The Mahavastu (great story)

by J. J. Jones | 1949 | 502,133 words | ISBN-10: 086013041X

This page describes birth of the buddha dipamkara which is Chapter XXI of the English translation of the Mahavastu (“great story”), dating to the 2nd-century BC. This work belongs to the Mahasanghika school of early Buddhism and contains narrative stories of the Buddha’s former lives, such as Apadanas, Jatakas and more..

Chapter XXI - The birth of the Buddha Dīpaṃkara

The mothers of all Bodhisattvas are delivered when the tenth month is completed. So at the end of the tenth month, the queen, named Sudīpā, said to King Arcimat, “My lord, it is my desire to go to the pleasaunce in the Lotus Grove.” And when the king heard Queen Sudīpā, he said to his ministers, “With the women of my court I am going for diversion to the pleasaunce in the Lotus Grove.

“Quickly make ready the Lotus Grove by clearing it of grass and litter and leaves. Make it a mass of fair and fragrant flowers, and make it sweetly smelling with scented water.

“In the Lotus Grove let the sportive[1] breezes laden with the scent of tamāla leaves diffuse an ambrosial fragrance; let the boisterous[2] breezes be gone.

“Let clouds charged with the fragrance of aloe-wood quickly descend from the sky to shade the Lotus Grove that is full of the exquisite aroma of powders.

(216) “Adorn each fair tree with streamers of jute and wool and silken cloth, that they be like the kalpavṛkṣa trees of the chief of devas in heaven.

Devas and deva maidens, bearing scented garlands, come to the pleasaunce in the Lotus Grove of King Arcimat.

Wearing ear-rings of crystal gems, resplendent garments and drooping jewels, and carrying fragrant garlands, they come floating down the pathways of the sky.

Some carry baskets[3] full of the flowers of the coral-tree, others baskets of the yellow sandal-wood flowers, and others baskets of suitable woven stuffs.

With joy in their hearts the Apsarases, bearing garlands of land and water flowers and gems and jewels, turn their faces towards Jambudvīpa.

Deva maidens come floating through the air carrying full eighty-four thousand sunshades of gold and jewels.

The sky, with hundreds of pennants of woven cloth flying high, is filled as though[4] with pinnacles plastered with gleaming crystals and gems.

And clouds of vapour, like the breath of elephants, glisten [in the air],[5] with their fragrant flowery scents, a blend of lotus, water-lily and campaka.[6]

Delighted serpent-lords besprinkle the air with clouds of sweet-smelling vapour. And there were hundreds of other wonders besides.

Thus then, Mahā-Maudgalyāyana, did King Arcimat with his women set out for the pleasaunce in the Lotus Grove, with great royal pomp, splendour and magnificence.

(217) When she enters that fair grove, the queen, the Conqueror’s mother, attended by her friends, rides on in her gay chariot, a queen like the consort of an immortal, knowing the rule of joy.

Then, Mahā-Maudgalyāyana, Queen Sudīpā, attended by her friends, sported on the lake in the grove in boats which had platforms[7] fore and aft, and canopies spread above. They were carpeted with glittering cloth, draped with flowing bands of fine silk; they were painted, scented, and strewn with heaps of flowers, and were surrounded by railings.[8] Above were sunshades, flags and pennons. As Queen Sudīpā was being drawn along in her boat, the fancy took her to disembark. And then, through the power of the Bodhisattva, an island appeared in the middle of the lake, level and even, fringed by beautiful sand. Tender grasses grew from the soil that were blue like tufts of saṃsparśa,[9] and like a peacock’s neck. When these were trod upon they bent to no more than four inches from the ground. Trees grew there laden with pleasant fruit. On this island did the queen land.

Again, Mahā-Maudgalyāyana, the Bodhisattva’s mother does not give birth to him as she is lying down or sitting. Nor does she give birth to him without his being perfectly free of bile, phlegm, blood or any other foul and unclean matter, but his body is bathed with perfumes and washed clean.

She, tired in body, leant with her arm on the branch of a tree and comfortably stretched herself at the moment of giving birth to the Glorious One.

Then twenty thousand deva maidens quickly flocked thither, (218) and, raising their joined hands, addressed the queen with devoted intent.

“To-day, O queen, you will give birth to him who crushes old age and disease, a noble youth of immortal stock, honoured and beloved in heaven and on earth, a benefactor of devas and men.

“Do not give way to anxiety, for we shall render service to you. Only tell us what is to be done, and lo! it is all done.”

Then the Four Great Lords of the world with their thick celestial tresses of hair,[10] attended by their retinues, speedily foregathered there and drew near to the queen from the right.

And all the deva hosts hovering in the air as they attended upon the queen, carrying fragrant garlands, and with their own attendant hosts, presented a bright array.

The Bodhisattva, mindful and thoughtful, issues through his mother’s right side without doing her any injury.

For the Supreme of Men are born from their mothers’ right side. It is here that all the valiant men abide [when in their mother’s body].

Why is not that side of the Conqueror’s mother rent as she is delivered of the Best of Men, and why does no pain ensue?

Tathāgatas are born with a body that is made of mind,[11] and that is why the mother’s body is not rent and why no pain ensues.

Tired out with his stay in the womb, the Bodhisattva takes seven strides over the earth, scans the regions of it, and laughs a loud laugh.

Now listen to what the tradition says as to the reason why he takes seven strides, rather than eight or six.

(219) When the Sage, the benefactor of the whole world, was tired with his stay in the womb, he strode forth eagerly, as it was his last sojourn there.

When he had taken seven strides over the earth, throngs of devas suddenly came flying down, and the Sage was taken up in the arms of the Four Great Lords.

Then there fell down a drizzling rain of celestial blossoms, mingled with the powder of the coral-tree, and thick with that of the celestial sandal-wood tree.

And for a long time the exultant devas diffused the most divine incense to grace the splendour of the supremely Intelligent One.

I shall here, too, tell the tradition, the edifying doctrine, as to why the Peerless Man surveys the regions of the world.

He finds not among beings, either devas or men, anyone whose birth was like his, or whose conception was like his.

As shining gold is the side of the Conqueror’s mother from whom[12] the Omniscient is born into his last existence.

As soon as he was born this was the thought that occurred to the supremely Eloquent One, “Is there anyone my equal in intelligence?

“Are there any who are irked[13] by the snare of recurrent birth (saṃsāra) as I am?” It is for this purpose, to have this doubt resolved[14] that the Kinsman of the Sun scans all regions of the world.

Then the Prince of Speakers, surveying the regions, espies thousands of koṭis of devas, and that is why he laughs.

(220) As soon as he was born the devas of Māra’s world said to him, “Thou wilt become a wealthy universal king over the four continents.”

But he laughs at that, and says, “You do not know me for what I am. For I shall become the supreme of men, all-knowing and all-seeing.”

And distinguished teachers confirm this, for thus has the teaching of the lion-hearted men been well proclaimed.

The hero whom his mother bore as she stood supporting her body by the flowering sāl tree, him, the peerless Conqueror, do I extol.[15]

May the Sugata just now born tread the earth with even feet.[16] He has taken seven strides and scanned all the regions of the world.

And as he walked along a fan and a sunshade of their own accord[17] followed him, lest gadflies and gnats alight on the body of the Omniscient One.

As soon as the Sugata was born, devas first received the Conqueror, and afterwards men bore the Peerless One in their arms.

The devas welcomed the Sugata who displayed the thirty-two marks of excellence, and afterwards men bore the Peerless One in their arms.

The lights of men were put out, because the earth was bathed in radiance as soon as the Sugata, the torch-bearer of men and devas, was born.

As soon as the Sugata was born, his folk ran in quest of water. And lo! wells full of water brimming over flowed right before their eyes.

(221) Two pitchers of water appeared, one of cold, the other of warm water, wherewith they bathed the golden body of the Sugata.

Because of the power of the Bodhisattva, immediately after the Sugata was born, his mother was without hurt or scar. Again, Mahā-Maudgalyāyana, immediately after the Bodhisattva was born, his mother’s womb, because of his power, remained quite unscathed and without the effect of strain[18]. Again, Mahā-Maudgalyāyana, immediately after the Bodhisattva was born, because of his power there appeared on the island[19] a forest of sandal-wood trees, which became a source of delight and enjoyment to him.

Then, hundreds of thousands of devas assemble, with fragrant garlands in their hands, to do honour to the Bodhisattva. One deva asks another, “Whither do you go?” And the other replies:—

The consort of the king is about to give birth to that peerless offspring who is bright like the calyx of the blossoming lotus. Here on earth he will win the highest good, overcoming Māra and his power. It is to this hero that I repair.

His body is untouched by the impurities of the womb, even like the exquisite lotus that is born in the mud of pools. Beautiful like the newly-risen sun, he excels the immortals in Brahmā’s heaven.

Then as soon as he was born in Arcimat’s household, the Wise One took seven mighty strides. Scanning the regions of the world, he laughed aloud, and said, “This, at length, is my last existence.”

(222) And many devas held up in the sky a glittering sunshade, inimitably studded with gems and pearls and outshining all others in splendour, and waved garlands of the coral-tree.

They held up in the sky a fair and golden sunshade, gleaming like a shell in the sunshine, whilst they waved cunningly fashioned fans in their hands as they fanned the Conqueror.

Two pitchers of water suddenly appeared in the sky, one fragrant, pleasantly warm, agreeable and beneficial to man, the other healthful, invigorating and icy cold.

Then on Meru’s summit devas of various kinds took off their robes that were scented with all sorts of perfumes, and, standing in long ranks on all sides, vigorously waved them. Six times did they make the firm earth quake.

Devas in their mansions[20] resplendent in gold and silver and jewels, to the sound of musical instruments, looked on the Conqueror’s auspicious birth. They lit up the sky, with its moon, sun and stars.

“This is the great Seer, who, having crossed the great ocean of life through the worlds of devas, Nāgas, and Yakṣas (223) will attain that one region where is peace.” Thus did the enraptured devas in the sky proclaim of him.

King Arcimat then ordered the child to be led to pay worship at the feet of a certain[21] goddess. In what sort of conveyance will the child be seated? In a jewelled palanquin fashioned by devas. Who will bear this palanquin? The Four Great Lords are standing by and say “We will carry the Elect of beings, the Bodhisattva, together with Queen Sudīpā and his nurse.”

They climb into the palanquin, and Śakra, the lord of devas, and Great Brahmā form an escort. Thus the Bodhisattva in great pomp, in the great pomp of a deva, in the great pomp of a king, was taken from the pleasaunce in the Lotus Grove and brought to the royal city of Dīpavatī, where he was led into the temple[22] of the goddess.

Against his will the hero, the great saviour of the world, the teacher of kings, entered the shrine. But when they would have him salute the goddess with his head, it was his feet that he put forward.[23]

Then the goddess said to another goddess, “It is not fitting that this child should worship me. And if he should make obeisance before another, that one’s head would assuredly be split in seven.”

When this child was born all beings, including even those in Avīci, became prosperous and happy. All devas bowed to him in joy.

(224) When the child had entered the royal palace, the king bade his priest fetch at once the wise men who were skilled in the rules and significance of signs.

Learning this, the saintly[24] devas, called Maheśvaras[25], (came on the scene), lest the unskilled crowd of the twice-born[26] should seek to interpret the signs.

Rid of conceit, pride, and arrogance, eight thousand Maheśvaras approached him who was newly born and revered by the hosts of devas.

Arrayed in fine and pure raiment they stood in silence at the door of the king’s palace and addressed the door-keeper in a tone gentle as the cuckoo’s, saying,

“Go in to the king and say to him, ‘Here are eight thousand men who know the significance and rules of signs, and they would enter if it is your pleasure.’”

“So be it,” said the door-keeper obeying them, and he went into the palace. Raising his joined hands, he joyfully addressed the lord of earth:—

“O King, peerless in strength, whose glory is ablaze, smiter of your foes, may you rule your realm a long time yet. Men like the immortals stand at your gates and crave admittance.

“Because of their full clear eyes, their soft voices, their tread like that of elephant in rut, doubt arises in me whether these be men and not sons of the devas.

“As they walk about the dust of the earth does not soil their noble feet. I see no footprints of theirs on the ground—this too is a marvel.

“Stately and quiet are their gestures, noble their bearing, and controlled the range of their vision.[27] They give great delight to all who behold them.

“And here is another marvellous thing. No shadows are seen cast by their bodies, (225) and no accompanying noise is heard as they move along.

“O King, without a doubt they are come to view your noble son. You should see with joy and greet these devas who were not born of the womb.

“With fair and fragrant garlands in their hands, with their graceful gestures, with their charming persons, they are ablaze with glory. Without a doubt they are exalted devas.”[28]

When King Arcimat heard these words, his body thrilled with joy, and he replied, “To be sure, let them with all speed enter within this noble palace.

“And why? Because such are not the forms of ordinary men. Human beings do not have such majesty as you say these men have.”

Then the door-keeper went to the Maheśvaras, and, bowing with his joined hands uplifted, cheerfully and joyously did them obeisance, and said,

“His majesty is pleased, sirs, that you should at his command enter the valiant king’s palace that is fit to be a stronghold of the devas.”

When they had heard this word, the eight-thousand Maheśvaras entered the royal palace of the chief of his unconquered line.

Then King Arcimat, a stately, strong and sturdy[29] figure, seeing the Maheśvaras when they were still some way off, rose up with his court to meet them.

The valiant king addressed them, saying, “I bid you all a hearty welcome, for I am pleased with your appearance, your calm, your self-control and your strength.

“Here are our most honourable seats. Pray be seated at once, sirs, to give pleasure to us.”

Then they who were rid of conceit, pride and arrogance, and were blameless in deed, (226) sat down on those seats, the feet of which were bright and glittering with many a gem.

After waiting a while (one of them) addressed the king saying, “Let his majesty hear what the cause of our coming hither is.

“A son is born to you, O king, of a wholly faultless body, who is judged fair by all the world, and who possesses to perfection the marks of excellence.

“For we, skilled in signs, can recognise the marks of virtues and of vices. If it be not hard for you, we would see him who bears the form of a Great Man.”

The king replied, “Come, see my son whose good name is secure,[30] who brings joy to devas and men, and possesses the marks of excellence to perfection.”

Then taking in his arms the Virtuous One, swathed in delicate, soft and gaily-coloured wool, he brought him whose eloquence is clear[31] to the noble Suras.

When the Maheśvaras observed from a distance the dignified approach of the Daśabala, they thrilled with joy and bowed their heads, crowned with glittering diadems, to the ground.

And now they declare to the king, “Great profit have you well gained, O King, in that there has been born in your family the Great Man who possesses the thirty-two marks, which are[32]:—

He has feet with level tread.[33]
He has designs of wheels on the soles of his feet.[34]
He has long toes and fingers.[35]
He has broad and projecting heels.[36]
He has sharply arched feet.[37]
His legs are like the antelope’s.[38]
His body is divinely straight.[39]
He can touch his knees with his hands when standing erect.[40]
His male organ is enclosed in a sheath.[41]
His body is proportioned like the banyan tree.[42]
His hands and feet are soft and tender.[43]
His hands and feet are net-like.[44]
His body is perfectly formed.[45]
The down on his body grows in single hairs, one to each pore.[46]
The down on his body grows straight upwards.[47]
He has a smooth skin.[48]
He has a [ ? ] skin.[49]
He has the gait of a swan.[50]
There is no hollow between his shoulder blades.[51]
His body has the seven convex surfaces.[52]
(227) He has an exquisite sense of taste.[53]
His skin is the colour of gold.[54]
He has the bust of a lion.[55]
He has regular teeth.[56]
His teeth are perfectly white.[57]
His bust is consistently rounded.[58]
His tongue is long and slender.[59]
His voice is like that of Brahmā.[60]

His eyes are blue.[61]
His eyelashes are like a cow’s.[62]
Between his eyebrows he has a hairy mole.[63]
His head is shaped like a royal turban.[64]
Such is the saviour with the thirty-two marks of excellence.

Then King Arcimat asked the brāhmans[65] to give a fitting name to the child. The brāhmans replied, “Your majesty, when the child was born a great resplendent light[66] appeared, hence let the child be named Dīpaṃkara.” Thus did the Śuddhāvāsa[67] devas, in the guise of brāhmans, give the name Dīpaṃkara to the child.

Capable nurses came and reared the child. And when the Bodhisattva had become a young man, the king had three terraces made for him to play and stroll in, and a spacious gynaeceum was set near them.

Then the Bodhisattva in great regal pomp, magnificence and splendour went with the women for diversion in the pleasaunce of the Lotus Grove, and King Arcimat bade the women amuse the young man well. After sailing on the lake in boats which had platforms fore and aft, enclosed by railings,[68] with canopies spread above, and were draped in flowing bands of fine silk, carpeted with glittering cloth, scented and strewn with bright flowers, crescents and pearls, the Bodhisattva with the women[69] disembarked on the shore. His female escort fell asleep from weariness, one holding her chin, another leaning on her arm, another clasping a cymbal, another a flute, another a guitar, another a lute, another a trumpet,[70] another an anklet, another a tabor, another a lālāghara.[71] And when he saw them thus, there came over him an awareness of the burial ground.

Footnotes and references:


Reading salīlā for śarīrā. So Senart.


Literally “intoxicating,” madajanana, but the exact meaning is not clear.


? or vases, saṃgeriyo, most likely corrupt.


Reading, -samehi, for -śatehi, as in 2. 19.


Supplied from khagapathe in the parallel passage in 2. 19.


A tree with yellow flowers, michelia champaka.


Vedi, “altar,” “terrace,” here probably a “promenade deck.”


Vedikājālā, see note p. 153.


A fragrant plant or perfume.


Divyapraveṇihasta. For the force of °hasta, cf. keśahasta, “a good crop of” or “ornamented with hair.”


Manomaya—a tenet of the Lokottaravādins.


Reading, as Senart suggests, yasmā for yadā of the text.


Ārttiyante. For the formation of this verb cf. Pali aṭṭiyati, denominative verb from aṭṭa = Sanskrit ārta, the past part, of ṛd, “to afflict, torment.” It is unnecessary to ascribe the form to false analogy as Senart does.


-ccetam tarkam nivartitum; this phrase is transferred in translation from the preceding stanza to its natural place here as an amplification of ityarthaṃ.


A number of verses, in a different metre, inserted from another source or tradition.


Samehi padehi. One of the thirty-two characteristics (lakṣaṇāni) of a Mahāpuruṣa. See p. 180.


Sāmaṃ. Pali only = “self,” “oneself,” etc. See Böhtlingk and Roth, and references in Pali Dictionary.


? Anārabdhā. So Senart.


Antaradvīpe. Senart explains: “dans l’intervalle qui sépare les uns des autres les quatres dvîpas dont la reunion forme un monde.” But it seems more natural to make the reference to be to the island on which the Buddha was born. For the compound, cf. Pali antavadīpake, “in the centre of the island” (J. 1. 240.) It should be added, however, that in the parallel passage in Vol. 2, p. 23, there is an additional marvel, viz. the holy fig-tree which appears in the midst of the four million islands or continents.


Vimāna. See note p. 26.


imāye devīye. But, perhaps, the pronoun imāye should be, as Senart suggests, changed into Abhayāye, Abhayā being the name given to this goddess in the parallel passage (2. 26).


Kalam (sic) in the text, for kulam.


Literally “his feet appeared,” prādurbhavensu.


Literally “heart or mind controlling,” citiavaśavartī.


Devas of this name do not seem to be known outside the Mahāvastu. Usually it is the Śuddhāvāsa devas who figure in this scene, and as at p. 150 these are described as maheśvarās or “great lords,” it is likely that this descriptive title has, in the present passage, been taken as a well-understood alternative name for the Śuddhāvāsa devas. The king’s visitors are actually called by the latter name later on in this same passage (p. 182).


I.e. Brāhmans.


See note p. 119.


Called here by the name Marutas. Cf. note p. 119.


Literally “with body made-to-become,” bhāvitaśarīra.


Suvyapadeśakṣema. See note p. 120.


Literally “whose speech is (clear like) the moon,” vādicandra. For this similitude between the clearness of voice and that of light, cf. the Irish de ghuth árd solas-ghlan, “With a loud voice clear as light.”


These terms are given in mnemonic verse. Only a single word, and that not always the distinctive or key word, of the sentences which in the lists given elsewhere describe the marks, is given. They have been interpreted here on the basis of the list given in D. 3. 143 ff. (= D. 2. 17 ff.) and translated in Dial. 3. 137 ff.


Samā. The Pali has suppatiṭṭhita-pādo. But compare samehi padehi above p. 175


Heṣṭā. Pali: heṭṭhā pāda-talesu cakkāni jātāni.


Dīrghā. Pali: dīghaṅgulī hoti.


Āyatā. Pali: āyata-paṇhī hoti.


Ucchaṅga. Pali: ussaṅkha-pādo hoti. Dial. 3. 138 translates “his ankles are like rounded shells” (saṅkha = Skt. śaṅkha) but the Pali Dictionary, following the Commentary, translates “with ankles in the middle,” which implies the translation given above. Mahāvastu, 1. 197, and 2. 29, has utsaṅga° “slope,” “roof” which seems to confirm this interpretation. The text, however, is uncertain. The MSS. here give ucchaka and ucchaṃka, and at 2. 29 upasaṃkaṃ, all of which seem to be an echo of the Pali ussaṅkha.


Eṇi. Pali: eṇi-jaṅgho hoti.


The text has brihat only, which may correspond to the Pali brahmujju-gatto hoti, and has so been translated here. Senart, however, would read vṛttā, which could be understood as “his limbs are rounded.” This, however, is one of the anuvyañjanāni, or eighty “lesser characteristics.” (Vol. 2. 43.)


Tiṣṭhanto. Pali (?): ṭhitako va anonamanto hoti ubhohi pāṇitalehi jaṇṇukāni parimasati parimajjati.


Kośā. Pali: kosohita-vattha-guyho hoti.


Nyagrodha. Pali: nigrodha-parimaṇḍalo hoti.


Mṛdu. Pali: mudutaluṇahatthapādo hoti.


Jālā. Pali: jāla-hattha-pādo hoti.


Pratipūrṇā. This corresponds to nothing in the Pali lists and has to be interpreted by reference to the “80 lesser characteristics.”


Ekā. Pali: ekeka-lomo hoti, ekekāni lomāni loma-kūpesu jātāni.


Ūrdhvāgra. Pali: uddhagga-lomo hoti.


Ślakṣṇa-cchavi. Although this term is practically equivalent to the single Pali term sukhumacchavi, the enumeration of the marks shows that it covers two. If we take ślakṣṇa as the key-word to the description of one mark and translate as above, we are left with chavi, which obviously refers to some other quality of the skin and this may be found among the “lesser characteristics.”


See preceding note.


Haṃsa. This and the word to which it is joined, antaro, together look like a key-word to one only of the Pali terms, viz. cit-antaraṃso, literally “one whose shoulder-hole is heaped up.” But to make up the quota of thirty-two, they must be taken as two. That is haṃsa refers to the mark of a “swan’s gait,” which is really, however, one of the lesser characteristics, while antarā is a mnemonic for the Pali cit-antaraṃso.


See preceding note.


Utsadā. Pali: satt-ussado hoti.


Rasaṃ. Pali: rasaggas-aggī hoti.


Suvarṇo. Pali: suvaṇṇa-vaṇṇo hoti.


Sīho. This key-word can correspond to either of two terms in the Pali list, either sīha-pubbaddhakāyo hoti (as above) or sīha-hanu hoti, “he has the jaws of a lion.”


Samā. Pali: samadanto hoti.


Śukla. Pali: susukka-dāṭho hoti.


Samā. Pali: samavattakkhandho hoti.


Prabhūtā. Pali: pahūta-jivho hoti.


Brahmā. Pali: brahma-ssaro hoti.


Nilā. Pali: abhinīla-netto hoti.


Gopakṣma. Pali: go-pakhumo hoti.


Ūṛṇā. Pali: uṇṇā-bhamuk antare jātā hoti.


Uṣnīsa sīrṣaṃ. Pali: uṇhīsa-sīso hoti.


I.e. the Maheśvaras (or Śuddhāvāsas) disguised as brāhmans.


Dīpo mahāṃ obhāso. What had appeared, however, was the island in the lake (see p. 173). “Island” is dvīpa in Sanskrit, but in Pali dīpa, which is also Pali for “light.” It would seem, therefore, as Senart suggests, that the story of the island was introduced by a narrator who had dīpa = “island” in mind.


See note p. 178.


Vedikā. See note p. 153.


Literally “on the shore (which was) without men,” niṣpuruṣe taṭe. Cf. Pali nippurisa.


Sughoṣakī, “well-sounding.” Cf. Sughoṣa, the name of a trumpet in the Bhagavadgītā.


Senart takes this to denote an unknown musical instrument. Miss I. B. Horner, however, in a note to the translator, suggests that the word means “spittoon,” being compounded of lālā, “ saliva,” and ghara, “house,” “receptacle.”

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