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An Interdisciplinary Curriculum Based On The Pancha Lakshana Of The Puranas

panchalakshana

Introduction

Rapid changes in economic systems in the recent decades, emergence of interdisciplinary sciences and technologies, creation of new kinds of jobs and changing lifestyles have created a need for a 21st century education in India. At the same time, the new National Education Policy 2020 envisions an ‘India centric education system’ that contributes directly to transforming our nation’. The policy mentions an ‘education system rooted in Indian ethos that contributes directly to transforming India, that is Bharat, sustainably into an equitable and vibrant knowledge society’ and to ‘instill among the learners a deep-rooted pride in being Indian…’

Towards realizing this vision, the policy highlights the importance of a new curriculum and pedagogical approach that is interdisciplinary and holistic, cultivates scientific temper and develops life skills and values. In this context, it is believed that a systematic and integrated approach to Indian Knowledge systems offered as a story-based narrative can inspire a lot of children to a. Understand the rich cultural and scientific heritage of India b. Develop pride in Bharateeyata c. Kindle the aspiration to take up higher education in Indian knowledge systems.

The paper discusses the relevance of Itihaasa-Puranas to teach Indian Knowledge Systems (IKS) and provides a model, developed at Anaadi Foundation, involving an interdisciplinary curriculum for schools and higher educational institutions based on the pancha lakshanas of the puranas. An illustration is provided by developing modules on one of the  lakshanas – ‘sarga’. The paper proposes a holistic, narrative-based model integrating modern scientific disciplines, thus introducing students in regular education to Indian knowledge systems and Itihaasa-Purana in order to inspire further research. We also examine ‘Big History’, a similar attempt of building a narrative-based study in modern historical studies. Teaching methods and how to take this curriculum to educational institutions are also discussed in detail and scope for further work highlighted. The paper does not attempt to scientifically or otherwise establish the truths in the Puranas but to use the existing knowledge and take it to students and society.

Need for systematic exposure to Indian Knowledge Systems (IKS) in schools and universities

The education received in schools helps shape the aspirations, attitudes, values and worldview of the individuals and the narrative in society. In both the regular education process and mainstream academia, there is dominance of Western thought and frameworks and lacks appropriate representation of Indian worldviews and knowledge systems. Students are not educated about the Indian culture and are unable to appreciate its relevance in their life and society. Nor are they inspired to take up further education or research in domains of IKS. Students often perceive accounts of Itihaasa-Purana as myths or mere religious works having little scientific basis.  There is hesitance in them in owning up one’s civilizational identity and a lack of pride in Bharat. The society at large is deprived of the benefits of the rich tradition.

There is a growing body of literature on integrating local or indigenous or traditional knowledge systems in the modern curriculum especially in parts of the world where local culture and knowledge has suffered erosion due to colonialism and globalization. The importance of bridging the divide between culture and education and the potential of rich knowledge systems in addressing health and environmental issues is being recognised and several countries in Africa and the region of Alaska in the USA have made attempts at integrating them. There is similar sentiment resonating in the South American countries in the Amazon region. South Africa had adopted in 2004, a policy to integrate and promote South Africa’s wealth of indigenous knowledge resources which was implemented in its curriculum in 2005. The inclusion of indigenous knowledge in Alaska has shown positive results with children developing appreciating for cultural values and increased student understanding and engagement. Thus developing a model of integrating IKS in 21st century education in India has potential to set an example for other cultures and countries and inspire global movement.

Present scenario of IKS education in school curriculum

In the CBSE and other state board curricula today, content from Indian scientific knowledge is barely present and is limited to occasional mentions of the scientists such as Aryabhatta, Charaka or their texts or scientific achievements. An elective course titled Knowledge, Traditions and Practices of India is available in classes XI and XII CBSE schools that gives a historical overview of the knowledge traditions of India across various disciplines such as astronomy, metallurgy, arts, philosophy and others. While giving a good overview and historical perspective of the various knowledge systems in India, it does not venture in depth into the scientific concepts or worldview in the texts or Itihaasa-Purana.

Stories from the Panchatantra or readings from Ramayana and Mahabharata are taught independently in few schools as part of either value education, life skills or literature. However they are not introduced as encyclopaedic works containing knowledge of the world. Several institutions are introducing Indian philosophical worldview and knowledge, however their numbers are very few and the use of Puranas to teach Indian philosophy or sciences has not been known. While there exist popular narrations of Puranic stories on television and in several programs, students or academic study of the Itihaasa-Purana is not common in schools and colleges in India. There are excellent Gurukulams teaching IKS and Itihaasa-Purana, however the option is less likely to be exercised by an urban student coming from a family with little or no exposure to IKS. Thus there exists no curriculum or option at large scale that systematically introduces students to IKS and Indian worldview in a conventional educational setting.

A systematic exposure of IKS through the Puranas will help students understand the cultural and scientific knowledge of the timeless tradition and appreciate its relevance in their life and society. It can be instrumental in developing a strong identity and pride in Bharateeyata. Moreover, systematic exposure and study in school can inspire students to take up higher education and careers in IKS thus unearthing their knowledge to progress fundamental scientific thought and develop solutions for several social, health and environmental issues that the society is facing today. Thus there is a need to introduce IKS in the regular education process in a manner as any other scientific discipline.

The workshops on IKS offered by Anaadi Foundation have attracted a large number of students and teachers. Several participants mention how for the first time they are exposed to such knowledge and how much the workshops enhance their “shraddha” (faith) in the Ithihasa-Purana.

Big History – a modern scientific approach to building a narrative

Curriculums in the conventional education process have been divided into disciplines which lack a coherent narrative that connects them and creates a holistic view of reality. ‘Big History’ is a novel curriculum that integrates multiple disciplines such as astronomy, biology, geology and history covering the 14 billion year history of the universe and inquires upon fundamental questions such as ‘How did the universe originate?’ The course has been taught as an alternative to conventional history courses in several schools and colleges globally. It is also available online for free and has gained widespread support and popularity, including from Bill Gates.

However, the core themes of the curriculum reflect the philosophical assumptions of modern science such as a linear view where complexity increases with time and distinguishing humans as the sole species capable of preserving, sharing and passing on information to other generations and as the most powerful force for change on the planet. These perspectives reflect in the narrative of individuals and society as well as in the research further pursued in scientific disciplines. To quote from the Big History website:

“Big History examines our past, explains our present, and imagines our future. It’s a story about us. An idea that arose from a desire to go beyond specialized and self-contained fields of study to grasp history as a whole. This growing, multi-disciplinary approach is focused on high school students, yet designed for anyone seeking answers to the big questions about the history of our Universe. The Big History Project is a joint effort between teachers, scholars, scientists, and their supporters to bring a multi-disciplinary approach to knowledge to lifelong learners around the world.”

The success of the Big History curriculum globally shows the potential of interdisciplinary and narrative-based approach to education. While the initial part of the Big History curriculum includes perspectives from ancient cultures, the Indian perspective has not been included.

Figure 1: Origin of Universe as depicted in various cultures

Source: Big History Project

There is excellent scope to design and offer a curriculum inspired by the Big History Project and based on our Ithihasa-Purana.

Relevance of Puranas as sources for teaching IKS in a narrative form

In the Indian context, the Puranas are encyclopaedic works characterised by the panchalakshanas as they enumerate details about them: 1. Sarga (creation), 2. Pratisarga (subsequent creations and dissolution), 3. Manvantara (description of Manus and cosmological timescales), 4. Vamsa (Genealogy of rishis, devas and kings), 5. Vamsanucharita (stories, events from the lives of these beings). In the Indian context, the Puranas provide a narrative-based approach to learning and integrate various human and physical sciences in a manner filled with rasa and maintain the scientific method of inquiry and dialogue. The puranas cover much larger timescales, non-anthropocentric perspectives, diversity of topics and are regarded as equivalent to veda in some works. They contain the knowledge of the Vedas, Vedangas, Agamas, the 64 kalas, Srutis and Smritis and can be an excellent doorway for young students to get introduced to the Indian knowledge and worldviews.

The Puranas adopt the method of inquiry which is also a key feature in modern frameworks such as C3 framework, historical thinking skills framework. The use of stories in classrooms has been researched and found to enhance the memory of the content and generate greater interest and participation in the class and the subject. The use of audio-visual content helps children remember and understand better. Moreover the repetition of narrations in different forms in different Puranas makes it easier for the person to understand them. The Puranas are thus an excellent means to introduce Indian Knowledge systems and culture to students.

With the availability of English translations, including free versions online; original texts can be accessed easily by the students and can be an excellent source to study and research on the Indian knowledge systems, provided an appropriate background and framework to study them is given akin to any other scientific discipline and pursue higher education in them.

An interdisciplinary curriculum based on the panchalakshanas of the Puranas

At Anaadi Foundation, we’ve developed a curriculum to teach IKS based on the panchalakshanas of the puranas while integrating them with modern sciences. The curriculum follows an inquiry based approach as in the puranas and is divided into modules, with one or more modules covering one of the panchalakshanas. Additional modules on important concepts such as units of time and timescales which are recurring themes in the Itihaasa-Puranas are included so that students may be able to understand and appreciate these works. Special topics from the Puranas such as temple architecture are also included in separate modules. Here, we discuss the model used to develop the curriculum with examples to illustrate it..

The approach adopted in the curriculum aims to inspire students to systematically study the Itihaasa-puranas and IKS, appreciate their richness and pursue further research in them. The narrative followed does not propose replacing modern scientific understanding with that of the Puranas or vice-versa but proposes a healthy confluence to advance knowledge. The ideal audience for such a curriculum has been class 9th and 10th students or anyone with equivalent exposure to modern science and humanities. However, the content and pedagogy of the curriculum has been modified depending on the audience’s age with more philosophical and in-depth scientific and research based topics for university students, while more visual and interactive content for younger audience.

The curriculum is divided into modules and each module has four dimensions or sections Inquiry, Content, Research and Perspective. Inquiry into a question defines the theme and flow of the module. Each section has several components which are listed listed in Figure 1. Every module may include some or all of the components from each section.

Figure 1: Interdisciplinary Curriculum based on the Panchalakshana of Puranas with the 4 sections and the components in each

The method of using the above sections and components in designing the proposed curriculum at Anaadi Foundation is discussed below:

1. Inquiry

Each module follows an inquiry based approach and begins with a fundamental question such as How did the universe originate? or How old is the universe? These are questions usually found in the Puranas or those that students curious about the world have. They define the theme and flow of the module. Using content from the Puranas and modern sciences, answers are developed systematically and activities and visualizations are used to help understand the concepts.

During the course of the teaching, few anticipated and commonly asked questions were later incorporated as part of the curriculum such as ‘How do we see Brahman?’. This follows the Puranic teaching method in a way where Rishis ask further questions to clarify their doubts or to understand deeper. They are put under the component ‘Common questions’. One finds answers to several of these questions in the Puranas themselves.

2. Content

In Itihaasa-Puranas, concepts are illustrated through stories and life episodes. A narrative is created. As part of the curriculum, relevant chapters from the Puranas have been included and are narrated during the course of teaching. For example, Book 1, Chapter 2 of the Vishnu Purana describes the evolution of tattvas and is included in the module on creation. Chapter 6 of Rudra Samhita in Shiva Purana is given to explain the nature of Brahman. And Book 1, Chapter 3 of Vishnu Purana is used for reference when explaining the units of time. Exposure to the original content of the Puranas in class creates a lot of excitement in the students and sharing the translated text makes for an interesting read as well. By sharing the readings and discussing in class, it has encouraged students to study them and see the knowledge in the Itihaasa-Puranas for themselves. Enabling children to study original works is important in cultivating shraddha in the works themselves.

Current scientific understanding and concepts have been included at appropriate places since most students have a background in viewing reality through modern science and it also helps as a good starting point for the discussions. For example, the module on creation begins with an overview of the Big Bang Theory which is the current scientific model of the origin of the universe.

Concepts from other Indian shastras such as vaastu shastra and others are included in order to help understand or discuss points mentioned in the Puranas.

Certain concepts are too new for students to understand hence activities that help create an analogy or visualize them have been included. In the module on Timescales, to help students understand the idea of different life spans and timescales of devas and manu, activity illustrating the different period of a day and year on different planets is presented. Softwares such as Stellarium and online visualisation tools are used to illustrate the ideas.

3. Research

In the module on Timescales, we ask ‘Is time the same?’ and discuss how though every tick of the clock is the same, physically, time is experienced differently as day and night, as seasons owing to movement of planetary bodies. Using the latest Nobel Prize winning research on circadian rhythm, we see how body and mind activity changes during the day. The discussion then expands to interpreting the scientific observations in the light of Indian frameworks such as the subjective nature of time, the concept of time as described in the Shiva Purana. These components are interspersed in the modules at relevant places.

Lot of exciting research in modern scientific disciplines provides evidence for the truths and principles mentioned in the Itihaasa-Puranas. Those are included as part of the curriculum and add a new dimension to the discussion. Puranas. Students are introduced to the latest research and the people working in these areas such as dating the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Limitations of the archaeological methodology to construct evidence and understanding valid means of evidence according to IKS are discussed.

Similarly, there are emerging disciplines such as archaeoastronomy and works directly working on the scientific validation of the Puranas. Special components are included on them and students are introduced to the people working in these areas.

In module 1, we ask How can we ‘see’ Brahman and discuss from astronomical findings how only 5% of the universe is visible or detectable and 95% consisting of dark matter and dark energy is largely unknown. This opens up avenues for exploration and further research. In conventional curriculum focus is given on what is known, however exposure to latest research and unanswered questions helps put the knowledge in perspective, kindles inquiry and makes one open to newer ideas.

4. Perspective

Section titled ‘Perspective’ discusses important philosophical ideas which help students question their beliefs and relook at the general narrative in society and modern science.

A component is designed to expand the students’ perspective and educate them about the Indian worldview and philosophy such as the cyclical nature of time, subjective view of reality which are common themes in IKS. These ideas form the background of Puranic stories, and we’ve found them to be essential in order for students to understand and relate with the Itihaasa-Puranas.

Since most students come from a Western worldview and orientation, these ideas often appear new and different from the usual ways of thinking. Thus it is important that students are exposed to the history and cultural roots of science and are aware of the social aspects of science. These are topics in the fields of ‘History of science’ and ‘Science, technology and society’ and articles, readings from them are included and discussed in the curriculum. They help students to break the boundaries of current scientific understanding or belief systems. Stories from the Itihaasa-Puranas such as the popular episode of the meeting between Hanuman ji and Bhima in the Mahabharata that brings out the decline in physical and cognitive abilities of beings with each yuga are discussed to challenge commonly held perspectives on linear growth with time.

The beauty of the Indian knowledge systems have been their application in the culture and practices in our tradition. Thus activities that illustrate the application of Indian knowledge systems in the Indian tradition are included. This helps understand and appreciate the scientific basis of the Indian culture and develop respect for it. An example given is that of sankalpa mantra where chanting of the exact space-time coordinates according to the cosmology and geography of the Puranas while taking sankalpa in a puja. By listening to the chant, students are able ‘see’ the theory in practice. Similarly the importance and efficacy of yagnas to treat environmental pollution is included. The yagnas purify the atmosphere which in turn purifies and heals all the life nurtured by it illustrating the evolution of grosser reality from the subtler one. Another activity is conducting one’s prakriti analysis to understand the interplay of Vata, Pitta, Kapha and in turn the panchamahabhutas.

An introduction to the Indian Knowledge Systems and the richness of the Bharateeya parampara has been included. Overview of specific subjects or disciplines in Indian knowledge systems such as Ayurveda, jyotisha; the rishis and the important works in them are included in between the modules. This helps students appreciate the richness of Indian scientific knowledge and get exposed to options of further study in them.

Specific sections that discuss modern challenges and issues in the light of Indian philosophical frameworks and how they can be addressed using the Indian view have been included. In the module on ‘sarga’ or creation, we discuss the concept of creation as a yagna and how this perspective can shift the approach to the environment from consumerism to a sustainable one.

While conducting pilots at Anaadi Foundation, the digital content and relevant reference materials were shared with the students in order to enable further interest and exploration by the students.

Teaching the curriculum

Several modules from the curriculum have been taught and piloted at Anaadi Foundation and the learnings have been incorporated to modify the curriculum model. We continue to pilot further before proposing to make such a curriculum as part of the regular education process.

It has been observed that individual modules or a combination of them can also be taught as independent workshops in schools. Other methods of introducing them in the schools are mentioned in the next section. Emerging schools that are adopting experiential and project based learning may be approached first for teaching the curriculum.

We found that since the approach adopted is an interdisciplinary one, the teacher(s) are required to have sufficient background study of the Puranas and modern scientific knowledge as well. Professionals or university students with background in either IKS or scientific domains who are inclined to study their counterpart can take up the teaching of the curriculum. This course may be taught in collaboration with experts from IKS as well.

Mode and method of delivery: Online teaching is recommended since the curriculum involves a lot of digital content as well, though it may also be delivered in a conventional classroom setting. Depending on the time availability, the teacher can choose to teach either the whole curriculum or specific modules. Each module can be independently delivered as well.

Teaching methodology

When teaching the lessons, students may find it challenging to grasp or understand the content in one-go. Thus the teacher may feel free to change the order of activities and introduce relevant concepts necessary to help students understand. Also multiple narrations of the chapters from the Puranas is encouraged – once before explaining the concept and once after as well.

Include reading of original texts. This can enable children to go through the original works without hesitation. Children can pick up specific topics of interest such as creation as described in a particular purana.

Focus on listening, retelling and creative expression. Unlike a conventional subject that focuses on writing, the proposed curriculum encourages listening, reading, retelling and reflecting on the stories and the content and encouraging students to express their understanding using creative means. (Sravana – manana – nididhyasana). During the teaching learning process, the teacher is encouraged to integrate various methods including role play, storytelling, quizzing to generate interest and explain the concepts.

Content could be made available to students digitally or physically. The Puranas mention that the accounts and the descriptions within should be heard again and again to internalise their essence. Since the content is new, access to the content is important for children to come back and revisit their learning.

Teacher as the first student:

The knowledge contained in the Itihaasa-Puranas is vast as an ocean. While teaching sections from them, it is natural for students to come up with a lot of questions and the teacher to not know the answers to all of them. The teacher is encouraged to research these questions or guide the student with the relevant sections from the puranas. Mentorship by experts in IKS will prove to be helpful here. The experts may take sessions.

A simple question such as how is the earth described in the puranas may require sufficient study on part of the teacher who may not be familiar with the Puranas entirely. The teacher must try to answer the question for themselves using  the relevant reference from the puranas – story or description, understand it, understand what is the current scientific understanding of the same and research on relevant parallels or findings that may help understand or imagine the description in the puranas.

Following this philosophy during our sessions has not only helped enrich and expand the curriculum. Thus we recommend that the curriculum is updated periodically based on the latest findings that help understand the Puranas from a modern science perspective and based on the feedback received during the teaching-learning process.

On Assessments:

Unlike a conventional subject that focuses on remembering and reproducing facts, the Puranas by virtue of them being timeless encourage remembering the essential principles and focus on listening or reading the stories again and again, reflecting and thinking about them, retelling them and seeing them in their own lives (Sravana – manana – nididhyasana). Assessments should enable students to revisit and express their learnings. To begin with, teachers can assess the content since this is the first exposure of students to the Indian knowledge system. A uniform summative assessment can also be developed that tests the concepts and knowledge of the students on the content that they’ve been exposed to. During our pilot sessions, we adopted a simple online quiz for self assessment.

The assessment can also involve students picking relevant stories from the Puranas and narrating the same and explaining the essence of the story to everyone. Or students may be encouraged to take up any of the topics such as creation or units of time and explain the same to the class again. Students can perform the assessment in a group where they take up an event in the Puranas and enact it. Students can also express their understanding in the form of diagrams or paintings or any other creative means of expression that they see appropriate. Students can also record videos of their expression and submit. Enthusiastic students may be encouraged to chant sections from the puranas.

Students to be evaluated on clarity of thought and expression and understanding of concepts.

Engaging the society and Popularising the content

While introducing a formal curriculum in regular education is the ideal way, popular awareness of IKS and Itihaasa-Puranas can help create the need and larger acceptance in the society for it. Students can also discover relevant opportunities for higher studies or further academic research in them.

Apart from teaching the curriculum in a regular classroom model, other school activities and competitions also offer excellent opportunities of engaging with students and schools and introducing the contents from the curriculum. Schools may not be able to take out time for all the content and hence we look at other means by which the curriculum or its content may be introduced. The following ideas have emerged based on interactions with schools and with participants during the pilot programs at Anaadi Foundation.

  • Expert sessions covering specific topics from the Puranas or IKS. These can be a one-off session or regular fortnightly engagement spanning a few months.
  • Creating an Indic knowledge club or using time from an existing club such as science club can be explored to introduce children to IKS.
  • A theatre play based on stories from the Itihaasa-Puranas may be prepared using the ‘Theatre in Education’ model. During the course of preparation, students would get the opportunity to immerse themselves in the Puranic characters, understand the principles in operation as well. This can be proposed as part of the annual day event or as an inter-school or inter-class competition. Theatre or storytelling based events may also be organised in schools. The play scripts and videos can also be published online.
  • Interested students to pursue research based projects under the guidance of experts in IKS.
  • Quizzing events on the puranas can be a fun and engaging way to introduce students to the world of Itihaasa-Puranas.
  • Inviting artists to perform local renditions/narrations of these puranas and stories – puppetry, traditional folk arts and music forms
  • Interested students can create content on knowledge and stories from the Itihaasa Puranas – simple translations, illustrations, narrations of stories, videos and animation, songs, poems, paintings and art works. An overview of the 18 Mahapuranas (also Upapuranas and Sthalapuranas) in terms of table of contents and possible areas where one can find the topics (a mind map of the Puranas) will be quite helpful as well and enable future learners to discover and discuss answers.
  • Visiting and documenting the stories and history of nearby locations associated with puranic events

Along with introducing it in schools, this curriculum and knowledge should be made available to anyone willing to get introduced to IKS. Thus we propose 4 key steps:

  1. Access to original works or sections online
  2. Good quality digital content explaining concepts and frameworks to understand stories from the Itihaasa-Puranas and IKS
  3. Integrating with modern scientific understanding and research
  4. Connecting enthusiastic students with experts in the field of IKS who would be willing to mentor or guide on self study or research on IKS.

To achieve the above, the paper proposes creating a shorter and free online version of the curriculum and the development of a new website-cum online community on which content from the curriculum can be made available in an interactive manner. The Digital content on IKS may also be curated on the platform under relevant sections. Interested students to connect, discuss and ask questions, share relevant resources and continue their learning. Members can also contribute towards expanding the content and knowledge resources. Access to an interactive free online course will not only enable a wider audience to learn it but also create larger interest and popularity in the society about such a curriculum. It will also help create access to good resources on IKS to interested people.

Future scope

Along with the model already developed, we suggest the following areas for further exploration and work:

  • Modules on specialised topics apart from the pancha lakshanas such as understanding the worship rituals, Yoga based on the Puranas
  • Collecting and making available digital and physical resources to students to learn more about the Itihaasa-Puranas is an essential step.
  • Developing an objective assessment criteria testing for children’s learning of 21st century skills, scientific temper, understanding of Indian culture and developing inner values. The paper suggests monitoring learning outcomes from the curriculum in the initial period before proposing it as a formal “subject” or course in schools.
  • Developing a network by which experts in IKS can take sessions during the course and mentor interested students in to conduct research based projects.
  • Developing a community for teachers and developing a teacher training course so that high school and university teachers or anyone interested can learn how to teach the curriculum.

Conclusion

A model to teach an interdisciplinary curriculum based on the pancha lakshanas of the puranas developed at Anaadi Foundation has been described in the paper. The inquiry based and storytelling pedagogy of the Puranas has been used while integrating modern scientific understanding and research aided with visualizations and activities. Perspectives on philosophy of science and culture have also been included. The teaching methodology and diverse methods of teaching and popularising the content have been mentioned keeping in view the multiple opportunities for engagements with students in schools. The curriculum hopes to inspire further interdisciplinary research and knowledge of IKS among students. We believe that this is a crucial step towards developing an India centric education in the 21st century and cultivating shraddha and pride in the Bharateeya parampara among students and youth.

Acknowledgements

This paper is part of an ongoing work at Anaadi Foundation. The author would like to express gratitude to Shriman Adinarayanan ji and Smt. Smrithi Rekha ji, founders of Anaadi Foundation and other members of the organisation for their guidance and support during this work. The author is also grateful to Prof. Nagaraj Paturi for his guidance on Indian tradition and works. The author would also like to thank all the people working in the field of IKS, especially those for making Puranas easily available to all.

Watch video presentation here:

References

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZHk4gTRrfk


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