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The Gita did more than just give Oppenheimer a quote that outlived him

For J. Robert Oppenheimer, the subject of Christopher Nolan’s biopic of the nuclear physicist regarded as the ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb, the Bhagavad Gita was a spiritual crutch, although his belief has been overshadowed by the scene in the film where he’s seen reading out the holy scripture in between having sex with his girlfriend Jean Tatlock.

Even his translation of a seminal verse of the Gita, which was first red-flagged by historian James A. Hijiya in ‘The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer’, has been questioned by the author and mythologist Devdutt Pattnaik.

Nonetheless, Oppenheimer, who was raised in a non-observant Jewish family of New York, would unfailingly turn to the Gita and quote from it on many occasions.
 
Oppenheimer’s copy of ‘Bhagavad-Gita’, translated by Arthur W. Ryder, according to Patty Templeton of the US National Security Research Center, is part of the collections at the Bradbury Science Museum in the Los Alamos Laboratory.

The physicist’s handwritten initials appear in the upper right corner of the front endpapers. The time-worn book is just one of two of his personal items that the Lab owns, according to Templeton, the other being his office chair.

Oppenheimer wanted to read the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ in the original Sanskrit, as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, before his time at Los Alamos, he sat in on Sanskrit classes with Ryder, who had published an English translation of the Gita. It was a book Oppenheimer would gift to colleagues and friends for the rest of his life, Templeton says.

Preparing for Trinity, the first atomic bomb test conducted at the Lab, Oppenheimer’s thoughts were on its success and the impact of the bomb on his life and on the world.

To understand Oppenheimer’s thoughts, Templeton quotes Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), and chairman, National Defence Research Committee (NDRC), who said in his 1970 memoir, ‘Pieces of the Action’:

“I simply record a poem, which (Oppenheimer) translated from the Sanscrit (sic), and which he recited to me two nights before (Trinity):

“In battle, in forest, at the precipice in the mountains,
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him.”

According to Hijiya, the historian, Oppenheimer believed, “It was the duty of the scientists to build the bomb, but it was the duty of the statesman to decide whether or how to use it.”

Oppenheimer never publicly ascribed to the Hindu faith, but he quoted the Gita regularly. Most notably, as Templeton points out, upon seeing the Trinity detonation, Oppenheimer reportedly recalled the line, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The line is from Chapter 11, Verse 32 of the Gita, in which Lord Krishna reveals his divine form to Arjuna (the Vishwaroopa Darshan). Witnessing the terrifying sight of the Lord’s cosmic form, Arjuna is overwhelmed with awe and fear.

A more accurate translation of the verse, according to Hijiya, is closer to “Now I am time, the great destroyer of worlds.” This was in fact a reference to the aspect of time, where Krishna, in order to persuade Arjuna to carry out his duty, says that time is the ultimate destroyer, and one way or another, the ones Arjuna does not wish to fight will die.

Historian Alex Wellerstein, however, offers a more elaborate explanation. The quote, he says, has been widely misinterpreted. Wellerstein says in his blog (quoted at length by Templeton):

“The Bhagavad Gita expresses a life structured by action. One should detach from desired outcomes and work. The poetic Hindu text is a conversation between Prince Arjuna and the deity Lord Vishnu.

“Arjuna is anguished at the idea of slaying friends and cousins in war. Vishnu convinces Arjuna to disregard emotional attachments and fear of mistakes. To uphold dharma, the power which upholds the cosmos and society, Arjuna must do his duty, which is fight.

“Oppenheimer is not Krishna/Vishnu, not the terrible god, not the ‘destroyer of worlds’ — he is Arjuna, the human prince! He is the one who didn’t really want to kill his brothers, his fellow people.

“But he has been enjoined to battle by something bigger than himself — physics, fission, the atomic bomb, World War II, what have you — and only at the moment when it truly reveals its nature, the Trinity test, does he fully see why he, a man who hates war, is compelled to battle. It is the bomb that is here for destruction. Oppenheimer is merely the man who is witnessing it.”

So, clearly, if one follows Wellerstein’s logic, Oppenheimer’s quotation was not a case of misinterpretation or mistranslation.

He understood the context of the line from the Gita and saw himself as Arjuna, overawed and overwhelmed by the force he was about to unleash upon the world. He was merely reflecting on the destructive power of the atom bomb, whose creation he was to bitterly regret later.

As the Twitter handle puts it, “In the context of Oppenheimer’s statement, he was expressing a profound sense of the magnitude and implications of the scientific achievement he had helped bring to fruition. The immense destruction unleashed by the atomic bomb made Oppenheimer acutely aware of the devastating potential of nuclear weapons.

“His use of the quote from the Bhagavad Gita reflects his introspection on the consequences of his work and the moral responsibility that came with it.”

Some scholars have argued that there is no such quote in the Gita. Mythologist and popular author Devdutt Pattnaik is one of them. He is on record as saying he hadn’t seen any such reference in the Gita and that the scientist likely looked for either some sort of solace or wanted to make things dramatic.

As controversies rage of Oppenheimer and the Gita, what Christopher Nolan’s film has done is rekindle interest in a scripture that continues to be relevant despite the passage of time.

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