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Philosophy - A Synoptic View

By Prof. M.L. Koul


Be it said in all fairness that philosophy in India did not begin as an independent segment of human investigation. It actually overlapped with religion which to a large extent concealed it under a covering of myths and credos but never hampered it from assuming its bold contours. As is well known, India is a land of multiple and multiform religions that have all long sought support and succour from philosophy to buttress and fortify their essential doctrines and positions. This link between philosophy and religion, not in any way tenuous, resulted in generating new taxonomies of ideas and concepts that enriched the content of religions and also provided a nisus to the process of weaving the warp and woof of systematic thought models. The close inter-relationship between philosophy and religion in India is in no way a matter of weakness on part of Indian philosophy. In reality, the culture and civilization of India, on the whole, have the inspiration of religions behind them and religions have the inspiration and energy of philosophy behind them. To the Western mind, this weltans chung appears to be an anathema and that is how scholars in the west are misled into wrong assessments about the nature of the Indian philosophy. Thinkers in the west are fed and nourished by the Green thought, which in its broad essentials was based on the pedestal of rationalism. Their absolute commitment to reason deters them from placing the Indian thought structure in the category of philosophy. Their categorization of the Indian philosophy is that of religious philosophy in letter and spirit. Karl Potter an eminent scholar of Indian philosophy, is of the view that all systems of Indian philosophy are goal-oriented and hence they be evaluated by standards peculiar to them, certainly not conforming to the standards applicable to philosophy in the west. But objectively speaking, the nature of philosophy in India is not different from that of the philosophy in the west. The Indian philosophers have never repudiated reason, never sealed discussions on the nature of Reality, never taken well-founded beliefs at their face value and never stopped from asking questions about the universe and the real meaning of human existence. True as it is, the Indian thinkers were not mere theoreticians, but, for them, philosophy as view of life was inseparable from philosophy as way of life. Winternitz, colebrook, Neitzehe, Scholpanhauer and many other orientalists had an appreciative understanding of the Indian cultural ethos and their evaluations of the entire corpus of the Indian literature in general  and philosophy in particular are more objective and precious than those that verge on pre-occupied opinions. As in the west, so in India, philosophers were in quest for the ultimate truth and the systems they have structured are as coherent and well-knit as many other systems in the west. Indian thinking is the product of its own milieu and it has to be evaluated as it is. Indian philosophers loved wisdom or sophia, evined a keen curiosity to plumb the depths of atman and its nexus with the world that evolves. The total spectrum of thought processes leads us to believe that Indian thinkers were motivated by an intellectual quest for goals that were metaphysical and spiritual in essence and for  practical realisation of truth. The vedic and upanishade visionaries from Uddalak, Yajn-avalak, Kapil, Kanad, Patanjali  to sankar and off the beat thinkers like Buddha and Mahavir and others possess all the credentials for entry into the famed hall of pre-eminent thinkers.

Religions in India were far from being rigid and dogmatic. They had no set codes to reduce vast numbers of Indian masses to the sheer position of obedience and conformity. They had intrinsic proclivity to allow openness and variety of thinking that led to the formation of a broad mosaic in which each thread of thought merged on the pattern but at the same time stood out of it to attract attention. From a bird's eye view of the broad mosaic of Indian culture, one gathers the idea of a key role that tradition has played in preserving age-old religious mores and also in assimilating any new model of philosophy and enquiry within its ambit and perpetuating its bonds with centuries old thought process without hampering such an enquiry from burgeoning into an independent philosophical thinking. The close nexus the religions in India had with philosophy desisted them in a large measure from ossifying into rigid and lifeless dogmas and tradition cemented the bond between the two without playing the negative role of stunning and stultifying the growth of either of them. Numerous thought proceses with varied approaches and premises to essential problems of life and world have come into being in India and tradition deep-rooted as it has cemented their links with the essential genius of India. Tradition elsewhere has proved reactionary and retrogressive by way of discouraging and even suppressing new trends of thought, but in the Indian cultural model, it has not worked fetters on the wings of speculative thought. Instead it has aided all stirrings in the minds of men towards new horizons of thinking by way of raising a corpus of questions regarding man's existence and the world where he held his being. To hold that tradition in India was always healthy and positive certainly smacks of conservatism and parochialism. But what is significant about India is the growth of regenerative and assimilative movements after every crisis caused by the choking impact of tradition at a time when it proved a hurdle in the development of new thinking processes.

Various systems of philosophy that had their genesis and growth in India are essentially rooted in the empirical experience but most of the systems ultimately find their apogy in transcendentalism. In fact, empirical data and observable facts have been culled and gleaned and utilized as 'building blocks' to structure and construct these transcendental systems. The philosophers in India are in no way contented with the mere analytical explanations of the world process and the mass of data provided by them to the human senses, but they have posed the essential hypothesis of absolute Reality as the creator, defender and supporter of the world. In fact, thinkers in India by and large have a 'metaphysical hunger' to know and understand what lies beyond the ‘elusive and mysterious veil of nature'. They have offered a concept of absolute Reality which is a changeless principle, infinite and beyond the precincts of temporality. Most systems of Indian philosophy pose, discuss and explain the concept of  absolute Reality from their own positions. In fact, these systems are 'insights' affording man ‘sight of the sensible verities’ enabling 'him to understand in the light of reason the super-sensible truth". The systems, in fine, afford a mine of debate and discussion of Reality, which is generally believed to be one of the essential functions of philosophy.

To distinguish between 'Reality' and 'appearance' is one of the commonplace functions of Indian philosophy. Reality is immutable and is the uncaused cause of appearances. Reality in Advait-vedanta is pure, untouched and undefined by appearances. Brahman as Reality in Vedanta is transcendental. But Paramsiva in 'Saivadvaya philosophy of Kashmir is both transcendental and immanent Reality. Brahmana is Sat, cit and anand, away from the gross impurities and defilements of the world of Maya, but Paramsiva is directly involved in the cosmic process. The nexus between reality and appearances have been discussed and analysed from dualistic, dual-cum-non-dualistic and non-dualistic stand points. Reality is being, unchangeable and permanent and appearances are becoming, changeable and immanent.

It is commonly believed that architectonics of philosophy in the west are put on the pedestal of reason. Philosophers from Aristotle to Bertand Russel have never ignored and repudiated the primacy of reason and intellect in their efforts to structure their philosophies and the systems they have constructed are reason-oriented and logic-based. But, contrary to the western standpoint, the Indians do not commit themselves to reason though the systems they have structured provide ample evidence of reason-reoriented analysis and explanation of the empirical data. Liberation or moksa from the bondage and trammels of birth and death is the principal goal they assiduously pursue with a deep sense of faith. Observes Karl Potter, "Pract-ically all philosophical systems view liberation as the highest aim of mankind and Advaita is no exception...liberation consists of release from the process of birth, life, death and transmigration". Puts Dr. Theos Bernard, “Hindu Philosophy does not attempt to train one to discern metaphyiscal truths; it offers a way of thinking which enables one rationally to understand the Reality experienced by self-fulfilled personalities and thereby to lead one to realisation of Truth. In this light philosophy is seen as art of life and not a theory about the universe".


April 2011

A way of thinking which enables one rationally to understand the reality experiened by self-fulfilled personalities, and thereby to lead one to realisation of truth. In this light, philosophy is seen as art of life and not a theory a bout the universe”.

Despite such views and evaluations of Indian philosophy, it can be safely put that Indians have woven philosophical systems that are thoroughly coherent, compact and systematic. They have devised certain physical and mental constructs and also devised concomitant tools to test and verify their validity. If the constructs whether physical or mental are coherently built step by step with a view to erect the edifice, it is not fair to say that Indian philosophy is lacking in logic. The Buddhist philosophy in its broad contours is highly logical. It has set up certain categories which it elucidates and estabalishes by attempting to furnish proofs with a view to prove their validity. Sankhya philosophy sets up two categories of Purusa and Prakriti and elucidates and explains them by furnishing and marshalling sound proofs. The inner logic underpinning the Sankhya system leads it to the stand ponit of pure dualism even if the predominance of Purusa as the ultimate reality is maintained. The Vaishesika system in its essentials is realistic pluralism and has given a scientific analysis of the ‘catalogue of categories’ that it has drawn to establish its fabric. Nyaya as a system is known as taraksastra or science of logic. It gives a logical discussion and elucidation of the problems of perception, inference, comparison and causation. All the systems of Indian philosophy by and large have a spirit of logic running through them and that is why they are not perpetually teetering on the verge of collapse. Each system appears to be a monolith with least visible cracks in it.

It is not out of place to put that the dominance of over-intellectualism and reason in philosophy was challenged by and was not acceptble to the thinkers who in philosophical paralance are called existentialists. Reason, according to them, puts fetters on the understanding of an existing and living individual, who in the classical philosophy of the west, was lost in corrosive and uprooting universalism and homogenising abstractions and generalisations. Most of the existentialists began as Hegelians but finally ended by denouncing Hegal and his philosophical postulates. Fichte, Joseph schelling and Hegel despite differences in their systems objectified thought as reality and equated it with being. Existentialists protested against any attempt to objectify thought and made a willing, striving, suffering and above all existing individual the focal point of their philosophy. The upanishadic seers had put emphasis on and at the same time signalled the importance of self-knowledge (Aatmanam Vidhihi as the supreme wisdom and the same thread of thought is found oft-recurring almost in every sphere of Indian philosophy and religious thought. The entire line of Indian thinking though distanced by mighty time-spaces is in quest, has raised and discussed all vital issues of human existence and human condition. The individual as such is not ignored; instead is made deeply conscious of his essential and inevitable destiny. The Indian existentialism generates from a consideration of life vis-a-vis its ultimate destiny. It also asserts its essential stand point by not accepting the divorce and dichotomy between ‘theory and practice,’ doctrine and life, truth and its practical realisataion. With the emphatic assertion of the supremacy of human mind or self, the Indian thinking raises a protest against votaries of reason, who altogether overlook the fact that human mind has the potentia of soaring to lofty heights of consciousness if and when it is properly initiated and put to the rigour of discipline where reason ceases to have any importance and actually proves a fetter or restraint. In fact, heightening of human consciousness after crossing beyond the trammels and limitations of body and the world is the leit motif of Indian philosophy. Reality as such is not only to be explained and expounded theoretically but it is to be realised and appropriated by heightening the level of consciousness to the point where it has a full and intense feeling of identity with the reality as the only ultimate truth.

The fact has to be recognised that Indian philosophy has its peculiar manner of handling and dilating upon the essential problems of human existence and world. It is unfair to evaluate it by the tools of Fitchte, Kant and Hegel tradition or Erdman, uberweg academical tradition. The reality is that Indian thinking has raised the question of ‘Atman’ according to its own angle of vision’. ‘In the words of Max Muller’, puts Hiriyana, ‘philosophy was recommended in India not for the sake of knowledge, but for the highest purpose that man can strive in this life’. Darshan while discarding the key-hole vision of man presents an uplifted vision of him. It does not only rivet man’s attention on the perceptible world outside him but also acquaints him with and develops in him an awareness of his own mental and spiritual nature by transcending the methods of physics. Darshan, to the Indian mind, is not only a matter of weaving a web of theories and structuring systems, but, more than most, it is essentially a spirit or method of fathoming and experientially realising the inmost depths of one’s own being.

Indian philosophy is not all spiritual. It embraces a broad but chequered history of materialism within its ambit. No evaluation of Indian thinking can afford ignore Lokayat system in ‘a catalogue of the philsophic forces of India’. Lokayat as a system of thinking simply afirms that all is matter. It in direct contrast to spiritualism denies the primacy of spirit over matter. Lokayat is bold and fearless in total rejection of Vedic authority and belief in theism and attaches the greatest importance to the world of senses which was the greatest casualty at the hands of idealists and spiritualists. The principal character of Lokyat system was ‘practical, rather than metaphysical’, teaching utilitariansm and crude materialism in an outspoken way. Being atheists in their approach and premis,

Lokayat thinkers have been contemptuously rejected, but as thinkers, they invested their thinking to denounce theories invested with spiritual aura and grandeur. Lokayat, infine, has raised questions and framed opinions of real import and value. It understands the world from a different angle of vision and furrows a new path by raising new issues and putting them on the pedestal of common sense realism. The statement that ‘philosophy in India is essentially spiritual’ is belied by Lokayat.

Rigveda-as the first written record of mankind is the repertoire of philosophical ideas. It is not a book, but a compilation of books. It records and provides an insight into that hoary past of India of which scanty notices are available. The Rigvedic seers reflect a thinking that in its essentials centres round “religion, myth and mystery”. Most of the hymns of the Rigveda contain germs of thought, hints at guesses of truth and flashes of insights into supreme being. In the hymns questions of perennial significance are raised, but not answered. Ideas as espoused by the Rigveda are not regular and consistent, yet they reveal and reflect a mind that is vivacious, this worldly and down to earth. Observes Swami Ranga Nath Nanda, “In the Rigveda, we are already face to face with the emergence of the life of the mind, the life of thought, not merely in the field of literature, but also in the field of bold philosophical speculation’.

Part III


June 2011



It is the first written record of mankind and its hymns though addressed to various gods contain seed ideas that are essentially philosophic in content. It provides an amazing insight into that hoary past of which minimum or negligible records and notices are available. The hymns underpin a thinking that rotates round 'religion myth and mystery'. Most of them contain 'germs of thought', 'hints at surmises about truth' and 'flashes of insight into the Supreme Being'. In the hymns questions of perennial significance are raised, but not answered. They do not present a pattern of thought that is coherent and consistent, but they reflect a mind that is vigorous, this-worldly and brimming with vivacious life. The Rigvedic seers seem to be opening new vistas into the realms of philosophical speculation by raising meaningful questions about the nature of universe and meaning of human life. The philosophic mood of the Rigveda set the tone and temper for future evolution of Indian philosophy. To Max Muller, 'the Vedas were unique and priceless guides in opening before us tombs of thought richer in relics, than the royal tombs of Egypt and more ancient and primitive in thought than the oldest hymns of Babylonia and Acadian poets'.


The Rigvedic gods symbolise nature powers and are anthropomorphic representations of various phenomena of nature. Observes Max Muller, "These gods were the first philosophy the first attempt at explaining the wonders of nature". The gods that are purported as agents behind the natural phenomena reveal the religious consciousness of the Indians in a seminal form. 'The Hymn of Creation' underpins an intense curiosity to probe the ultimate origin of the universe. It radiates a consciousness that swings between 'being' and 'non-being' and reveals a mood of wonderment at the prospect of cosmos and underpins a reflective seriousness to know the origins of it.



The Upanishads as texts of Indian wisdom have attracted the deep attention of thinkers and scholars of all shades and persuasions. To Schopenhaur, they were the products of the highest wisdom and as such were 'the solace of his life and solace of his death'. But, to Max Muller, the Upanishads contained a heap of rubbish from which fragments of gold had to be extracted. The first encounter that the European scholars had with the Indian wisdom was through the Upanishads. They were baffled and dazzled. With a view to downgrading their importance in terms of philosophy most of them came out with irrelevant appraisals lacking in historical perspective. An Indian scholar, Ranade, evaluated the available texts from a historical stand-point without taking them as excellent and flawless bits of human wisdom.


The Upanishads, in fact, mark the burgeoning of the seeds that were sown in the garden-bed of Rigveda in particular and other Vedas in general. Among other connotations the Upanishads imply 'rahasya' or secret or esoteric predilections. The Vedic texts had emphasised 'sacerdotalism' and 'complexus of ceremonies'. But, the Upanishads emerged as a protest against these ritual crafts and marked a milestone towards 'deepening inwardness'. Seriously doubting the utility and purpose of sacrifices and rituals, the Upanishads fixed their accent of emphasis on 'Atman' or self, a region deeper and vaster than the external world. 'Sacerdotalism' with its barren-ness and superfluity had misled spiritual aspirants from the region of inner world as a locus of probing and fathoming. 'Quest within' is the cardinal principle of Upanishads ruminations. Lacking in an integrated frame, the Upanishadic are interspersed with 'flashes of insight' and 'gems of thought'. They impacted the entire Indian stream of culture and thought and more than most the trends of thought outside the purlieux of India.


As per the Upanishadic stipulations, Atman as self or soul is the fundamental essence of man. It originally meant 'breath' but subsequently donned another layer of meaning signifying everything from gross body to the finest principle underlying the existence of man. Finally it came to constitute an essential part of anything, especially of man, his self or soul. To Sankara, ‘Atman’ is all pervading, it is the subject and it knows, experiences and illuminates the objects. It is immortal and immutable'. In its profounder connotations, Atman means the self-conscious being within man underpinning the ultimate reality. The Upanishads as a whole explain Atman as the innermost existence and body and mind as 'the trappings that dress reality'.


The over-riding concern of the Upanishads is to probe the primordial source of cosmos. It is this sense of pre-occupation that has motivated the Upanishadic seers to establish an entity called 'Brahman' as the life-breath of cosmosas a whole. The word 'Brahman' is derivable to the root 'brh' meaning 'to grow' or 'to burst forth'. Brahman' is that which naturally 'bursts forth' as world and soul. As per the Taittiriya Upanishad, all existence is traceable to the fount of 'Brahman' is that which naturally 'bursts forth' as world and soul. As per the Taittiriya Upanishad, all existence is traceable to the fount of 'Brahman', 'from which all beings originate by which they are sustained and into which they are withdrawn'.


Though packed with stray and disjointed ideas, the Upanishads have established the spiritual unity of all forms and varieties of existence through lofty utterances of deeper import. The opening verse of Isha Vasya Upanishad posits Isha (Supreme Lord) as the omnipresent reality of the entire creation. The Mandukya Upanishad opens a new vista through the utterance 'This Atman is Brahman'. The same idea is crystallised through the utterance 'Thou Art That' as available in the Chandogya Upanishad. The Brhihadaranyak Upanishad establishes the identity of man with Supreme Truth through its utterance 'I am Brahman'. These utterances are gems of thought and highlight a trend-setting standpoint impacting the struggling minds to free themselves from cold and frigid doctrines of deism. Observes Krishna Chaityna that the current set in motion by these resounding utterances 'flowed to the mystics of Persian Sufism, the mystic logos-doctrine of the neo-Platonists and the Alexandrian Christians, to the radical doctrines of Eckhardt and Tauler".


That the universe functions like a machine is not what the Upanishadic seers hold and trot out. Nor do they subscribe to the view that 'world is a phantom or a mere appearance'. They endeavour to discover an underlying unity, essentially spiritual, amidst diversities of life and world. Man is seen as undergoing a continuous process of becoming with a view to getting identified with ultimate reality. As a seeker he is required to achieve ethical excellence leading to the awakening and fruition of his faculties and urges to share the final beautitude and bliss.



Mimansa as a school of thought owes its origins to Jaimini who found discerning intellects like Prabhakara and Kumarilla Bhat to elaborate and propound his views. Though 'Mimansa' implies critical analysis and investigation, yet it as a system of thought remains stuck in the grooves of Vedic ritualism with its enormous superfluities. To Jaimini and all shades of mimansakas, Vedas are a revealed knowledge and a plethora of commands and injuctions allied with them are eternal and unchangeable. Owing total servility to the Vedas the manner of explicating  issues relating observance of rituals by the mimansakas is downright traditional and fossilised. Performance of rituals is so vital for the mimansakas that it has nearly grabbed the position of God as its ground principle. Despite many a lacuna, the Mimansa has evolved a sound theory of knowledge. It appears that it has accidentally strayed into the field of linguistic analysis through the tools of logic. It also counters the standpoint of the Buddhists and Nayayki as regarding their exposition of language and theory of knowledge.  


To Himansakas, knowledge is 'apprehension that is immediate, direct and valid, not tainted by defects and not to be made invalid by subsequent knowledge'. They stick to the position that no erroneous cause or condition is required to validate knowledge. In fact, knowledge, to them, is self-valid and 'itself certifying its own truth'. To Kumarilla Bhat, knowledge lies in 'apprehending an object only to be set aside by the discrepancies arisen by its non-confirmity to the inherent nature of the object'. To Prabhakar, 'all cognitions as cognitions are valid and their lack of validity depends upon their disagreement with the nature of objects'. Mimansakas are considerably aware of deficient tools that render knowledge invalid.


Mimansa as a school of thought is broadly realistic in its approach to and treatment of issues relating philosophy. The system that it has built is not propped upon the crutches of God. In fact, the agency of God or a transcendent being is missing in it. But doctrines like transmigration of soul, law of Karma and eternal world do provide the strengthening support to the edifice of Mimansa as a thought system. The creation and dissolution of the world does not find favour with the proponents of Mimansa as it conflicts with its basic assumption of holding the Vedas as eternal and revealed knowledge.


Doctrinally speaking, Mimansa is barren and a mis-mash of borrowed view-points from different systems of thought. As a structured system it is so fragile that it comes tumbling as and when authority of the Vedas is questioned or doubted. Mimansa holds that absolute obedience to the Vedas and their injunctions is the definite path that can lead a seeker to heaven as a matter of redemption  from the tangles of birth and death. Ethical life as a tool of salvation is more stressed than that of knowledge or contemplation.



As a separate school of thought Sankhya is a unique development in the annals of Indian philosophy. Its origins can be sought in the thinking moods and concepts that are found enunciated in the Upanishads and epics. The Sankhya as a word connotes 'enumeration' and 'reasoning'. It is enumeration as the system has devised twenty-five categories to reinforce its positions. It is reasoning as it has formulated its positions logically and intellectually.


Sankhya is predominantly materialistic in its exposition of the realities of man and world. Despite its bold and novel doctrinal positions, it has been regarded as an orthodox school of thought. Debi Prasad Chattopadyaya has elaborately exposited the basic positions of Sankhya from a materialistic standpoint. But what makes the Sankhya system as a hall-mark in the realms of Indian thought is its reasoned discussion of the fundamental categories of Purusa and Prakriti and the process of cosmic evolution. The system is so logical and reason-oriented that it knocks the bottom out of the myth created by some Westerners that Indian thought is not a reasoned discourse. Observes theos Bernard, "The Sankhya is the oldest school of Indian philosophy for it is the first attempt to harmonise the philosophy of the Vdas through  reason".


Kapil Muni is said to have authored the Sankya Sutras that are not now extant. Isharkrishna and Vachaspati Misra are the later authors who have expounded the Sankhya positions from their own perspectives. The exposition that they have offered form the substratum of the critical analysis of the system. The available Sankhya Sutras uphold the authority of the Vedas and primacy of the spirit over matter. That the Sankhya system is akin to the Tantric thought and tradition is established by Sankara calling the Sutras of Kapila as 'tantrakhya'. It leads one to believe that the original Sankhya positions were materialistic and atheistic. Jacobi holds the same view but is outright rejected by Dr. Radhakrishnan who observes that Sankhya 'at any stage of its development could never be identified with materialism'. Despite Radhakrishnan's spirited defence of the Sankhya orthodoxy, the fact remains that Purusa is grafted on the system in a manner that it does not appear to be organically woven with the inner logic of the system.


The Sankhya in its basics is a dualism that rotates round two of its dominant categories, Purusa and Prakriti. It stipulates them as two separate and independent categories without any cogency for a meaningful contact or bond. Prakriti is stipulated as beginningless and endless matter constituting the basis of the world of name and form. It grows and evolves as per its own dynamics and does not depend on any external agency to impulse its growth and development. Prakriti is 'absolute, eternal, unmanifest, ever dynamic and imperceptible' and in this state it is known as Mula Prakriti or Pradhan. It is endowed with three attributes of satva, rajas and tamas. Satva is 'static energy, psychological poise', rajas is 'dynamic energy and psychological extroversion', and tamas is 'physical inertia and mental apathy'. Constituting matter the three 'gunas' with their intrinsic energies maintain an equilibrium and 'are inseparably linked and mutually condition one another'. The process of evolution is generated when the three gunas lose their equipoise and get disturbed. The evolutionary process implies change 'which is homogenous and heterogeneous'. The cause for the loss of equipoise of the gunas is inherent dynamism or contradiction.


The Sankhya has delineated a sketch of a yogic discipline or praxis for attainment of release from the sorrows afflicting a man through his  contact with the 'miserable and corruptible world'. There is no concept of grace as it does not sit well with its essential atheism. Redemption or release from the world in the parlance of the system is known as kaivalya.


The Sankhya thought is original, compact, analytical and more that most penetrating. Its impact on the formative processes of other systems has been tremendous and overwhelming. In fact, all systems with rare exceptions have 'filled their husks' with the Sankhya content including its structural elements. The entire corpus of Indian literature from the Mahabarta to the mythological Puranas are replete with they stray doctrines of Sankhya. It has given a comprehensive description of evolutionary processes which are not viewed 'from angles metaphysical' but are based on 'the conservation, transformation and dissipation of energy'. The Sankhya thought has devised 'a theory of matter, a theory of causality, a theory of knowledges and a theory of cosmic evolution'.

Source: Kashmir Sentinel



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