ARTICLE: Understanding KĀLĪ’s Wrath
KĀLĪ-MAA Thealogy of Female Wrath
JAI KĀLĪ-MA!I have participated in many rituals where that exclamation brings about an extended cry of relief, joy and excitement. “Jai Kālī-Ma” is the invocation of Kālī, in all her forms. Kālī as the wrathful one, Kālī as the destroyer, Kālī as the fierce mother, Kālī as the feared one. I have also heard many cautionary tales about crying out for Kālī, if you were not prepared to fully devote yourself to that energy. Things change abruptly when invoking Kālī-Ma, frequently destroying our attachments to harmful relationships, jobs, property and unhealthy habits. As quickly as the flick of sword, as violently as a turn in the weather; as abruptly as unexpected death.In forming questions relevant to an understanding of a possible Thealogy of Female Wrath, I will be focusing on examples of Kālī worship in India and in the West. How is she being invoked, and for what purpose by women and men? What are the energies she ignites in Kālī devotees? What meanings are ascribed to the controversial paraphernalia she carries and how are these items interpreted by practitioners and those unfamiliar with Kālī mythology. A closer consideration of Kālī’s aspects provides a more complex understanding of Her popularity and effectiveness especially for those recovering from abuse and terror, namely women under patriarchy.
Kālī is frequently reduced to a simplistic depiction as the warrior goddess by feminist scholars who present a superficial analysis of her significance. Among many projections, she is criticized for being violent (Christ), for serving nationalistic purposes, for being beautified (McDermott) and for being less accepted than other milder goddesses (Starhawk).A Theaology of Female Wrath proposes a far more complex picture of why Kālī continues to manifest as a powerful symbol of female wrath and strength. Part of this observation includes my own experience of invoking Kālī-Ma during my early adulthood to deal with a childhood marred by a violent, alcoholic father. I have also witnessed the huge surge of Kālī devotees within my own community of women spirituality practitioners.
Although I do not consider myself a Kālī devotee, I do work with Devi energy in my practice and teaching in the yogic traditions . I acknowledge Kālī-Ma as part of the cycle of life, death and renewal, knowing that this energy – the energy of destruction- also serves a purpose.Who is She?Kālī, like all Hindu deities, has many different forms and functions. Tantra scholar, Ajit Mookerjee, names nine aspects of Kālī knowledge as: Kālī as power of time; Tara as the potential of re-creation; Sodasi as the power of perfection and fullness; Chinnamasta as the end of existence and the distributor of life-energy; Bhairavi as the active power of destruction; Dhumavati as the power of darkness; Bagala as the destroyer of negative forces; Matangi as the power of domination and dispeller of evil and Kamala as the state of reconstituted unity.
Western-trained theologians frequently reduce the complexity of the Hindu deity system to a simplistic debate of whether it is pantheistic or monotheistic perpetuating a Christian-centered theological paradigm that cannot explain the simultaneous existence of the many named aspects. For example, the three prominent goddesses, Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Durga and her fierce form Kālī, are frequently explained as merely the consorts to the male deities of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Much of this scholarship is a result of the biases of androcentric academic religion programs rooted in Christian-centered scholarship.
Historically, these epistemologies have formed around missionary agendas that vilified non-Christian deities, especially female symbols, in order to convert and control local populations. In order to address the theology and philosophy of non-Christian religions, scholars must shift away from Western biased epistemologies and pedagogies and consider the systems they study within their own paradigms.Hindu epistemology includes methods of knowing other than through logic alone. Sense perception, that includes both the five external senses and the internal senses, is encouraged and relied on for spiritual understanding (Reagan, 137). Furthermore, the methodology can only point to a spiritual knowledge; the method itself is not the knowledge. Author Sugirtharajah further elaborates on the limitations of Western scholarship as being too narrowly focused on a text-oriented approach to Hinduism and points out that in Hinduism even texts “have ultimately to be transcended” (99). Thus, deity worship as performed during puja rituals allows an accessing to a deeper state of knowing. The puja ritual is not the knowledge absolute. Likewise, images of Kālī assist the devotee seeking a certain energy. The symbols attached to each of the goddess in the form of instruments such as the sword or an animal (frequently called her tools and her vehicle) invoke certain needed aspects by the practitioner.
Kālī worshipers honor Her ability to protect and destroy. For contemporary women traditionally taught to retain the sorrow and pain of abuse by patriarchal men; she offers liberation through strong action. Mookerjee describes Her as, “there for swiftness, for immediate and effective action (61).
Durga creates Kālī
The most widely known story about Kālī is that she manifested from Durga’s furrowed brow during a battle Durga could not win with the instruments given to her by the male gods. A common misinterpretation by the non-Hindu trained scholar is to read the Durga image, with her multi arms each wielding a different weapon, as the victorious dominator of the battle. In fact, Durga’s sword and weapons are only effective up to a point. The Devī-Māhātmya as described in the Markandeya Purāna, describes that whenever she strikes and the demons bleeds, other demons appear from the drops of blood. It is important to know that Durga is described as the fierce protectress mother whose fury became Kālī. In this way She is generated from a female frustration, anger and terror of the proliferation of blood while in battle with the demons. David Kinsley describes her role as the wrathful goddess as:
In her association with other goddesses she appears to represent their embodied wrath and fury – a frightening, dangerous dimension of the divine feminine that is released when these goddesses become enraged or are called up to take part in war and killing. She is at home outside the moral order and thus seems unbound by that order. (80)
Kālī also embodies the seemingly unexplainable end of life, what the western world will later call “acts of God.” Kinsley describes her purpose as, “She is the unexpected blood and death, unprotected from the attempts at ordering civilizations” (83). Lina Gupta asks the pertinent question:
Why is it so difficult to comprehend Kālī’s nature? Is it because we are trying to understand her divine nature in terms of the ‘femininity’ she portrays and because she reflects a form of femininity that does not conform to the established role of women in Hinduism or in any other tradition informed by patriarchy? (31)
Women spirituality practitioners have emphasized Goddess as birth-giving mother in their attempts to reconnect with female regenerative powers having not fully accepted the death experience as regenerative also. Is this also the influence of a Christian theology that promotes no possibility of a life after the physical death? Death is feared, unnatural and not viewed as anything but the finite end. The presence of a female deity associated with the termination of a physical phenomenon, be it suffering or fear or pain, may indeed be too radical for women embracing goddess worship only as the “Good-Mother.”
Carol Christ’s main objection to the Kālī image is that “divine anger should never be imagined as expressing itself through violence, because violence is the method of power over” (232) can only be applied if you are already “in power.” For women as the subjugated whose lives are still frequently determined by power relations of which they have no control over such as those who have experienced rape and physical or mental abuse, anger is a natural and necessary aspect leading to action and change. Furthermore, destruction is part of the cycle of life and death. Frequently in nature, this destruction can be abrupt and devastating. If what must come to an end is oppression, abuse and terror over women, then anger can motivate a personal and societal transformation through the presence of Kālī. The female does not necessarily gain “power over”.
She is learning to hold her ground, to protect her own life force.Kālī may be both the death experienced from violence, oppression and random terror and the strength of action to stand up to such destruction. Otherwise, women turn their anger on themselves in the form of depression, eating disorders and substance abuse. Raphael in her book, Thealogy and Embodiment emphasized this connection by stating: “The body is a powerful site of resistance to its own desacralization and the energetic source of its own resacralization” (82). K
ālī provides an image that allows women to know the fire of their tongue and the active strength of their hands and feet to be vile and frightful in the face of oppression and injustice. She shows us how to know and use our own fire.A familiarity with the Durga/Kālī battle tale is necessary to further clarify Kālī’s controversial sword which is also sometimes depicted as “a strange skull-tipped staff” (Humes, 146). The Devī-Māhātmya describes Kālī’s victory over the demon when she finally “opens her gigantic mouth, swallows the blood-born creatures and finally sucks the blood from the demon, who falls to the ground dead” (Kinsley, 92). Kālī’s special power therefore manifests via her mouth (usually graphically depicted as open and red with visible fangs and tongue) and her ability to take back blood. These frequently overlooked mythological details contribute to a prevalent misinterpretation by even goddess-centered feminists reading the symbols according to Western mythographical templates.
The sword is a tool for the practitioner to cut through all that keeps her from her truth, frequently described as the “sword of wisdom that severs the bonds of illusion mistaken identity that are holding her devotees in bondage” (Gupta, 23). She provokes an often severe and startling end, associated with death imagery leading to transformation. Kinsley calls Her, “She Who Is Knowledge of the Self” functioning as “growth, decay, death and rebirth completely unrefined” (82).
My own Kālī
In 1993, I wrote a play entitled, Daddy meets Durga that was produced in New York City. It was in the form of a series of poems about my Daddy, an alcoholic physically abusive tyrant whose past inflictions continued to haunt my adult relationships, sabotaged my life as an artist and terrorized my dreams. The show served as a powerful public exorcism of his demonic hold on my life. I was inviting him into a battle on my turf – the theater – where I had not only survived his destruction but managed to create images and words that might help other women. I had already been through several rounds of therapies to address depression and self-sabotaging behavior but it was the image of the wrathful goddess that gave me the most powerful tool. I had never allowed myself to purely and deeply hate him to the point of wanting to destroy him and all the damage he had inflicted on myself, my mother and sisters. Daddy meets Durga allowed me to kill my father with my own hand-crafted words. My instruments were my pen and tongue which I wielded as Kālī manifested to help me (a previously docile but angry Catholic daughter) allowing me to sever what had almost killed me.
When friends, lovers and audience members attended my play and asked how I managed to survive the cruel situation, I told them the shocking truth. Had I a gun during one of his violent assaults, I probably would have used it. That is a truth that only sister survivors could understand. Fortunately, I did not possess such a weapon; unfortunately, I turned that anger of being subjugated onto myself — a common and often deadly distraction for women who have survived. If you are lucky, you may find your way out of that self-inflicted terrorism, but many remain unlucky. They may not possess the skills to document the events as I did, eventually turning it into public art. Or they may not be lucky enough to receive a later example of kind male love in the form of caring partners or knowledgeable therapists to offset earlier inflictions of misogyny.If a woman can embody Kālī energy then she will stand up to the man trying to destroy her and know she has tools to also destroy his power over her. That is strength, that is courage, that is honoring her own life as equal to his. To lay down our “weapons” or to reimage Kālī so that “her swords and trophies would be removed” (Christ, 233) would be denying that such implements are used fatally against us as women.
Kālī Embodies Contradictions
Western scholars puzzle over Kālī being both nurturing and terrifying. Western theology has successfully split these two traits and associated them with opposite forces which are either all-good or all-evil. Many of the deities presented in Hinduism including the female deities are capable of bestowing both blessings and difficulties. In this way, life and death are inextricably bound. Kālī reminds us of the possibility of death, perhaps that is why she is so disturbing to Western goddess worshippers who prefer to revel in the “positive” – avoiding their own death, or the end of some aspect of their personhood. Women who have faced this fact are often those who have survived threatening actions inflicted on them as children. The possibility of dying, especially in a violent disturbing manner often by the hand of your own father is a reality never forgotten. Kālī as symbol recognizes the existence of destruction and allows a woman to claim even this “negative” trait as a part of her selfhood.Laura Amazzone, a self-identified Durga devotee and Kālī practitioner describes how Kālī energy has assisted her as an abuse survivor:
There have been times in my life when I have needed to tap into Her raw, unbridled anger and power in order to liberate myself from my fears, physical, and emotional and mental pain, and suffering. I suffered severe physical and some sexual abuse from my father and Kālī’s wrath has helped me break free of feeling like a victim. One way I interpret her wrath is as a response to the oppressive patriarchal structures and societal and cultural conditioning that bind us and keep us from living authentically, passionately, and freely as women. Her wrath is always just – albeit definitely not comfortable.
The real life story of Phoolan Devi who became known as “The Bandit Queen of India” holds all the complexities of an embodiment of female wrath. Phoolan Devi remembers being “beaten ever since I was born” (20), married as a girl and raped by several men in her husband’s village. She escaped and lived for many years in the mountains as the leader of a group of bandits. She later returned to the village to avenge the rapists by killing them. She surrendered in 1983 and became an influential leader of the Untouchables, the Dacoits, eventually being elected to India’s Parliament. She was assassinated in 2001. Because Phoolan Devi never learned to read or write, her recent autobiography was dictated. In it she reveals the one spiritual connection she made early in life was with the goddess Durga.
I prayed like my father to Durga, the fierce goddess who rode on a tiger through the endless night. She was the only one I wanted help from now. I asked her to show me how to slay demons as she had done, and to give me a stick too, so I could fight back. (37)
Considering her story allows for a study of what a Thealogy of Female Wrath might include and why. Both Western and Indian women would agree that brutally murdering men for their atrocities would not end patriarchal oppression. However, one of the most common reactions from those who have not been persecuted is to question the passivity of the victim. Why did they not act against the oppressor? This assumes the victim possesses a full ability to act (which in postmodern theories is defined as “agency”) and discounts the life and death issues of personal survival at stake.Phoolan Devi provides us with an example of a woman who did “act” in a powerful, albeit, violent manner to alter her existence and the violations of the rapists.
This was not done as a vigilante, where violence arises from paranoia but after a brutal gang rape inflicted on Devi’s body and spirit because she was female. How should a woman act following such an horrible act?Certainly within Christian theology, no behavior models exist providing faces of female wrath. In Christianity, she would be told to forgive creating an internalization of the pain and suffering as her symbolic “cross to bear”. These were in fact the exact words my mother chose repeatedly to explain her choice to stay in a violent marriage for over 30 years until her death at age 60. She had no icon of female wrath as Devi had who, “picked Durga as my emblem. Like the goddess, I was driven by my hunger for justice. That was what gave me strength” (Devi, 293). As long as women continue being beaten, raped and killed simply because they are women, they need the fierce goddess to know of their own strength . A theology that excludes images of female wrath can only reinforce women’s submissive behavior under the domination of patriarchy.
If the significance of Kālī’s wrath is obvious to women, what might it represent to male devotees? Sarah Caldwell in her book, O Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of the Goddess Kālī addresses how male Kālī worshipers view Her powers. Her ethnographic field work in Kerala focuses on the enactment of the Kālī tale by the male actors and dancers who perform it. She observes that: “The predominant attitude towards the female in mutiyettu (ritual) is hostility rather than empathy and the actor appears to identify with the threatening Kālī only in an attempt to pacify and control her.” (231) She also concludes that “The actors who show particular talent for playing the part of Kālī, being possessed by her on demand, might well be individuals with an abuse background” (Caldwell 235).
This last statement is perhaps her most controversial as it imposes a Western, psychological interpretation onto the ritualists’ motives that may not be accurate or relevant. Nevertheless, her examination of the symbols and imagery of BhadraKālī with stories of violence against women and the rituals avenging these acts are valuable in considering a living tradition with practices of ritualized female wrath, where in fact “the goddess embodies both poles of the abused woman’s experience: violation and vengeance” (241).
Sadly she also notes the contemporary gender power shifts that restricts ritual enactment of Kālī to male actors concluding that, “if women once created and controlled these myths and rituals, they do not do so today” (242). Although, according to Caldwell’s research, the ritual of Kālī’s power has been taken over by bramin actors and priests, the identification with Kālī’s potential wrath is immediately recognizable by both Indian men and women.Lina Gupta’s essay entitled Kālī, the Savior, explores the question of “does the goddess embody traits that can be a source of social and spiritual liberation for all women and men?” (15) Gupta places this question in a historical and legal context examining the first codified legal treatise of the Laws of Manu (seventh century B.C.E.) when “under this reform, women lost much of their freedom” (18). Kālī’s wrath becomes even more significant if She is viewed as the “anti-wife” unrestricted by these repressive laws. Although she is sometimes described as the spouse of Siva, she mostly appears as independent of male energy and frequently with Her foot on the dead Shiva form. Her continuing presence reveals women’s rebellion against patriarchal Hindu hierarchies as enforced by the Laws of Manu:
Her defiant nature reminds one of her unrestricted raw energy, which if uncontrolled, according to Manu, leads to chaos and calamity, but which, taken from another perspective, can serve as an imagistic resource for moving beyond patriarchy. (Gupta, 35)
As an Indian-born scholar, Gupta offers a perspective on Kālī’s significance in India today which may differ from how Kālī has been misappropriated by Western devotees as merely the destructive, violent female symbol. She emphasizes that Kālī embraces the full cycle of life: creation, preservation and destruction (23). This expanded dynamic image of Kālī would support the concepts offered by process theology which such feminists as Carol Christ are aligning with because it allows for the fluidity of female spiritual experiences.Gupta also offers a more complex reading of Kālī’s dark skin color. Christ’s warns that, “we should not identify dark-skinned Goddesses exclusively with qualities such as death and anger”, perhaps reflecting her own cultural association with blackness (233). Gupta offers another interpretation, widely shared in non-European thought that, “Darkness absorbs all colors….Kālī represents a totality that transcends all forms of duality and separation.” (24) Kālī is also sometimes painted in indigo blue or scarlet red. The ancient poem, Kamalakanta Bhattacarya, begins with, “Is my black Mother Syama really black?….Sometimes my Mother is white, sometimes yellow, blue, and red. I cannot fathom Her” If fact the Hindu pantheon portrays many of the deities in certain colors specifically attributed to that goddess or god (e.g. Krshna is blue, Gaytri is gold). A deeper understanding of Hindu mythology is needed to realize the significance of the color and its specific power.
Kālī’s sword is the most controversial weapon for Christ and many feminist working to eliminate war references props. It is interesting that Christ does not comment on the range of instruments that the multi-armed Durga holds which include: a mace, a trident, a bow and arrow, a disc, a pot, a lotus and a thunder bolt. Pupal Jayakar in her research on the agricultural origins of female deities in India suggests the representation of the craftsmakers of the time through these symbols and “the importance enjoyed by them as the creators of the gods and the functional objects of daily use ” (30). Once again, a familiarity with the myths and stories of these symbols is needed to fully understand the powers associated with each symbol, e.g.fire, speed, precision.Another common explanation offers a more psychological interpretation for the symbol of the sword as dispelling ignorance, selfishness and blinding ego. Gupta describes it as “a sword of wisdom, severing the bonds of illusion and mistaken identity that are holding her devotees in bondage”(24). Such transformations often happen suddenly for a devotee, often disrupting her life in a startling manner. The power of shakti is not always subtle and calm and the practitioner invoking changes in her life must prepare for all the small deaths that may occur in her process of transformation.Roxanne Kamayani Gupta in her essay, “Kālī Mayi: Myth and Reality in a Banaras Ghetto” offers yet another interpretation of Kālī’s rage. Gupta experiences Kālī as a symbolic end while in Barnaras during a difficult transition in her life. She states that, “looking into the face of Kālī, I was able to face truthfully the imminent end of my marriage” (140). She further realizes how the Hindu woman devotee’s perception may be very different from the more psychological Western usage:
Although it may seem contradictory or even ironic from a Western point of view, for Hindus, Kālī is the embodiment, not of rage, but of compassion. In order to assess whether this compassion is “empowering” or its opposite, we would have to become much more self-conscious about our own definition of power; to ask whether by this term we refer to an external or internal agency, power as the ability to do, or power as the ability to be, to simply continue to exist in the face of potential annihilation, real or imagined. (140-41)
Vicki Noble, author Shakti Woman, centers much of her ritual work around Kālī and the Tibetan Buddhist manifestation of the Black Dakini. Noble frequently has a blade implement as part of a centering altar while leading meditations and explains the power of this symbol for women healers who have been the midwives who may have cut the birth cord with such an instrument . Clearly the symbolic use of the blade takes another meaning for a ritualist accustomed to working with symbols on many levels including their utilitarian and historical significance. Noble further states that:
Both Kālī and the Black Dakini carry a knife, sword, or blade of some kind that they swing over their heads for eradicating ego obscurations. Kālī even goes so far as to be seen cutting off Shiva’s head (ego, identity) so that his energy can get free. (200)
Like all spiritual symbols of deities, Kālī’s image and function has changed according to historical and cultural needs. The image of Durga/Kālī has indeed been associated with Indian nationalism in India. However, her significance to devotees may differ from how the outsider (scholars, non-devotees or Westerners) interprets it. Patricia Lawrence essay “Kālī in the Context of Terror: The Tasks of a Goddess in Sri Lanka’s Civil War” addresses the resurgence of Kālī devotion amid the Tamil minority fighting for independence.
Tamil families caught in the region are turning to Kālī, more than to any other local Hindu deity, for help in coping with the terrible personal tragedy and chaos of this historical moment…. Military repression, population displacement, continuing peripheralization, extremely high rates of “disappearance,” and the shadow of unnatural death upon everyday life are important aspects in the devotional revitalization of Kālī worship in the eastern war zone. (103)
Certainly the strong image of Kālī as warrior goddess can suggest political resistance, rebellion and a unifying battle cry. But even this assumption must be examined to understand how the symbol has been used. Christ’s objection to the warrior symbols in female deities because, “militant Hindu women have invoked the Hindu Goddesses in support of aggressive Hindu fundamentalism and nationalism” (232) requires a deeper understanding and contextual analysis. Several causes must be considered, including the relationship of the Kālī image and life traumas experienced by Her devotees. Likewise the close identification with Kālī by many Western devotees reflects their own life experiences of trauma, abuse, poverty and violence inflicted on them.Furthermore, if viewed through a postcolonial lens, the “nationalistic” Kālī image was effective in providing a unity against British colonialism. Once again, a more complex understanding of how this fierce Kālī image was used and by whom is needed. Hugh B. Urban in his recent book, Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion points out that, “in the case of complex figures like Aurobindo, the Goddess could symbolize both Mother India, in violent rebellion against her colonial oppressors, and the Divine Mother, seeking some kind of harmony with the West in an age of postcolonial compromise” (74). He further discusses how the violent aspects of Kālī were sensationalized by the British to prove India’s savagery.
Likewise, Kālī’s origins cannot be explained simply. Women spirituality scholars frequently attribute the militarization of the female deity to “warrior tribes speaking Indo-European languages [who] conquered traditional people (Christ, 233). However, Miriam Dexter suggests that the pre Indo-European origins of Kālī are in the indigenous goddess, Nirrti who possessed a “manifestation of righteous anger against those who violated the laws of nature” (77).Considering examples from non-European cultures further reveals prevalent images of ferocity and potential destructiveness embodied in the female form. Betty DeShong Meador’s research on the female Mesopotamian deity Inanna paints a similar “paradoxical goddess” whose “violence and destructiveness go beyond the boundaries of tolerable human behavior” (19). The powerful Egyptian leonine goddess, Sekhmet, is also often described as possessing both “dangerous and destructive” aspects along with “protective and healing” ones (Wilkinson, 181). Sekhment has the special ability “to breathe fire against her enemies” (181) – which is also an attribute of Kālī!If, as Christ suggests, feminists should consider eliminating Kālī’s weaponry (233) then we accept that such images are highly adaptable within the cultures and groups making use of its symbols. Is Kālī then, still the goddess of destruction without her sword, or is it the “destructive tendencies” that are objectionable? Hugh B.Urban provides valuable questions of who is forming the image and for what purpose noting that Kālī’s image remains fluid as recently evidenced by the womens’ spirituality practices of Western feminists who in turn have affected images of Kālī in India in what he calls “the curry effect” .Contrary to Starhawk’s unsupported observation of Kālī as being “less easily popularized in the West, because they [Kālī and tantra] do not fit our cultural expectation that truth is purveyed through male image” (222) , the image of Kālī seems to have ignited the spiritual imagination of many spirituality practitioners. Rachel Fell McDermott considers the plethora of Kālī material on the internet in her essay, “ Kālī’s New Frontier.” The popularity of Kālī worship is evidenced by such events as the annual Kālī Puja organized by Western devotee Elizabeth Harding which attracts thousands of Western and Hindu men and women to Laguna Nigel, California. San Francisco based Kālī devotee, Chandra, organizes rituals and initiations through her organization Sharanya (www.maabatakali.org). Kālī’s is prevalent as an image of inspiration and devotion perhaps because she offers an alternative female image to the virtuous, non-angry Christian Mary. Or perhaps because she comes surrounded with images of death, sex and violence, which may speak to our own times.
Emily Culpepper in her article “The Spiritual, Political Journey of a Feminist Freethinker” describes her own awakening of Kālī energy as a western spirituality practitioner. She names her black cat “Kālī” who teachers her the lessons of not only her beauty and playfulness but also “her appetite for hunting and killing.” Kālī provided the gift of living the paradox of life. She realized that “Kālī spoke to my need for trying to face the contradictions of goodness and suffering, life and loss.” Furthermore, the goddess Kālī reminds her that “the wonder of creation must include my knowledge of destruction” (155).
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