocentric God

Though all-pervading and benevolent, Singbonga is also an ethnocentric God, like Jahweh: "However, Singbonga's relation with the tribe is not one of individual love, but of an all-embracing tribal love. The tribe is the apple of his eye and yet he keeps himself a little aloof from it. He has no favorites; the pahan [= priest] is no more privileged in his eye than the ordinary villager. The Sarna peoples' allegiance to Singbonga is therefore also tribal, an allegiance to the visible and invisible tribe." (p.47)
The apple of His eye, that is how He sees his favourite people, and this justifies the law of endogamy: "The tribe is the temple of Singbonga and he wants it undefiled. The basic belief that Singbonga created the tribe and that therefore it must be preserved in its integrity justifies in the eyes of the Mundas all the regulations and taboos that bind them in this regard. (...) These include exogamy [between families], endogamy [within the tribe], and monogamy in marriage and conjugal fidelity. Not only the offenders themselves but the entire community is appropriately punished by Singbonga for the non-observance of these great ethical values. This almost exclusively tribe-oriented moral code with little personal conscience to enlighten and guide puts the Munda tribe in a world of its own, self-contained, self-sufficient and turned in upon itself, whose whole existence was tied to traditions with little change in the course of time."
(p.47) "The Sarna people do not have a written code of moral law. Their idea of right and wrong comes from their tradition. Tradition is their measure of truth. Their way to salvation is the tribe.
Hence they must see that they remain in the tribe. For them evil is essentially any offense that would break up their tribal status. There are two kinds of offenses: ethical and tribal. Ethical offenses include all aberrations committed consciously and which harm not so much the individual but others. Singbonga may punish such offenses by causing illness or misfortune to the tribe. (...) The offense against the tribe is the most tragic offense for the Sarna people, because their way to salvation is the tribe and this offense usually excludes them from the tribe." (p.52-53)
So, Singbonga punishes His people if they lapse into disloyalty by breaking the taboo of tribal endogamy, just as Jahweh punished His people for mixing with the Midianites, Amorites and other Pagan nations. It is possible that the depiction of Munda religion by our Christian informer is distorted by his Christian upbringing and Biblical schooling; but it is equally possible that we are faced with a genuine parallel between tribal and Biblical (Old-Testamentic) religion, again concerning their ethnocentrism.
As for the nature of the punishment, it must be entirely this-worldly. This is closer to Old-Testamentic beliefs in God's punishing intervention than to Christian claims of an unverifiable punishment in an unseen afterlife,-- or to Puranic-Hindu beliefs in a punishment in future incarnations: "The punishment is not carried over to the life beyond the grave. The idea of repeated rebirth is borrowed from the Hindu religion." (p.53) When a Christian tries to create distance between Hinduism and Indian tribal religions, we must be on our guard, as this is just what his apologetic and strategic interests require, but it may be true nonetheless. My guess is that the idea of reincarnation is entirely native to the Sarna tribes (as it is to numerous tribal cultures around the world), but that it doesn't have the moralistic dimension so typical of the most popular Hindu variant of the reincarnation doctrine, so that the content of the next life is not seen as determined by a tally of merit and guilt.


Though Singbonga is the Great God of His Munda people, He is not a jealous God but freely allows the worship of other celestial beings: "The domain of tribal belief also extends to the other supernatural beings which are above mankind but are less than the Supreme Being. They are usually called spirits but at times they are also invoked as 'deities' or 'gods'. Belief in spirits is one of the most important characteristics of tribal religions. In fact the tribal world is a world of spirits." (p.44)
There is a whole hierarchy between the supreme God and ordinary spirits: "Besides the Singbonga the Mundas generally worship a host of other spirits including their own ancestors. But Singbonga occupies the highest position in the hierarchical order of spirits." (p.46) This reminds us of the heavenly hosts filling the heaven between the supreme God and the atmosphere in many religions, such as Catholic theology's hierarchy of angels (archangels, powers, principalities etc.) and the choir of angels and saints forever singing God's praise; or, earlier, of Ahura Mazda's six Immortal Spirits and the numerous Helper-Spirits in Zoroastrianism.
Like in the actual practice of popular Roman Catholicism, where people pray to the Virgin Mary or to a particular saint, Munda worship is less directed to the supreme God than to the host of intermediate beings: "Cult or worship is mostly directed to the spirits and the ancestors." (p.44-45) This was the done thing in many polytheistic religions, e.g. the Pagan Arabs made idols of lesser deities for purposes of worship, but never depicted the supreme God, Allah. The existence of a "supreme God" is not proof of monotheism, but is on the contrary entirely typical of most polytheistic pantheons, just as the existence of one Pole Star does not nullify the concomitant existence of a heavenly host of numerous other stars.

Munda polytheism

For a first introduction to the Munda pantheon: "The spirits of the Mundas are hierarchically ordered. The first in order of dignity comes the Burubonga, Marang Buru or Pat Sarna. This spirit is a mountain-god or the highest hill or rock in the neighbourhood. He is represented by no visible object." (p.48) Like the sun, the mountain is an immediately visible presence and needs no representation. So-called idolatry is a relatively recent development in religious history, e.g. most ancient Indo-European peoples did not use idols or icons in their religious practice.
After the mountain god, "Next in order come the Hatu Bongako or the Village spirits. (...) They are worshipped by the Pahan on behalf of the whole village at specific times in the sacred grove or the Sarna of each village." (p.48)
Then, like in most premodern cultures, comes ancestor-worship: "The third group of spirits in the Munda pantheon are the Ora Bongako or the House-spirits. These are the spirits of the deceased ancestors of each family. They are worshipped in the house-sanctuary called Ading, by the head of every family. Sometimes they are referred to as Haparomko (the ancestral spirits). Ancestor worship finds an important place in the religious belief of the Mundas. They believe that after the death of a person his spirit/shade (roa/umbul) has no house to live in. As an outcast it roams about in the neighborhood of the grave. After an odd number of days, the Umbul-ader (homebringing of the shade) ceremony is performed by which the 'shade' of the deceased is brought into the ading of the house and enshrined there. Henceforth the man's spirit is called no longer umbul but Ora Bonga (House Spirit). This important ceremony is a way of re-introducing the deceased member into the tribe. It is believed that they in turn are the real benefactors of the family or the tribe to which they belong." (p.48; the Umbul-ader ceremony is held on the 7th or 9th day for adults, on the 3rd or 5th for children, p.56)
The Christian reporter will be satisfied at noticing that the ancestors are not strictly worshipped but rather (like the Catholic saints) venerated and asked for their intercession with higher celestial authorities: "They keep in touch with other bongas and pray to Singbonga for the welfare of their household and the tribe. They are remembered and offered their due worship and sacrifice at all important occasions of life." (p.48) More explicitly: "The sacrifice they offer is mostly intercessory" (p.49), and their feasts "all refer to Singbonga as provider and creator of the tribe". (p.49)
Worship of lesser gods is not always devotion, it may be apotropeic rituals to appease malevolent beings: "Besides Singbonga, the Munda pantheon includes a number of other deities and spirits whom they call Bongas. (...) There are both benevolent spirits (Manitabongas) and malevolent spirits (Banitabongas). (...) Accordingly the benevolent spirits are worshipped and the malevolent spirits are only appeased or propitiated." (p.47-48)
The worship of Singbonga is of a different order from that of ancestral and other spirits: "Singbonga, unlike spirits, is worshipped for his own sake. His purity demands that he be offered sacrifices only of things that are white. Hence he is given sacrifices of white goats, white fowls, white gulainchi flowers, white cloth, sugar, milk, etc." (p.47) White is the sacred colour of most Indian tribals, not only of the Mundas but also of the Bhils in the western provinces, and of many others.

Tribal environmentalism

In this account, the Munda tribals are presented as confirming the impression that tribals are ecologists by nature: "The world of any tribal group is stamped with sacredness, religiosity and reverence for nature. (...) This is the view of the Sarna tribal people as well. They are totally involved in the world, they communicate with the spirituality that surrounds them. They love nature, they communicate with it and are attached to it. Nature is their way to the supernatural."
Recently the notion of the environmentalist "noble savage" has taken a battering. It is now known that both the North-American Indians and the Australian Aboriginals have exterminated most large mammalian species in their continent. They had no consciousness of the limitations of nature, so they hunted the mammoth or the two-toed American horse or the giant wombat until the seemingly unlimited supply suddenly dried up. Some Western ecologists glorify the life of hunter-gatherers, but in fact, the hunting-gathering lifestyle is by definition plunder. It is because people in India shifted from hunting-gathering to agriculture early on, thus becoming self-reliant instead of dependent on plunder, that India has preserved most of its large species. Only some of the so-called tribals have not taken this step, but most have; the Mundas practise agriculture.
Otherwise, it is obvious that natural religions not based on books and exclusive revelations are much more immersed in nature. Some Christians have developed this religious feeling for nature as well, e.g. the 19th-century Flemish priest-poet Guido Gezelle, required reading in the schools attended by the Flemish Jesuits active in Chotanagpur. But it will again be obvious that this eco-spirituality came from their hearts rather than from their Biblical studies.


This brief little exercise in comparative religion has necessarily been limited by our choice of source material, viz. a fairly sympathizing account marked by a Christian perspective. Therefore, we have tried to avoid basing our impressions on observations which really provoke questions of whether the observer has been projecting his Christian notions onto his topic, or whether the tribals described may not have recently interiorized notions imparted to them by Christians or by Sanskritic Hindus.
Thus, this story about the punishment of the Asuras (Indo-Iranian term for "lords" or "gods", but from late-Vedic onwards a term for "demons") resembles both the Christian theme of the revolting angels and the Old-Testamentic theme of God punishing his people, and perhaps also the Hindu account of Parashuram killing all the male members of the warrior caste: "The Asurs were like the bad angels who revolted against God. They were greedy iron smelters, who even after repeated warning from Singbonga kept on smelting day and night. Because of their disobedience Singbonga destroyed all the male members of the tribe." (p.55) Has this been borrowed, or does it show that all religions address common themes and consequently develop parallel stories? One hesitates to make the choice.
No such hesitation need stop us from appreciating certain deep and undeniably hoary traits of Sarna religion as discussed in this account: its hierarchically conceived polytheistic pantheon centred around an apex god, Singbonga, so typical of Pagan religions in general though possibly usable as a "preparation" for the Christian variety of monotheism, with its Triune God surrounded by a hierarchy of angels; its cult of the ancestors who get associated with the gods, again following a widespread Pagan pattern, though comparable with how the saints are included in the heavenly sphere by Christian theology; and its ethnic dimension, rather different from Christianity but reminiscent of Judaism along with many Pagan tribal religions.

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