The Mahabharata, one of the two Itihasas, begins with the tale of the Sarpa Satra of King Janamejaya, during which the epic was narrated to him by Janamejaya. The Sarpa Satra was a 12-year Yajna conducted by Janamejaya to avenge his father Parikshit's death by the Snake Takshaka, by killing all the snakes. Fortunately (?) this act of his was stopped by Sage Astika, the son of Jaratkaru and Manasa Devi. (Here too there is a difference, as in the Bhagavatam, Janamejaya is stopped by Brhaspati.)

Now, the background of this story is the death of Parikshit. In the Adi Parva, it is described that Maharaja Parikshit, while hunting, gets thirsty and reaches the Ashrama of Maharshi Shamika. When Maharshi Shamika doesn't respong to his request for water, due to his meditation, Parikshit gets angry and drapes a dead snake around the Maharshi's neck and leaves. He is noticed by the sage's son Shringi, who pronounces a curse on the King to be killed by the Snake King Takshaka within seven days.

When Parikshit is informed, he becomes paranoid and builds a high tower, inaccessible to all but him, and resides within it with all his supplies. But Takshaka decides to enter one of the fruits to be taken for Parikshit. He stops a rishi named Kashyapa (not the famous Kashyapa) who had been on his way to chant the Mrta Sanjeevani on a dead Parikshit and bring him to life, thereby obtaining lot of rewards. Takshaka gives Kashyapa a lot of wealth and then enters a fruit. When Parikshit bites into the fruit Takshaka comes out and bites him back, killing him. (The Devi Bhagavatam adds that Parikshit attains Moksha when his son listens to Devi Bhagavatam (!) and worships Devi.)

But the Srimad Bhagavatam is unaware of the above story from the tower building part. In Srimad Bhagavatam, as soon as Parikshit knows of his fate, he goes to the banks of the Ganga, where he meets several rishis, led by Shukadeva Gosvami, who imparts to him Srimad Bhagavatam within seven days, following which Parikshit is free from all desires, and in the midst of all the rishis happily accepts death as Takshaka (who has here too stopped Kashyapa) bites him and burns him to ashes.

So, why this huge difference between the two stories? Because the Parishit and Shukadeva story leads to Srimad Bhagavatam, and the other to Devi Bhagavata directly and indirectly to the Mahabharata (since the story of the tower is present in the Mahabharata.)

We can not dismiss this as an interpolation, because there seems to be no cause for interpolation; if anything it only advances the plot.

So, once again, why is there such a glaring difference between the two scriptures?

  • 1
    @Keshav Here is a question which has tortured me for years, hopefully you can answer it. :)
    – Surya
    Mar 19 '16 at 14:28
  • 1
    @Keshav I completely disagree. Parikshit wouldn't have listened to Bhagavatam inside some tower. Besides if he was trying to prevent his death, Shukadeva Gosvami wouldn't arrive to teach him Bhagavatam. Parikshit on gangateera is a deserving candidate for Bhagavatam, not Parikshit hiding in a tower.
    – Surya
    Mar 19 '16 at 16:15
  • 1
    Plus, this cannot be an interpolation in the Bhagavatam, because just like in the case of the tower, it only advances the plot.
    – Surya
    Mar 19 '16 at 16:16
  • 1
    I think Parikshit was trying to save his life, but at the same time he had a pretty clear sense that he was probably going to die. I think it makes perfect sense for Shuka to teach the Bhagavatam to such a person. And Parikshit would be willing to listen if he thought it was pretty likely that he was not long for this world. Mar 19 '16 at 16:17
  • 1
    But not everything that advances the plot has to be authentic. An interpolator may have wanted to add something about the location that Parikshit was in, and he didn't know about the tower thing so he made up that it was on the banks of the Ganga. And like I said there's a possibility that the tower was on the banks of the Ganga. Mar 19 '16 at 16:19

The problem is not only with description of Parikshit but also with the narrator (of Bhagvatam) there. Because as per Mahabharata Suka had already attained Moksha long time before. This chapter of Shanti Parva of Mahabharata clearly narrates it. It also states:

The Rishi, beholding these movements, understood that his son had been emancipated from all attachments, but that he himself was not freed therefrom. At this he became filled with both joy and shame. As Vyasa was seated there, the auspicious god Siva, armed with Pinaka, surrounded on all sides by many deities and Gandharvas and adored by all the great Rishis came thither. Consoling the Island-born Rishi who was burning with grief on account of his son, Mahadeva said these words unto him.--Thou hadst formerly solicited from me a son possessed of the energy of Fire, of Water, of Wind, and of Space; Procreated by thy penances, the son that was born unto thee was of that very kind. Proceeding from my grace, he was pure and full of Brahma-energy. He has attained to the highest end--an end which none can win that has not completely subjugated his senses, nor can be won by even any of the deities. Why then, O regenerate Rishi, dost thou grieve for that son? As long as the hills will last, as long as the ocean will last, so long will the fame of thy son endure undiminished! Through my grace, O great Rishi thou shalt behold in this world a shadowy form resembling thy son, moving by the side and never deserting thee for a single moment!--Thus favoured by the illustrious Rudra himself, O Bharata, the Rishi beheld a shadow of his son by his side. He returned from that place, filled with joy at this.

Before narrating this the Mahabharata clearly states Suka entering over all elements of Universe, and becoming soul of all (which I discuss here.) Particularly The Mahabharata states:

शुक सर्वगतो भूत्वा सर्वात्मा सर्वतोमुख ।।

Suka entered all elements, Became Atman of all and omnipresent having face at all places.

So, as Suka had already attained Moksha (entering all elements, becoming Atman of all) and description of Parikshit also doesn't match with the description of Mahabharata. So, only two cases are possible.

Case 1:
➡➡ It is an interpolation.

Case 2:
➡➡ Solution from Matsya Purana:

As described in answer here different Puranas tell story of different Kalpas. So, that type of description for Srimad Bhagvatam is also possible as it primarily tells story of Sarswata Kalpa. Regarding Bhagvata Purana. Matsya Purana Chapter 53 states:

सारस्वतस्य कल्पस्य मध्य मे स्युर्नरोत्तमा । तद्वृत्तान्तोद्भवं लोके तद्भागवतमुच्यते ।।

That Purana which tells the story of famous men who flourished in Sarswata Kalpa and also narrates the destruction of Vrittasura is known as Bhagvata.

Thus it means that Bhagvata Purana tells the story of men who flourished in Sarswata Kalpa. Present Kalpa is Svetavaraha Kalpa and so Mahabharata story of Parikshit is of SvetaVaraha Kalpa. So, two stories do not match as they are of different Kalpas.

  • 1
    Case 2 won't work because Srimad Bhagavatam 2.10.47 clearly states it belongs to the Padma Kalpa (i.e. the present Svetavaraha Kalpa). Also the Devi Bhagavatam states it belongs to Saraswati Kalpa.
    – user9969
    Sep 3 '17 at 14:57
  • @SuryaKantaBoseChowdhury where in Devi Bhagawatam is stated that it is from Saraswata Kalpa
    – user12826
    Mar 20 '18 at 5:41
  • @AnuragSingh I don't clearly remember actually.
    – user9969
    Mar 20 '18 at 6:36
  • @AnuragSingh I remember though that certain Puranas saying the Bhagavatam dedicated to the Devi was written in the Saraswat Kalpa. I think from the Shiva Purana. Have to check the Mahapashupatastra site on the Srimad Bhagavatam.
    – user9969
    Mar 20 '18 at 6:40
  • @SuryaKantaBoseChowdhury don't lie.
    – user9072
    Jul 18 '18 at 13:09

Purana is narrated as history, but the stories act on three levels as I understand - Internally-externally and on the Supra level of totality. This is how I understand the intention of the sages who described them. They are to be seen as a kind of history that happened an allegory of symbolic meaning taking place internally in all beings and ultimately the supreme Yajna taking place with in the Supreme Being- Lila.. This is accommodated by understanding the nature of Reality, which is three fold in nature. Dual, non dual- and ultimately dual and non dual simultaneously- by dint of the nature of Infinity

Om purnam adha purnam idam purnat purnam udacyate purnasya purnam adhaya purnat evavasisyate.

The absolute truth -Tattva is Brahman -consciousness of three fold nature - Sat Cit Ananda - It is all being awareness and experiance - from it arise all that is experienced and that can be made aware of. Thus all the characters in purana and in our day to day are in fact states of being- interacting with three gunas.The names of these individuals and their forms etc give us the details that describe their state of being. This gives us the internal meaning. The external meaning is the story as history and the highest is beyond my capacity to know.

So now let us explore the contradictory stories and see how they are infact two different stories relating to the same state of Being - the differance being the predominant guna.

Parikshit means something like he with superior vision. Like one who look down the road and see whats coming. In both stories he becomes aware of his impending death - Takshaka. Takshaka - implies a wood cutter. A chopper. This world is Naimisharanya or the Transient woods. Thus takshaka is like the destructive force of desire that ultimately manifests as death the final fruit. There are many ways that these two characters and how they are brought together can be analysed. Like the connection of insult in both Shringi and Parikshit that gives rise to the curse. Now Devi Bhagavatam is a Raja guna purana it deals with overcoming raja guna its glorifies Devi who is clad in Red. It is the knowledge that interacting with the world can give you. Thus in Devi Bhagavatam and in Mahabharata -we can see that Parikshit is acting from the place of rajas. He is not possesed of the highest awareness -sattva- being motivated by the pursuit of material well being. Thus his actions reflect a worldly man trying to save himself from death by trying to protect his fortress. Which could be seen as protecting the body. Ultimately the snake enters the fruit. Phala. Phala being a very important word as it is the result of your activities. Thus having acted there was no escaping the fruit.

In contrast Srimad Bhagavatam is called the spotless purana it is said to be above the gunas but because it is Vaishnava it can be seen that the individuals are acting from sattva -top most awareness. So when Parikshit is acting from Sattva he sees that there is no avoiding his oncoming death - and seeing his death coming he has the topmost vision to try to over come it not in the physical sense but the spiritual, making the most of his human form of life. Thus he goes to the ganga and hears from Sukhadeva goswami - the master of the internal faculties who gives the guiding light of happiness.

One may ask why then are there not three accounts. Sattva Rajas and Tamas. The answer as I see it is that the state of Parikshit does not arise in Tamas because in Tamas there is no awareness and there for Para vision will not arise. Parikshit descended from Abhimanyu who descended from Arjuna -Thus we see the order. Arjuna -pure actions - Abhimanyu - conquering of Anger -Parikshit superior vision. Inferior Parikshit can still arise when Raja guna predominates but it is not possible when Tamas does.

I have not delved into the other aspects of the story as they are more or less the same. But I encourage you to ponder their implications.

  • 4
    Hello, welcome to HSE! Your answer is good, however you should cite sources to your answer else they might be deleted. Thank you.
    – user9072
    Jul 18 '18 at 13:11
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    It is a very good reasoning, but the answer needs scriptural references or an Acharya's citation as necessary conditions on this site. Also, this points out to a possibility of the same character choosing two different outcomes, but doesn't clearly state which was chosen finally. But the analysis of Sattva Vs Rajas is very interesting.
    – Surya
    Jul 18 '18 at 14:06

Excellent question!
I think that the difference in the stories from the Mahabharata and the Bhagavatam are not due to interpolation, but are due to another reason.
To my knowledge, acaryas and tradition interpret such differences due to kalpa bheda. The kalpa bheda are differences in events that have occurred in the different Kalpas or periods in the history of the universe.
It is said that the events that are described in the "Histories", ie in the Puranas and Itihasas (Mahabharata and Ramayana) are eternal pastimes or nitya lila of the Lord. Since they are nitya lila of the Lord, they are periodically, from time to time, repeated over and over again throughout eternity. Thus, the story of King Parikshit is repeated from time to time throughout eternity infinite number of times! But when it is repeated, it will not be repeated each time completely in the same manner as it was the previous time to the last detail, but it will be repeated similarly as before, but with some differences. That is why the Parikshit story in the Bhagavatam is different from the Mahabharata. It was not the same King Parikshit, but there were two different kings Parikshit from two completely different eras in the history of the universe.

I suggest you to make a simple google search: kalpa bheda
Thus you'll see some examples of this.

There are other examples of differences in the stories due to kalpa bheda also. One such example is the difference in the descriptions of the story of the birth of Rudra. In some scriptures it is described that Rudra was born from Brahma's wrath, and in others it is said that he was born out of Aniruddha's (Vishnu's) anger.
See eg Bhagavatam, canto 3, chapter 12, verses 4 and forward where it is said that Rudra was born from the wrath of Brahma:

SB 3.12.7 — Although he tried to curb his anger, it came out from between his eyebrows, and a child mixed blue and red was immediately generated.

The same story can be seen also in The Vishnu Purana: Book I: Chapter VIII at http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/vp/vp042.htm
If you look at translator's footnotes there, you'll see that he states that in some Puranas it is said that Rudra comes from Brahma's mouth, and in other Puranas from his forehead. This is also an example of a kalpa bheda.

In the Satapatha Brahmana 6:1:3 the story of Rudra's birth is completely different, see at http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbr/sbe41/sbe4130.htm

On the other hand, in some scriptures Rudra is said to be born out of Vishnu's wrath. The Mahabharata, Book 12: Santi Parva: Section CCCXLII at http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m12/m12c041.htm

Salutations unto Narayana, ... From His grace 'lath arisen Brahman and from His wrath hath arisen Rudra.
He is otherwise called Aniruddha and is the source of the Creation and the Destruction of the universe. When Brahma's night wore off, through the grace of that Being of immeasurable energy, a lotus made its appearance first, O thou of eyes like lotus petals. Within that lotus was born Brahma, springing from Aniruddha's grace. Towards the evening of Brahma's day, Aniruddha became filled with wrath, and as a consequence of this, there sprang from his forehead a son called Rudra vested with the power of destroying everything (when the hour for destruction comes). These two, viz., Brahma and Rudra, are the foremost of all the deities, having sprung respectively from the Propitiousness and the Wrath (of Aniruddha).

Subala Upanishad says Rudra was born from Narayana's forehead, http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/tmu/tmu13.htm

From His forehead, Ruḍra was born through His anger.
At first there was not anything in the least. These creatures were born through no root, no support but the Divine Ḍeva, the one Nārāyaṇa.

Maha Upanishad:

I-7. Again, Narayana, desiring something else, thought. From his forehead a person arose with three eyes and a trident, having glory, fame, truth, celibacy, austerity, detachment, mind, lordship, seven Vyahritis (Bhur etc.,) along with Pranava, Rik and other Vedas, all metres is his body –, he is the Mahesvara.

  • Thank you for your answer! I considered Kalpa Bheda but that would mean either the Mahabharata or Bhagavatam is the account of a different Kalpa, which implies on of them is false for our Kalpa. So I sort of keep Kalpa Bheda as an alternative. :)
    – Surya
    Mar 20 '16 at 3:31
  • @Surya Of course that one of them is not talking about our kalpa, hence the difference! :) But that does not mean that any of them is false. They are true, but each in regard to it's own time of a description. Mar 20 '16 at 3:40
  • Exactly. They are true to their own Kalpa. Which means when restricted to our time frame they would be untrue wouldn't they? Besides which do you or your acaryas call as the other-Kalpa book?
    – Surya
    Mar 20 '16 at 3:48
  • @Surya I gave you above in my answer examples from various scriptures how much story of the birth of Rudra differs. There is nothing wrong with those stories, nor with the scriptures these different stories are told. And all this must be explained with the help of a kalpa bheda. There is no other way to explain those differences properly! The same is with the story of the king Parikshit. Mar 20 '16 at 3:58
  • Yeah I know that the various Puranas differ due to Kalpa Bheda. I was just surprised that it can be applied to Mahabharata as well, since Mahabharata is itihasa not a Purana.
    – Surya
    Mar 20 '16 at 4:03

Before answering your question, we need to step back a little and dig into the Khāṇḍava-dahana episode, which, undoubtedly is the most controversial event in the life of the Pāṇḍavas and ask ourselves the following questions.

  • Who exactly is Takṣaka? Is "it" really a snake or is "he" a person or is it the name of a forest-dwelling tribe?
  • What were Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna really doing near the Khāṇḍava forest? Why did they burn down an entire forest, and barring a few animals (individuals?) incinerate most of its inhabitants?

This is the official account or what the most recent critical edition of the Mahābhārata would have us believe to justify the Khāṇḍava-dahana:

He then spoke to Arjuna and Vasudeva of the Satvata lineage. "You two, who are now so near the Khandava tract, are supreme in the world. I am a voracious brahmana who always eats unlimited quantities. O descendants of Vrishni and Pritha! I beg you. Give me enough food to satisfy myself." Having been thus addressed, Krishna and Pandava told him, "Tell us what kind of food will satisfy you. We will try to bring it for you."

Having been thus addressed, the illustrious brahmana then told the warriors, who had asked him about the kind of food that should be prepared for him, "I do not eat ordinary food. Know me to be the fire. Therefore, seek to bring me the food that is appropriate for me. This Khandava tract is always protected by Indra. So I am unable to burn it down because that great-souled one protects it. His friend, the naga Takshaka lives there with his kin and is protected by the wielder of the vajra and many other beings are also incidentally protected. Though I always wish to burn it down, I cannot do so because of Shakra's energy. Whenever he sees me ablaze, he pours down floods of rain from the clouds. Though I earnestly wish to consume it, I cannot thus burn it down. Since the two of you are skilled in the use of arms, I have now come to you for help. I will now be able to burn Khandava down and that is the food I desire from you. You know about supreme weapons. Restrain the showers on all sides. Restrain all the creatures."

Ch. 215, Khandava-daha Parva, The Mahabharata: Volume 2, Bibek Debroy

This is how the story concludes (officially):

Even the greatest of beings could not look upon the invincible Arjuna in battle, not to speak of engaging him in a fight. Like the god of death himself, he pierced one with a hundred arrows and a hundred with one, and dead, they descended into the flames. They found no refuge along the banks, or in the uneven plains, or in the abodes of the ancestors and the gods. The heat increased and thousands of herds of beings cried out loudly in pain. Elephants, deer and birds cried out and the sound scared those who lived in the Ganga and the ocean. No one dared gaze at the mighty-armed Arjuna and the immensely strong Krishna, let alone fighting with them. With his chakra, Hari slew rakshasas, danavas and nagas and those who ventured along solitamy paths. The heads and trunks sliced with the force of the chakra, the giant bodies fell into the mouth of the blazing fire. Aided by the flesh, torrents of blood and fat, the flames rose up into the sky, without a trace of smoke. Agni's eyes blazed, his tongue blazed and his wide-open mouth also blazed. The hair stood up, drinking up the fat of life, the eyes were tawny. The fire fed on the nectar that Krishna and Arjuna had provided and was extremely happy, satiated and contented.

Ch. 219, Khandava-daha Parva, The Mahabharata: Volume 2, Bibek Debroy

The following is how Irawati Karve interprets the whole incident in her book Yugānta. She wrote a whole chapter The Palace of Maya on this topic, so I'm only quoting a tiny bit here:

Krishna and Arjuna were great warriors. They a fought and won many battles. But in none of these battles did they gain any land by conquest. The Kshatriya life as presented in the Mahabharata had a certain definite pattern. Each known house had its small territory which passed from father to son. Wars were fought, tribute was demanded, but no Kshatriya house was deprived of its kingdom. An enemy was spared if he asked for mercy. If he fought and was killed, his son was put on the throne. A Kshatriya never killed women and children. Nor was he supposed to put to the sword any defenceless person. His most sacred duty was to defend the helpless. The charge that he had not done so was the worst that could be made against him.

The need for expansion explains the burning of the forest, but the question still remains: why was it burned so mercilessly? There is a very curious contradiction in the narration. When Agni first appeared, he said he wanted to burn the forest. No specific mention is made of his wanting to feed on the creatures in it. But when we come to the end of the narration, we are told that Agni went away satisfied with all the flesh and fat he had devoured.

Moreover, this forest was not merely a forest with birds and animals in it. We are told that Takshaka, the king of the Nagas, lived there. But who were the Nagas? The word naga is generally used for serpents. However, in the Mahabharata, the Nagas seem to be human beings. The Mahabharata also mentions a bird woman, who had children from a Brahman, living in the same forest. The bird might be the clan name of certain people living there. In the same way, many of the animals may not have been animals at all but people belonging to clans having animal names. But only regarding the Nagas is the word raja (king) used. Apparently the Nagas represented the ruling class. The Mahabharata has given the names of the various Naga rajas belonging to different regions.


There were rules which applied to all animals, but apparently no rules which applied to all human beings. If you spared an animal today, you could always kill it tomorrow. But if you spared a human being — even to make a slave out of him — he would in the course of time acquire certain rights. There was indeed great danger in sparing the lives of those who owned the land. Krishna and Arjuna, therefore, must have felt the necessity of completely wiping out the enemy.


The burning of Khandava starts with the request of Agni who had come in the form of a Brahman. It is implied that being Kshatriyas, Krishna and Arjuna could not refuse. Even this excuse is flimsy. Not every request of a Brahman was fulfilled by the Kshatriyas. The Brahman Parashurama had ordered Bhishma to marry Amba; Bhishma had refused. In the burning of Khandava no rules of conduct seem to have been observed. The sole aim was the acquisition of land and the liquidation of the Nagas. But the cruel objective was defeated. Just as Hitler found it impossible to wipe out a whole people, so did the Pandavas. All that they gained through this cruelty were the curses of hundreds of victims, and three generations of enmity.

She revisits the topic in the chapter Paradharmo Bhayavahah:

Into the story of Takshaka's curse, too, is woven a long, monotonous narrative about Brahmans. Parikshita, when out hunting, came across a Brahman in deep penance. As a joke, he hung a dead snake around the Brahman's neck. A little later, the Brahman's son came there and got very angry at this practical joke. He cursed the king that in a few weeks' time he would die of snake bite. When the Brahman woke from his deep meditation, the son told him what had happened. The Brahman scolded him for thus giving in to anger, and, as he knew an antidote to snakebite, he hurried to Hastinapura to save the king. On the way, Takshaka met him and cunningly turned him back, thus preventing him from saving Parikshita. Actually Arjuna, the grandfather of Parikshita, had, without provocation, burned the Khandava forest and massacred the Takshakas, a Naga clan. A Takshaka later killed Parikshita. Janamejaya, the son of Parikshita, in turn, wrought great destruction among the Nagas. It is a straightforward story of a three-generation feud. The lengthy rigmarole about Brahmans seems to be a later interpolation.

The late Professor V. S. Sukthankar has pointed out that the Mahabharata saga came into the hands of the Bhrigus, a Brahman clan. These Brahmans inserted the stories of their own family into the narration of the Mahabharata. All the Brahman stories referred to above are part of these later interpolations. They have no relationship whatsoever with the original story of the Mahabharata. We can, therefore, dismiss them. If all these accretions are dropped, the Mahabharata gains in beauty, economy, and movement.

To answer your question:

Why is there such a glaring difference between the two scriptures?

If one accepts Karve's above interpretation then it's only but natural for later writers and narrators to weave stories upon stories to cover up the facts of the Khāṇḍava-dahana and its obvious fallout (the death of Parīkṣit) in whatever way they felt comfortable.

Personally, Karve's reasoning seems more logical to me so neither Mahābhārata nor Bhāgavata's account is the correct narrative of what actually happened.

  • For comments or discussion, you can join this chatroom: Khandava-dahana and the death of Parikshit. Feb 7 '17 at 1:18
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    I personally do not like interpretations which go with the "Brahmins interpolated scripture to elevate their status" thing which seems to be a common feature in all writers today. It imposes the rigid caste system of the medieval period upon the flexible varnashrama dharma of the earlier ages; so any story involving rishis (so not ordinary brahmins) is over analysed and its meaning twisted to fit the author's outlook.
    – Surya
    Feb 8 '17 at 17:33
  • Plus Karwe in her conclusion just states what happened. The curses IMO contribute to the story line and do not lengthen the story, just offer different POVs of the same incident. Also this unfortunately does not adress the main question of Parikshit's death in the two scriptures - saying that the episode was exaggerated by brahmans is not a reason.
    – Surya
    Feb 8 '17 at 17:36
  • @Surya See my responses in chat. Better to discuss there... Feb 8 '17 at 18:08
  • @Surya I, on the other hand, think that the rigid caste system IS what Varnashrama Dharma always has been in earlier ages. But I also disagree with interpretations that say that Brahmins interpolated scripture to elevate their status, because their status was always elevated and so there was no need for interpolations. Feb 21 '17 at 16:48

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