The Writings of Annie Besant
The Hatha-Yoga and
"The Annals of Psychical Science,"
In the first place, allow me to explain why I have chosen this subject for
I have lived in
thorough study of Indian psychology. I thought it might be useful to speak about those matters of which I have some knowledge, and which are but little studied by the Western world.
of years. It is known that
Since this science has been put into practice for so long a period, is it not
reasonable to conclude that there may be in these ideas, these theories, based
on repeated experiments, something which may prove useful to modern psychology?
This psychological science of the East is called Yoga, a word signifying to
bind, to unite. When we speak of Yoga, we express the idea of forming a union,
of binding. Of binding what? Consciousness itself, by realizing the union of the
separate consciousnesses of men with the universal consciousness. Yoga includes all the practical methods by which this union may be attained.
Yoga is thus a science which may be both studied and practised; it is practised
in order to obtain a complete union between the ordinary individual
consciousness of man and the superconsciousness, by rising from plane to plane, until at last this union is completely attained: then one is said to be free.
In order to understand this science, and also the experiments which I wish to
explain, allow me to give a short account of the fundamental ideas on which
these experiments are based. It is probable that you will not accept these
ideas; but you may, nevertheless, understand them as theories: theory concerning man and, more particularly, theory concerning the consciousness of man.
The theory, then, must be considered first of all, in order to be able to explain
the aim; otherwise the experiments of the East will always remain unintelligible
to western minds. If you will accept these theories, for the moment, you will
understand the ensemble of these experiments, and you may perhaps deduce for
yourselves conclusions from them which will afford clues with regard to other
experiments. Herein lies the value, for western minds--so it seems to me--of a
knowledge of this science of the East.
The first proposition is, that consciousness is one and universal. Everywhere,
beneath appearances, behind phenomena, a consciousness is revealed; under the
diversity of forms persists the unity of consciousness; a unique energy, a
unique force, is everywhere in the universe.
This theory may be regarded as closely related to the western conception of one
single energy of which all the forces are but the manifestations, the example.
division is made between consciousness, life and energy; these are but three
words denoting the same essence, but which establish also a distinction between
the manifestations of this essence, a distinction which it is useful to remember
when experiments are being made But it must be recognized that this energy is
one, and is conscious; is, in fact, consciousness itself.
The second proposition is that this energy, this consciousness--I prefer the
word consciousness--manifests itself in the universe through the different forms
of matter. The manifestations of consciousness depend on those forms by which it is conditioned. The differences which are perceived are simply differences of form and not differences of consciousness. Consciousness is always present, but it cannot express itself in a complete manner in a restricted form.
The evolution of forms depends on this manifestation of consciousness; and when we place side by side consciousness and form, energy and matter, it is
consciousness which directs, which is sovereign, which disposes of matter, and
each functioning of consciousness creates a form for its revelation. When I use
the word "creates," I do not mean creation out of nothing; I mean that
consciousness disposes of matter so as to express itself, that all the powers
reside in consciousness, but that in order to reveal, manifest its powers, it is
absolutely necessary to find the vehicle of consciousness, that is to say, to
organize the material by which it can express itself.
I may on this point quote a very ancient line of a Upanishad, the Chhandogya:
"The Self, that is to say consciousness, desires to see: the eye appeared; it
desired to hear: the ear made its appearance; it desired to think: intelligence
was there"; that is to say the efforts of consciousness are shown in obedient
matter, directed by that energy which incarnates itself in forms.
You will find the same idea in the physical universe, in the transformations of
electricity. You may make different instruments to enable the energy called
electricity to manifest, the energy is ever the same, it is only the
manifestation that varies. According to the instrument you provide, you can
obtain light, sound, heat, chemical dissociations, all these being merely
manifestations of electricity, manifestations which are possible because you
have provided instruments which afford suitable conditions for each kind of
manifestation. But the instrument remains inert without electricity; it
conditions the form, it does not produce the energy.
It is the same with consciousness and forms; according to Indian ideas, if you
can fabricate the instrument necessary for the manifestation of an energy, that
energy can show itself, and what is called consciousness in men is only a part
of the universal consciousness which is found everywhere in the universe, and
which is translated into human forms.
But they go further: this consciousness is divided into millions of separate
parts called Jivas (souls). I do not much care for this word souls--it is quite
a theological expression; they are fragments of life, germs, grains of life,
sown in matter. The most subtle form of matter is the first veil of the Jiva, an
intelligent, conscious being; this intelligent, conscious being clothes itself
with forms of matter of different degrees of subtlety; these are termed Koshas,
a word signifying sheath (the scabbard of a sword, for example), a covering.
There are six of these veils, of these vehicles of consciousness, each coarser
than the last. Hence, when consciousness thus veils itself and enters into these
vehicles which it has to govern, organize and render fit for its functioning,
each vehicle of coarser matter detracts from some of its power. In the first and
most subtle matter, it can operate freely; in the coarser matter some of its
powers are lost. Thus consciousness, enveloped in these veils of matter--which
are not yet vehicles for consciousness because they cannot act, which are not
yet organized--loses some of its liberty, of its powers, with each additional
veil with which it surrounds itself.
It may be asked, why does consciousness clothe itself with these veils? It is
because on the highest plane consciousness is vague; it cannot very clearly
discern things; it is in the physical body, the vehicle of the coarsest matter,
that consciousness can first fabricate the vehicle, of a kind almost perfect,
for its manifestation on this plane. Evolution proceeds. Consciousness strives
unceasingly to manifest its powers; the Jiva works upon the matter, and the
vehicles become better and better adapted to its desires.
The man who wishes to evolve more rapidly than by natural processes, adopts
methods which have been urged for thousands of years, and by which he tries
gradually to withdraw consciousness from the coarser material in order that it
may function freely in a vehicle of finer material; he endeavours to connect
vehicle with vehicle, until he reaches a yet finer vehicle, without ever losing
consciousness. In this way it becomes possible to perceive worlds composed of subtler matter, and to observe them, as we observe here, scientifically and
directly; and afterwards to remember these observations even whilst wearing the
coarsest vehicle, that is to say, the physical body. Such are the ideas of the
When man is awake his powers are at their lowest; when he withdraws from the
physical body in the state of sleep, he begins to act in a world composed of
somewhat subtler matter. But when he begins to function there, he is not really
conscious of himself; his consciousness is like that of an infant who cannot
distinguish between himself and others. But by continuing to function in this
way, by repeated experiments, he can attain to self-consciousness on the second
plane. If the sleep becomes yet more profound, a yet higher consciousness is
revealed, and so on from plane to plane.
Let us note, in passing, that if this theory, proved by many experiments, is
true, you have a very lucid interpretation of many of the phenomena of hypnotism and of trance. If it is true that consciousness withdraws from the physical body and functions in a more refined vehicle with enlarged powers, many of these phenomena become intelligible. If, then, you could provisionally accept this theory, it would be possible for you to make some very definite experiments, in order to test the truth of this theory.
I come to another point, and here I am much afraid of clashing with some
scientific opinions. It is believed, by those who hold the Indian theory, that
man is not the only conscious being in the universe; they believe that there are
many other beings besides man who are intelligent, and who are manifestations of the universal consciousness, and that these beings exist in all the worlds;
sometimes they resemble man, at other times they do not resemble him. All around us, in space, that is to say in the other worlds which are in relation with the physical world, are multitudes of intelligent conscious beings, who pursue their lives as we pursue ours; the life is independent, the world is independent, but relations may be established between these worlds.
You doubtless think that you are being transported to the Middle Ages, but these are the Indian ideas of to-day.
It is possible for man when his consciousness begins to function on a
supra-conscious plane, to get into relation with these beings and even sometimes
to make them obedient to his will, because many of these things are inferior to
man. I have thought it necessary to tell you this because I wish to relate to you two or three experiences which, to me, are unintelligible without this explanation.
If you think that this explanation is not valid, find another; for my part I am
incapable of doing so.
union by effort; which begins on the physical plane, and does not lead to great
heights; and the Raja-Yoga, that is to say, the royal union, an entirely mental
system, which does not begin with physical practices, but with mental practices.
These then are the two great systems; the Hatha-Yoga for the body, the Raja-Yoga for the mind, the intelligence.
Those who follow Yoga are called Yogis. The Hatha-Yogis have two aims; one is to secure perfect bodily health and a long extension of life on the earth; the
other is to subjugate, for their own advantage, the entities of the other plane,
who are not of a very advanced order. It is usually the Hatha-Yogis who display
There is much prejudice in
Westerns and are often reluctant to show them phenomena. I have been able to see a great deal because I have lived among Indians, as an Indian. Indians are very proud; they cannot bear that their ideas, their religion, or their theories,
should be laughed at.
The Hatha-Yogi forces himself to subjugate completely his body and all the
functions of his life. Life is called "Prana," a word usually translated as
breath, but it signifies, rather, the aggregation of all the powers of life
which are found everywhere. The Hatha-Yogi strives to bring under the control of the human will all the vital functions and to render them absolutely subservient
to the will. This is done in two ways; the regulation of the respiration, called
"Pranayama," a word which means much more than control of the breath, and which signifies control of all the powers of life in the body and even outside the
body. The second is "Dharana," the perfect concentration of attention and of
will on a portion of the body. The results obtained by these means are
wonderful. The so-called involuntary muscles can be controlled. You may convince yourself by a small experiment on yourself that this is possible. You can easily learn how to move your ear by exercising those muscles which are rudimentary in man.
The same can be done with all the muscles of the body. It is possible to
entirely stop the heart from beating. The movements first become slower; then
the heart ceases to beat and life is as if suspended; the man becomes
unconscious on this plane; then little by little, movement is restored until the
heart beats regularly. In the same way, the lungs are controlled, always by
keeping the attention absolutely fixed on the part that is to be subjugated to
the will. One part of the body after another is thus dealt with. These practices
last for years.
The Yogi wishes to obtain perfect health; he desires that all the interior of
the body should be absolutely clean. The Yogis make a habit of bathing the
interior of their bodies as they do the exterior. They do it sometimes by
swallowing through the mouth quantities of water, but they frequently do it also
by reversing the peristaltic action of the intestines; they take in water by the
lower orifice and eject it by the mouth. I have seen a man who could do that for
two or three minutes; he placed himself in water and, after a few moments of
these reversed peristaltic movements, he ejected from his mouth what seemed like a fountain of water as long as it was desired that he should do so. This
experiment is not beautiful, but it is interesting because it shows the power of
the human will when directed upon a portion of the body. It is not then
surprising that experiments can be carried out with the human body which seem
even less credible.
The result of all these practices is a marvellous state of health, a bodily
strength that nothing can break. I have been told--I cannot guarantee this, I am
not personally acquainted with an example--that they can sometimes prolong life
for a century and a half. Those who have told me this are persons in whom I have the greatest confidence, but, I repeat, I can put forth no proof on this point; what I have observed is the perfect health of these Yogis.
They attain to complete suppression of the feeling of physical pain. It is thus
that a man, whose skin is apparently quite sensitive, can lie on a bed of iron
points, and yet appear to feel very comfortable; he feels no pain whatever.
Similarly, what would ordinarily be regarded as dreadful suffering is not even
felt. A man may have an arm atrophied by holding it raised for years. Imagine
the firmness of a will that can do such things. You can understand that with
such a will a man can do what he likes with his body.
These life forces in the body which are half conscious, or what you call the
Unconscious, do not constitute an elevated order of consciousness; but they can respond to a higher consciousness, and, in making this response, permit it to control the whole machinery of the body.
This power over the body of suppressing the sensation of pain is found sometimes among those who have not practised the Hatha-Yoga. One of my friends, of the warrior class, is very fond of tiger hunting; he is in the habit of going alone into the forest to hunt for tigers; it is in this way that the warrior class hunt tigers. They do not employ elephants or anything that can protect them in their attack; they go on foot and quite alone.
One day, however, my friend went tiger hunting with some Englishmen, mounted on their elephants, as is their wont. At the moment when the tiger attacked the
elephant, one of the huntsmen lost his presence of mind, his gun went off and
the ball lodged in the leg of my friend, who fell. When the surgeon arrived he
insisted on putting him under chloroform to extract the ball. My friend refused,
and said: "I have never lost consciousness and I do not wish to begin now.
Besides, I shall not feel any pain, you may use your knife." The surgeon
demurred, saying: "But if you were to make an involuntary movement it might be
very dangerous." My friend replied: "I will not move; if I make a single
movement I authorise you to use chloroform." The operation was performed; my friend was entirely conscious; he did not make a single movement. What to
another would have been horrible torture, was nothing to him.
Afterwards I questioned him on the subject; I thought at first that it was pride
of caste that had prevented his showing the lest sense of pain. He said to me;
"I assure you that I did not feel the least pain. I fixed my consciousness in my
head; it was not in my leg; I felt nothing." He was not a Yogi; but he had this
power of concentrating his mentality, which is sometimes found among educated Indians. A hereditary physique is transmitted from generation to generation among those who practice Yoga.
The other Hatha-Yoga which aims at subjugating the beings of another place,
begins always by painful experiments--the tapas--such as the one I have just
mentioned, namely, holding the arm raised until it becomes absolutely atrophied.
They say that it is possible to develop the powers of the consciousness of a
plane superior to the physical plane by these extreme austerities (and they do
it), and that they can use these powers of the consciousness of the astral
plane--that is what they call it--to make use of the inferior entities on that
plane. They can thus obtain apports of objects without contact; they can seek
what they will, within limits which I will presently indicate; they can do
extraordinary things, which here we should call jugglery, but which are done
without apparatus, by will power alone, by the aid, as they say, of these
elementals. Ten years ago, I saw one of these Yogis who wished to display some of his powers. He was nearly naked, a consideration of importance when it is a question of the apports of objects. He had no sleeves in which he could conceal things. He wore only a little piece of cloth round his loins; his legs and the upper part of his body--from his waist upwards--were absolutely naked.
He began by one of those feats that can be done here with apparatus, whereas he had only a small table which we ourselves had supplied and a small box with two drawers in it which he allowed us to examine as long and as much as we wished; he had, in addition, an ordinary bottle containing an absolutely clear liquid, like water, but which seemed to me not to be pure water, at least I think not, although I am not sure. We were all seated quite near him; we could touch the table and assure ourselves that it was not a platform which could conceal
He first said that he wished to show us some apports of objects, and that he had
elementals under his domination. For a moment, he carefully regarded each of
those present. He looked at me fixedly and said: "You must not interrupt me, nor offer any opposition during my operation." I promised, I assured him that I
would remain quite passive. I must tell you that I practised Yoga myself before
could oppose his amusements.
He asked three or four of us to entrust him with our watches, and he wrapped
them in a handkerchief which we lent him. Then he said to us: "I am going to
give this parcel to one of you, that you may take it and throw it into the
well." This well was in a little courtyard about fifty yards off. One of our
party, a gentleman, took the parcel and went towards the well, when another
stopped him, saying: "Perhaps we are the victims of some trickery; let me assure
myself that the watches are really in the parcel." The man who said this was a
European and thought that this was simply a juggler's trick; he supposed that
the Yogi had kept the watches. I do not know where he could have hid them since he was naked. The Yogi got very angry, and said: "Throw the parcel down on the table then." (This anger shows that these men are by no means saints.) One of us opened the parcel; the watches were there. He wrapped them up again, and said: "Give them to Mrs. Besant, who will herself throw them into the well." I took the parcel in my hand, and I went and threw it into the well.
The Yogi was standing by the table. He raised his arms in the air, his hands
were empty. He pronounced some words: the watches were in his hands.
Explain that as you like; I confine myself to stating the fact. The man said it
was his elemental who had fetched the watches out of the well. Perhaps you think these things are quite impossible; they will seem to you incredible if you have not been present at spiritistic seances where just the same kind of things are
done, where objects are brought as apports without contact. The handkerchief
which was wrapped round the watches was quite wet.
The man next suggested cutting off the head of a bird, assuring us that it would
not hurt it. I did not wish to witness such a painful experiment. I only wished
to see what could be seen without horror. He assured us that he could perform
this experiment; but I think that this must be produced by collective
hallucination, whilst I do not think that in the experiment with the watches
there was any hallucination. And assuredly, there was no hallucination in the
following experiment: -
"Ask me," he said, "to bring something to you; my elemental will bring it in a
box." Someone enquired if he could cause objects to be brought from a distant
"I can if they are in
the sea must be crossed." Here, therefore, was a limit to his powers. Someone
then said to him: "At a distance of a hundred miles from here there is a town
a kind of sweet is made that is found nowhere else in
bring us some of these sweets?" The man stood in the midst of our circle in full
light, it was morning. He opened the box and began emptying it with both hands;
he threw some sweets on the table and soon made a pile of them much higher than the box. He said that it was his elemental who had brought them. They were
really the sweets asked for; we distributed them among the neighbouring
children, who ate them with much pleasure.
These are but a few of those experiments which are very difficult for Western
minds to comprehend, but very easy for an Indian to explain by his theory of
consciousness and of the elemental. You might try to make these experiments;
perhaps you may succeed, perhaps you may not succeed.
I have been told of an experiment which I have not seen; it is very well known,
it is that of the basket and the little child; perhaps I should say that I have
seen it once, but I am convinced that it was jugglery and not the effect of
Hatha-Yoga. One of my friends, an officer in the English army, told me that he
had seen this experiment performed in the courtyard of his own house. He stood
on one side of the basket and a brother officer stood on the other; they saw the
child who was put into the basket; they themselves tied it with cords; they did
not move away from the basket, and they did not lose sight of it for a single
moment. The man was in front of the basket; he began singing in a low voice a
strange refrain, which lasted for ten minutes. After that he proceeded in the
usual way. (That is to say, he pierced the basket repeatedly, in every
direction, with a sword.) When that was over, and after a great quantity of
blood had been seen issuing from the basket, the child appeared amidst the crowd of onlookers safe and sound.
I can only explain that as a collective hallucination. There are things which
can be achieved by those who have a more extended knowledge of nature; but on the physical plane, to stick a sword into the body of a child, to shed its blood abundantly and to cause the child afterwards to reappear is impossible, it is contrary to known physical laws. It was his strange chant that induced the
collective hallucination. They have very strange chants which produce marvellous effects on the brain; it is thus that they hypnotise a crowd, which sees only what the hypnotiser wills shall be seen.
This experiment, therefore, is not interesting to me; it is fairly easy; it
consists in the knowledge of a succession of sounds that hypnotise. This is the
secret which is generally in the possession of some family, and is transmitted
from generation to generation. Moreover, each family can perform only one kind
of experiment, one sort of hallucination.
These Yogis can put themselves into auto-hypnotic trances with great facility;
but these trances, when they come out of them, do not seem to leave them with
any fresh knowledge; the trance is therefore absolutely useless. I have seen a
Yogi who was always in a state of absolute unconsciousness on the physical
plane; his disciples took care of him, and fed him; he was like an idiot and had
nothing to teach.
These men have developed the power of hypnotising themselves; but they have not developed the capacity of possessing consciousness on a superior plane which can be transmitted to the brain.
The Yogis can predict the exact hour of their death, that is to say they can
choose this hour. I know one who said: "I will die to-day at ." His
disciples were with him, and at exactly he died They are able to
quit their bodies either in a trance, from which they can return, or in death,
from which they do not return. They generally die in this way, choosing the
exact hour at which they wish to quit their bodies.
The other method, the Raja-Yoga, is quite different. There are in Yoga eight
successive degrees: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranavama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi; in Hatha-Yoga one begins with the third degree, that is to say with Asana, the posture. The posture in which the body is held is of great
importance in relation to the vital currents. Some of these postures are very
difficult, some are quite easy. The Hatha-Yogi assumes very difficult and
painful postures. The Raja-Yogi does not as a rule assume difficult postures for
the body, but chooses, rather, the easy ones. Patanjali says:*1 "An easy and
In the Raja-Yoga one begins by the first two degrees, that is to say, by the
moral; purification is needful. This is not necessary for the Hatha-Yoga. The
first step, Yama, is negative purification: that is, complete abstinence from
all that is evil; not a single creature must be injured, a man must live in
perfect charity towards all. The second step is Niyama, that is, positive
purification: the practice of the virtues helpful to humanity Without this there
is no Raja-Yoga; these two rungs of the ladder are absolutely necessary. Then a
bodily posture must be chosen (Asana) which can be maintained for a long time
without fatigue; it is only necessary to keep the back, the throat and the head
in a straight line, that is to say, that the vertebrate column should be quite
straight in order that the currents may pass without obstacle. The head must not
be turned to the right or to the left; to keep the body quite straight is the
only position necessary for the Raja-Yoga.
After this comes Pranayama, that is to say, the control of the powers of life in
the body. Then the Pratyahara, in which the mind is not concentrated upon one
part of the body; but all the mental faculties are gathered together. They are
diverted from external objects in order to observe nothing of the environment in
which one is placed. All the avenues of sense are closed. At first they are
usually closed in a physical manner; there is a way of placing the fingers so as
to close at one and the same time the nostrils, the eyes and the ears. But when
concentration has been developed, it is no longer necessary to employ these
means; the senses cease to function. This is attained simply by mental effort, a
method the very opposite of that employed in hypnotism, where the senses are
fortified by turning a mirror, for example. This is called the collection of
forces, turning the mentality within; there is then perfect concentration
(Dharana), not upon one part of the body, but upon an idea; there is a mental
image, an image which one must strive to make very clear, very precise.
These are the inferior degrees: their object is to liberate consciousness from
the body. When the senses no longer function, when the exterior environment has disappeared, when one has become insensible to external contact, consciousness begins to function in a more subtle vehicle belonging to the Beyond; it truly functions; this is what is called in the West the supraliminal or
supra-consciousness. The superior consciousness must work in the world beyond and make observations; this is termed Dhyana, meditation.
If a yet higher plane is reached, one which is called Samadhi (a
supra-consciousness which is conscious of itself) it is possible on returning
then to the body to use the physical brain to remember the observations which
have been made on other planes.
Such is the conception of the Raja-Yoga, a development more and more intense of the mental powers, complete insensibility to the senses, but perfect interior
In this condition the Yogi can vacate his body consciously without losing
consciousness, and having left his body can perceive it distinctly lying there
as an exterior object beside him. Then the conscious being, who is thus able to
regard his body like a cast-off garment, can rise from one sphere to another,
make his observations, fix them on the memory, and impress them on the brain, so that they will persist when he returns to the body.
The proof that the body has been really vacated is that knowledge may thus be
acquired which is not possessed on the physical plane; and different persons may compare their experiences. Their observations will not be entirely identical,
because the play of personality always enters as a factor into the experience,
but it is possible to make observations of so precise a kind, that it may easily
be perceived that the slight variations in detail are due to differences in the
observers, and not to differences in the objects observed.
If you interrogate a dozen persons who have passed at the same hour down the
same street, they will tell you very different things; because as the mentality
of each person differs, their observations are different. Nevertheless, by their
several accounts, even though different, you will have no difficulty in
recognising the street of which they speak.
Thus many persons have been able to observe the same objects in another world
and to register their observations when they have returned to the physical body.
If this is possible, it explains many phenomena noted in psychical research. We
can understand why consciousness in a state of trance is something much keener, and has a much more extended knowledge than in the waking state. If, however, we can have this personal experience of the supra-consciousness, and return to the physical body, we possess satisfying proof and invincible certitude of the persistence of consciousness apart from the physical body.
May I suggest that modern psychologists should make very careful study of the
class of experiences called religious;*2 the religious consciousness of monks
and nuns and saints is still consciousness. It may be said that it is a deformed
consciousness; but sometimes a deformed consciousness exhibits facts of great
That is quite true and I do not wish to deny it; but I say that this is not
inevitable. If we proceed step by step, if a strong will creates a suitable
condition of the nervous system, the brain may become keener, and at the same
time remain absolutely healthy; then you have the Yogi instead of the hysteric.
In conclusion: I have sketched a theory which you can study; you can make
experiments in order to discover whether this theory does, or does not, explain
the problems that modern psychology cannot solve. The latter collects numbers of facts, but it cannot always explain them. It appeals to the Unconsciousness: but there is not only one Unconsciousness: there is the unconsciousness which is derived from the past, that is, the sub-consciousness; the Hatha-Yogi makes
this, too become conscious and governs all the movements of the body. Then there is the supra-consciousness, which is the Consciousness of the future, for which the physical body is not yet sufficiently evolved. Therefore experiments with this supra-consciousness present many dangers. It will however be the normal consciousness of the future. Human evolution is not finished; man is still very imperfect; it is possible to put pressure on the body, to make it work in such a way as to hasten the normal advances of evolution. If this is done with
precaution, with knowledge, with the help of those who know the way, it is
possible to walk along this path without danger, without injuring the body,
without becoming a hysteric, without nervous degeneration, and it is just this
idea that I have desired to lay before you in this paper.
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