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Vedanta Sources

Non-being can never be proved to exist. - Parmenides (Barnett 1907:35]

Vedic poets and early Greek thinkers spoke and wrote of both Being and Non-Being, though, and some of them asserted the World-Spirit, in very diverse and often very mystic terms. The Vedic bards styled It Prajapati, Brahman (masculine), Purusha, Hiranayagarbha [the Golden Womb, Golden Egg, Golden Germ, Universal Germ], The Golden Womb-Egg is considered the source of Creation in one of the Rikvedic hymns, (10:121). "In the beginning rose Hiranyagarbha, born Only Lord of all created beings. He fixed and holds up this earth and heaven." Being is also referred to by much else.

Views of Greek Parmenides

Creation's Spirit is called Brahman by Dr. Lionel David Barnett in the work that the following capsules of ideas relate to. The professor sees parallels with the Greek Eleatic philosophers, particularly Parmenides (Barnett 1907:15]:

Following Xenophanes, who had defined God as eternal, one, and neither in motion nor immobile, Parmenides asserts a single universal Being which is identical with thought. Non-being does not exist. "Thus there remains but one way to tell of, namely that Being is. There are many tokens to show that it is unborn and imperishable, . . . . it exists entirely in present time, one and indivisible . . . whole, entirely full of being." (Barnett 1907:34)

"All (ideas) that men have set up, believing them to be true – birth and death, being and non-being, change of place, and alteration of bright hue – are mere words" (fragment 8, ed. Diels); cf. fragment 5, fragment 7. (Barnett 1907:35)

"The similarity of Plato's doctrines to those of Parmenides is well known, writes Professor Barnett. He finds in his book, Brahma-Knowledge: An Outline of the Philosophy of the Vedanta as Set Forth by the Upanishads and by Shankara (1907), that Vedanta agrees largely with the teaching of Parmenides and the early Eleatics of his school, and has several points of contact with Plato's idealism. And Vedanta has had an incalculable influence on the minds and characters of millions of Hindus. (Barnett 1907:35, 9, 10]

God by Sanskrit words, and Vedanta

Ancient texts in the Sanskrit language are grouped in many ways. Vedanta rests on some of these works of antiquity. Those who are labelled Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas ("Forest-books"), and Upanishads, also go together under the general title of "Veda" (knowledge) or "Revelation" (shruti, "hearing"). The earlier Upanishads are a series of interesting philosophic tracts of varying length and character. (Barnett 1907:12)

The Sanskrit word Vedanta (veda-anta) signifies "end" or "bound of the Vedas." "Veda-end" means "appended to Vedic hymns" too. Vedanta was originally a word used in Hindu philosophy as a synonym for the parts of the Veda texts that are also known as the Upanishads. So, in earlier writings, 'Vedanta' simply referred to the Upanishads. By the 700s CE, the word Vedanta also came to be used to describe a group of philosophical traditions concerned with Self-Realisation, by which one understands Brahman, or reality. Upanishads are sources of Vedanta in any of these cases. There is Upanishadic doctrine in the Vyasa Sutras, or Brahma Sutras, "Aphorisms of Brahman". The work has other names too.

Vedanta explicates insider teachings of the aranyakas (the "forest scriptures"), and the Upanishads, who have been composed from about the 9th century BCE, until modern times. Vedanta is not restricted or confined to one book and there is no sole source for Vedantic philosophy. Consistent throughout Vedanta is that ritual had better be eschewed in favour of the individual's quest for truth through meditation and adhering to a lovely morality, going for Great Bliss - God (Brahman).

Vyasa Sutras, or Brahma Sutras

Vyasa Sutras is one of the founding work of Vedanta. Vyasa Sutras is traditionally ascribed to Sage Vyasa, or Badarayana by another name. The text systematises Vedanta ideas into one coherent treatise composed around 200 BCE. Vyasa Sutras assemble and systematise various Vedanta teachings into one text that is basic to the philosophical school called Vedanta. The four chapters of the Vyasa Sutras contain 564 sutras (aphorisms) by one reckoning, 550 by another, and a little less by a third. The sutras are arranged by topics into sixteen sections (padas) within four chapters (adhyayas).

The terse sutra way of presenting ideas and common problems it often brings. The word 'sutra' literally means thread. Sutras are pithy and often cryptic verses or aphorisms, which are often enigmatic statements aimed to work as "pegs of reference". The Vedanta Sutras talk of Brahman, discuss the role of karma and God and address several other philosophical doctrines. But how is it done? The verses are so terse that they can easily be interpreted in manifold ways. Besides, they are often incomprehensible without a good commentary. Therefore, by its very sutra nature the text is open to several interpretations. Consequently different people derive different meanings according to their combined learning and experiences. This phenomenon has given rise to numerous sub-schools of Vedanta, each interpreting the texts in its own way and producing its own sub-commentaries.

Interpretations abound. So, Vyasa Sutras has been subject to many interpretations. Three dominant ones are (1) nondualism (Advaita), (2) Vishishtadvaita and (3) dualism (Dvaita). The Advaita school is coming down to us from Adi (the first) Shankara's grand-guru Gaudapada and Adi Shankara himself. According to this school of Vedanta, Brahman is reality, and the world appearance is seeming, a function of the deep workings of Maya, which is differently understood. Shankara says it is based on projections that are usually below our awareness, and concealments of the same projections. Shankara also teaches that the soul, jivatman is not different from Brahman. The brilliant Shankara promulgates Advaita Vedanta in his commentary (Shariraka-bhashya). Gambhirananda and George Thibaut have both translated the difficult text with Shankara's commentary. (Barnett 1907:11)


All forms of Vedanta are drawn primarily from the Upanishads, which are philosophical and instructive Vedic scriptures. Early Upanishads are held to be the essence of the Vedas and form the backbone of Vedanta. Some portions of Vedantic thought are derived from earlier aranyakas ("forest treatises") too.

The primary philosophy captured in the Upanishads - of reality as Brahman - is the backbone of Vedanta. Brahman is somehow suggested by qualifications, such as "eternal, self existent, Ultimate Reality and divine ground." Vedantic sub-schools differ mainly in how they conceive of God and Brahman.

Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas ("Forest-treatises"), and Upanishads go together under the general title of "Veda" (knowledge) or "Revelation" (shruti, "hearing"). (Barnett 1907:12)

Aranyakas ("Forest-treatises") are apparently intended to present allegorical points of view, and lead over to the earlier Upanishads with their metaphysical and psychological ideas, including allegorical interpretation of Vedic ritual and myth, (Barnett 1907:12-13)

The Rig-veda contains many strata of religious and philosophic thought. (Barnett 1907:13)


Brahma-Knowledge of Lionel David Barnett

The following consists of informative capsules from Dr. Barnett's Brahma-Knowledge [Bov, see the bibliography]. Where Dr. Barnett refers to Upanishads, I just refer to the pages where you can find the utterances that have given rise to the capsules, or sutras, below.

After pondering on an axiom capsule to get into its meaning, it is really fit to ask "How?". To answer that question and still more, like "why?, when? and possibly where or under what conditions?" is a challenge for the writers of commentaries, bhyasyas.

However, the first appropriate step is to feel oneself into the statements and form apt mental associations to as many of them as you can. By such an approach you may eventually integrate facets of your mental outlook and even your past with the towering philosophy of mental outlooks of Vedanta. Good luck with that.


Axioms of Early Vedanta

We are told that there is one Existence, sages call it by many names. The source of being is called Hiranyagarbha ("Germ of Gold"), or Prajapati ("Lord of Creatures") – and the universe arose from Purusha. Sacrifice is a power controlling Nature. (Barnett 1907:14)

Upanishads, especially the older texts, identify Brahman the "life-breath". There arose in the schools of the Brahmanas two somewhat different currents of thought – the doctrines of Brahman and of Prana. (Barnett 1907:15)

The earlier Upanishads often also speak of the cosmic principle as Purusha, literally "man." This term describes the origin of the world from the body of an ideal man sacrificed by the gods. (Barnett 1907:16)

The sun sometimes serves as a symbol of Brahman. (Barnett 1907:16)

Ideas that came to dominate Indian thought are transmigration of the soul (samsara, literally "wandering") and the influence of works (karma). (Barnett 1907:17)

Life worth living is termed advancing union of the soul with the transcendent. (Barnett 1907:17)

Act of deed, thought, or speech, is attaching the soul still further to the fetters of embodiment. (Barnett 1907:17)

The word atman is several times used in the Rigveda with the meaning of "breath," "spirit," with little to distinguish it from the word 'prana' (Barnett 1907:17)

From "breath" and "spirit" arose the meaning "self" as the inmost essence, a consciousness of self-identity on which is based all ideation. (Barnett 1907:18)

The Vedic poets speak now and then of Daksha, "skill" or "intelligence" rather vaguely personified; and twice. Daksha is regarded as primal Being and universal father that great gods and the universe sprang from. Thus Vedic mythology gave us the idea that the objective universe sprang from Great Intelligence, Daksha. (Barnett 1907:18)

Various Upanishadic utterances may be summed up in propositions. One of them: "Total reality, Brahman, is pure and absolute Spirit." (Barnett 1907:19)

Objects of thought may be regarded from two standpoints: (1) that of empiric experience, determined by conditions of space, time, and causality; and (2) transcendental, admitting the existence of nothing but an absolute unqualified One. (Barnett 1907:19)

Worship of Brahman is through ideations of His qualified sides. (Barnett 1907:20)

The Veda speaks of a primal Being that created a phenomenal world from itself – the world's indwelling spirit. (Barnett 1907:20)

Routed in four Upanishads: "Brahman is above conditions of space, time, and causality: we can say of it only that it exists, and is the individual Self and self-luminous inner light." (Barnett 1907:24)

Brahman is told to be beyond all the limiting conditions of phenomenal being. From that issued a debate whether the universal substrate, Brahman, should properly be called being (sat) or non-being (a-sat, asat), a debate or disagreement passed through the schools of the Brahmanas to those of the older Upanishads. (Barnett 1907:23)

Brahman is identified with the Atman, and this doctrine appears in pithy phrases like the famous "I am Brahman" (aham brahmasmi) and "you are that" (tat tvam asi). From this: All phenomena are known when their substrate Brahman is known as the Self of the knower. (Barnett 1907:24)

Made of understanding amid the Breaths, the inward light within the heart, remaining the same through both worlds, "wandering in waking and dreaming through this world, and in deep sleep or death through the world of Brahman; in dreams it builds up a fairy world from the materials of waking thought; in dreamless sleep it is merged in the "understanding self," prajna atma." (Barnett 1907:25)

Atman is pure consciousness and a high force pervading all beings, and is at times compared to salt dissolved in water. (Barnett 1907:25)

Chhandogya Upanishad lays special emphasis on the presence of the universal Self, in the heart of man, and the freedom of him who knows the Self within him. (Barnett 1907:25)

Pleasures are designed for the satisfaction of the Self, and aid in giving control of many things. (Barnett 1907:25)

Axioms of later Vedanta

Being, Consciousness and Bliss (Sad-Chid-Ananda), does not occur as a formula in Shankara's writings; yet is often met with in the later Vedanta as one of many descriptions of God, that is, Brahman. (Barnett 1907:27)

Sheaths from Within

An Atman (embodied spirit, jiva or soul) embodies through so-called sheaths from subtle and delicate to physical and gross. The outermost sheath is anna-maya, "formed of food"; that is, the physical organs and the body. Within this is the second, the prana-maya, "formed of life-breaths"; on which depends the activity of the gross organs. The third is mano-maya, "formed of will," and the powers inspiring the life of the world The fourth is vijnana-maya, "formed of understanding," namely intellect , which still distinguishes Brahman as object from the Self. Within this is the ananda-maya, "formed of bliss," and peace and joy (Brahman is essentially joy). (Barnett 1907:26)

Brahman is the origin and dissolution of the universe, the intelligence forming the Self or true Ego. (Barnett 1907:27)

Shankara regards the creation by and from Brahman: creation has no absolute reality at all. - Self of all things is Brahman. Yet the world of experience cannot be ignored altogether; it is a fact of unenlightened consciousness. (Barnett 1907:27)

Creation consists in a division of Brahman by himself into a boundless variety of "names and forms," intelligible existences which constitute the empiric world and possess determinate principles of being, formal and material potentialities (shakti). (Barnett 1907:27-28)

The Upanishadic theory of a single creation is replaced by a doctrine of beginningless emergence and reabsorption of the phenomenal world. (Barnett 1907:28)

Ignorance creates "determinations," upadhi, modes of thought that are limiting the self-conception stemming from the absolute Brahman. The "determinations" that play the most important part in Shankara's system are soul, jiva, the pranas, or "breaths," the "works [karma]," the "subtle body," the gross body, and sometimes also the sensations and phenomenal perceptions. (Barnett 1907:28-29)

From Shankara's definitions of the individual soul: "the intelligent self, vijnanatma, having the determinations of ignorance, works [karma], and previous experience"). (Barnett 1907:29)

Vedantic schools that follow Shankara, regard Ignorance as having two characteristic properties, namely "obscuration" (avarana), causing God to conceive itself as distinct individual egos, and "distention" (vikshepa), arousing in the Self the illusive idea of an external world of phenomena. (Barnett 1907:29-30)

The Supreme Self is called Ishvara, "the Lord", depending on the perspective. (Barnett 1907:30)

One subtle sphere of being is related to the "sheath of Bliss," ananda-maya kosha. (Barnett 1907:30)

The Self is also termed Prajna. (Barnett 1907:30)

Three sheaths: According to Shankara, combinations of matter with the Self form three successive phases of being for the individual soul:

  1. the "sheath of understanding," vijnana-maya kosha, composed of intelligence (buddhi) and the "organs of knowledge" (section 18), which constitutes the real agent in empiric experience;
  2. the "sheath of mind," mano-maya kosha, formed of manas and the organs of action, thus constituting the instrument of empiric experience; and
  3. the "sheath of the breaths," prana-maya kosha, formed of vital breaths and organs of action, and constituting the effect of experience. (Barnett 1907:31]

This lowest determination is called anna-maya kosha, the "sheath of food." It comes along with the state of Waking. Into it the forms of both gross and subtle phenomena are displayed to the Self, as in waking both memory and sense-perception are active. (Barnett 1907:31)

The scheme is:

Individual Gross Body, determinant of Vishva, in state of Waking Sheath of Food Cosmic Gross Body determinant of Virat, in state of Waking
Individual Subtle Body, determinant of Taijasa, in state of Dreaming (1) Sheath of Breaths (2) Sheath of Mind (3) Sheath of Understanding Cosmic Subtle Body, determinant of Prana, in state of Dreaming
Individual Causal Body, determinant of Prajna, in state of Dreamless Sleep Sheath of Bliss Cosmic Causal Body, determinant of Ishvara, in state of Dreamless Sleep.

(Barnett 1907:32)

Very early descriptions of Brahman

Brahman or Atman, Reality, is largely inconceivable by the reason, and can yet be experienced. (Barnett 1907:33)

Brahman or Atman are sometimes described . . . by paradoxes. See e.g. Brihad-aranyaka Up. II. iv. 14, III. iv. 2, vii. 23, viii. 11, Chhandogya Up. III. xiv. 2, VII. xxiv. 1, Kena Up.. III., XI., Katha Up.VI. 12 f. (Barnett 1907:33)

Shankara (in Brahma-sutra II. iii. 29) explains that . . . the mention of [the Self] as extremely small refers to its soul end (of the tract) (section 12) as conceived through intelligence, buddhi (section 18). (Barnett 1907:33)

Phases of the Self

The highest existence is in the state in which the soul has no consciousness of any external object, or indeed of any object at all, strictly speaking. (Barnett 1907:35)

As typical of the Upanishadic attitude we may also regard a long passage of the Brihadaranyaka (III. vii. 3 f.) where the Self is described in detail as the antaryami, or "inward controller," functioning as soul within matter as its body. (Barnett 1907:39)

The waking, dreaming, and dreamless phases are common to all mankind. (Barnett 1907:36-37)

Upanishads recognise waking and dreaming. The later Upanishads assume yet another phase, which they call the "Fourth" (turiya, chaturtha). In this the soul, transcending dreamless sleep, is absolutely wakeful in a deep consciousness different from the "unconscious consciousness" ascribed to dreamless sleep. (Barnett 1907:36)


Brahman as cause of phenomena is in the Upanishads a real material. (Barnett 1907:39)

The word maya is commonly used in the later Vedanta to denote the phantom character of the phenomenal world; and in this sense it does not appear in the Upanishads until the Shvetashvatara (IV. 10).

The question has often been raised whether the idea later denoted by 'maya' was actually present in the minds of the authors of the older Upanishads. The authors of the older Upanishads were aligned with the realism of the Vedas, and it is therefore doubtful whether they could have agreed with the Vedantists who treat the world of experience as absolutely unreal, a mere phantom conjured up by the Self for its own delusion. (Barnett 1907:38-39)

Shankara maintains that the whole phenomenal world is unreal (avastu). The universe nevertheless is a fact of consciousness. The predicate of existence – "is" or "it exists" – is the bond uniting it with its source, the truly existent, Brahman (Shankara on Vyasa Sutras II. i. 6). (Barnett 1907:40)

[If illusions exist, they are something, by existing. And what exists, is a facet of God, is the main course of th argument.]

World-Soul, Brahman – Individual Soul, Atman

An individual may simply identify with the self of the individual and be happy. In case there are hindrances to that, Vedanta teaches that thwarting "impetuses" need to be dealt with, or worn off, before happiness breaks through and is secured.

Upanishads tell of karma that effects of thoughts, words and deeds formerly, "spill over" into future lives that acts done in previous births may require further embodiment to work away their influences on the soul. Older Upanishads, whose cosmogonies contradict this theory, avoid the question. (Barnett 1907:41)

Souls are influenced by the merits of their former works. (Barnett 1907:42)

The theory which begins to appear in a somewhat late Upanishad (the Maitrayaniya), that the Soul conceives division and plurality in consequence of the delusive attractions of physical Nature, and from here assumes embodied form and comes under the influence of "works," is partly connected with the dualism of the Sankhya darshan, the Sankhya school of philosophy, and partly with the theory of "illusion" made clear in later Vedanta. (Barnett 1907:41)

Soul organism

The soul in its human embodiment is thought to have three sides to it:

  1. the sense-organs (indriya), which in slumber or swoon become paralysed and merge themselves into
  2. the organ of thought (manas), which converts the data of the sense-organs into conscious modes of thought and volition; and
  3. the "breaths" (prana), a term originally denoting all the functions of physical life, then those higher functions on which generally depends all life, whether conscious or unconscious, and into which during sleep or swoon are merged the manas and the sense-organs already absorbed in the latter. (Barnett 1907:42]

The name indriya for the sense-organs appears first in the Katha and Kaushitaki Upanishads. Other texts usually call the indriya prana (a collective term, from the supremacy of the prana, or breath), and comprise under the name ordinarily breath, speech, sight, hearing, and manas (e.g. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I. iv. 7).

The same ten indriyas as in the later system occur first in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad II. iv. 11, IV. v. 12, which adds manas and heart (cf. Prashna Upanishad IV. 2).

On manas as central function of cognition and action see Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I. v. 3, IV. i. 6, Chhandogya Upanishad VII. iii f., Katha Upanishad VI. 7. (Barnett 1907:42-43)

On the immersion of organs with manas in prana see especially Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV. iii. 12, Chhandogya Upanishad VI. viii. 2, Prashna Upanishad IV. 2 f.

The "breaths" are usually given as five:

  1. prana in the strict sense, which in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and Chhandogya Upanishad denotes expiration, and later expiration and inspiration together;
  2. apana, in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and Chhandogya Upanishad the inspiration, later the wind causing digestion in the bowels or evacuation;
  3. vyana, respiratory action connecting prana and apana, variously conceived;
  4. samana, sometimes the wind digesting food, sometimes connection between exspiration and inspiration;
  5. udana, which carries food and drink up and down (Maitrayaniya Upanishad II. 6) and guides the soul to Brahman in death and sleep (Prashna Upanishad III. 7, IV. 4). (Barnett 1907:43]

Shankara on the deeper organisation of man

By the term prana Shankara, following the old Upanishadic usage, designates not only the unconscious "breaths," but also the conscious indriyas (the functional forces that tie in with the material sense-organs).

The indriyas according to him comprise the five functions of action (viz. speech, grasp, locomotion, generation, and excretion) and the five of buddhi or intelligence (viz. sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell), with which is associated the manas as their centre.

The pranas, or "breaths" in the strict sense are the five known in the Upanishads. Shankara explains prana as expiration, apana as inspiration, vyana as the force maintaining life when both exspiration and inspiration are checked, samana as the digestive force, and udana as the current leading the soul from the body on death (on II. iv. 8 f.). (Barnett 1907:44)

When death takes place, the indriyas sink into manas, this into the pranas, these into the individual soul (lodged in the heart), this into the "subtle body" (section 19). Then the soul in its subtle body starts on wanderings and sojourns in subtle worlds, or lokas. Thus Shankara holds that the potential functions of conscious sensation are merged into those of unconscious vitality, the latter into the individual soul, this again into the "Heat," i.e. the "subtle body," which conveys the soul through its wanderings and sojourns. See also section section 12, 15. (Barnett 1907:44-45)

The later Vedanta (e.g. the Vedantasara and the Atma-viveka and Vakyasudha ascribed to Shankara) schematises the functions of empiric thought by dividing the antah-karana, its collective organisation, into chitta, manas (often loosely called antah-karana), buddhi, and ahamkara. To chitta it ascribes the function of passing notice, to manas that of deliberation, and to buddhi that of determination. Sometimes also it uses buddhi as a general term denoting both ahamkara, the conception of egoity, and manas, the instrument of egoity. (Barnett 1907:45)

Subtle bodies or force fields

According to the later Vedanta, the Soul in its wanderings from birth to birth is accompanied by the sense-organs and "breaths" as sums of potential faculties, and has for its vehicle the "subtle body," sukshma sharira. The latter consists of portions of the five elements in their higher suprasensual form, and thus is as it were a seed which on occasion grows by the accession of gross matter into a physical body.

There is no clear evidence for the existence of this idea in the Upanishads until the mention of a linga (the term used in the Sankhya school for "subtle body") in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV. iv. 6; cf. Katha Upanishad VI. 8, Svetashvatara Upanishad VI. 9, Maitrayaniya Upanishad VI. 10.

For Shankara's view see especially on Brahma-sutra, III. i. 1 f., IV. ii. 6 f.

The "subtle body" adheres to the soul until the soul attains perfect enlightenment and release in Brahman; the souls which have not reached this goal are attended by it. (Barnett 1907:45-46)

On karma

Karma conducts the Soul with its potential functions through incarnations as man or vegetable, by the karmashraya, the individual being's substrate of karma (works). By "work" is understood not only every act of will, and of body in obedience to will, but also every act of ideation [thought] in which the subject of thought posits a non-self in opposition to itself, and from that follows moral blindness. Every such act transforms itself into an impetus to act on the soul, demanding a relative requital of good for good and evil for evil in future experiences for the sake of inherent balances. The sum of many such forces and other forces at play co-determines the birth in the next incarnation, the figure or shape, how the various organs function, and also the overriding, hovering conditions. (Barnett 1907:46)


Vedanta sources, Literature  

Gambhirananda, Swami, tr. Brahma-Sutra-Bhasya of Sri Sankaracarya. 8th impression. Champavat, Himalayas: Advaita Ashrama, 2004 (1972).

Barnett, Lionel David. Brahma-Knowledge: An Outline of the Philosophy of the Vedanta as Set Forth by the Upanishads and by Shankara. London: John Murray, 1907.

Sivananda, Swami. Brahma Sutras: Text, Word-to-Word meaning, Tra[n]slation and Commentary.. Shivanandanagar, Uttarkhand: The Divine Life Society, 2008.

Thibaut, George, tr. Vedanta-Sutras with the Commentary by Sankarakarya. Part I. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1890.

Thibaut, George, tr. Vedanta-Sutras with the Commentary by Sankarakarya. Part II. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1896.

Vireshwarananda, Swami. Brahma-Sutras with Text, Word-for Word Translation, English Rendering, and Comments. Mayavati, Almora: Advaita Ashrama, 1986.

Wikipedia, s.v. "Vedanta" and "Brahma-Sutras"

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