J. Robert Oppenheimer, atom bomb and the Bhagavad Gita

By Mayank Chhaya-

Two days before the 78th anniversary of the first nuclear explosion on July 16, 1945, and in the midst of the release of an epic movie about the scientist behind it, Julius Robert Oppenheimer, is as good a time as any to revisit his profound engagement with the Bhagavad Gita.

Oppenheimer’s remarkable clarity over the atom bomb’s creation and justifiability of its use followed by philosophical ambiguity can all be traced to his passionate lifelong fascination for the Gita.

The fact that Oppenheimer quoted a particular piece from a shloka in the Gita remains inextricably attached to his life 56 years after his death on February 18, 1967, at age 62. It is part of Krishna’s deeply philosophical yet sharply practical counsel, as captured in the Gita. Oppenheimer quoted Vishnu (Krishna) as telling Arjuna in the Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

In an interview some two decades after the first nuclear explosion in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Oppenheimer said, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

According to many scholars, Oppenheimer had internalized the core message of the Gita, a thumbed copy of which he famously kept handy by his work desk. He was known to gift its English translation to his friends and others. Oppenheimer learned Sanskrit in 1933 from Arthur W. Ryder, a professor of Sanskrit. He first read the Gita in Sanskrit. He wrote to his brother saying he found it “very easy and quite marvelous.”

James A. Hijiya, Professor of History, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, in his remarkable work ‘The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer’ likens him to the great warrior of the Mahabharata, Arjuna. “For an uncertain soldier like Oppenheimer, nervously fashioning his own atomic ‘arrow’, Arjuna sets a good example. Arjuna is fighting to install his eldest brother, Yudhishthira, as ruler of the kingdom and emperor of the known world, and to thwart the pretensions of their cousin Duryodhana. Yudhishthira is a better man and ruler than Duryodhana, who is motivated by ferocious envy and has resorted to fraud and attempted murder of his cousins to gain the throne,” Hijiya writes.

“Krishna’s message to Arjuna is clear: you must fight. To Oppenheimer the message would have seemed equally clear. If it was proper for Arjuna to kill his own friends and relatives in a squabble over the inheritance of a kingdom, then how could it be wrong for Oppenheimer to build a weapon to kill Germans and Japanese whose governments were trying to conquer the world,” he asks.

Oppenheimer’s engagement with the Gita was active during the conception and execution of the Manhattan Project from 1941 onward that created the world’s first atomic bomb tested on July 16, 1945. According to Hijiya, in April, 1945 during a memorial service for President Franklin Roosevelt, Oppenheimer quoted this from the book: “Man is a creature whose substance is faith. What his faith is, he is.”

The Sanskrit verse in question that captured Oppenheimer’s imagination in the aftermath of the successful test was “Kalo’smi loka-ksaya-krt pravrddho”, which has been variously translated. While “Kal” has generally been interpreted as Time and therefore Time being the great destroyer of worlds, there is a fairly widespread interpretation in the Western scholarship about Kal being Death by its very implication. Hence the most popular transliteration as used by Oppenheimer, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Among the Indian scholars the more acceptable translation has been, “I am terrible time, the destroyer of all beings in all worlds.”

Oppenheimer credited two other books, apart from the Gita, as having influenced him. They were Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Eliot’s Waste Land. However, by some consensus, the Gita appeared to have impacted him at both rational/practical level as well as at a much deeper philosophical level.

It has been argued by scholars such as Hijiya that Oppenheimer’s approach to the atomic bomb was that of doing his duty as part of his dharma as prescribed in the Gita. Professor Hijiya describes it thus: “Just as Arjuna and Yudhishthira honored their elders by submitting to their decisions, even when those decisions were wrong, so did Oppenheimer yield to those he recognized as his political and military superiors. He was a scientist, so it was his duty to make judgments on scientific matters, like how to build the bomb. But when it came to politics and war, he refused to oppose decisions made by people seemingly more qualified than himself. He would not venture outside his dharma.”

Oppenheimer’s dispassionate, almost coldly detached acquiescence to the broader politics of the atomic bomb has been interpreted as a direct result of the way he digested the Gita. He saw it purely in terms of his duty as a scientist and perhaps nothing more. Notwithstanding that, as Hijiya pointed out, Oppenheimer “never became a Hindu in a devotional sense: he never joined a temple or prayed to gods.” “His brother reported that although Oppenheimer “was really taken by the charm and the general wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita,” he never got “religiously involved in it.” Hindu ideas did, however, resonate with his own and, to a great extent, become his own,” Hijiya writes.

Much has been written about whether Oppenheimer came to regret having pioneered the atomic bomb. There appears to be considerable agreement that he did not feel remorse in any manifest sort of way. Even during the first successful test in 1945 he was said to have thought of this line from the Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One.” This was notwithstanding his full understanding of the potential for death and destruction that the enormous power could and would unleash.

It was clear to those involved in the Manhattan project, particularly someone at its helm like Oppenheimer, that the eventual purpose of the bomb was to be deployed as a weapon very soon. It was in that context that the physicist’s dependence on the Gita as his guide ought to be viewed.

He was known to be a pacifist who also recognized the dangers of not producing the atom bomb before Germany under Adolf Hitler did. In the aftermath of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer became very vocal about his opposition to nuclear weapons and nuclear war.

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