In the aftermath of his creation’s devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Robert Oppenheimer turned to the Hindu scripture of the Bhagavad-Gita to make peace with his role in the detonation of the atomic bomb.
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” – Bhagavad-Gita and Robert Oppenheimer
On July 16, 1945, nuclear weapons were tested for the first time in the New Mexican desert. A month later the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the aftermath of which would turn the tide of the war in favor of the allies.
The father of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, recalled seeing that first test explosion for the press twenty years later in a quote which would become one of the most cited and least-interpreted remarks from the Atomic Age, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most were silent,” Oppenheimer said, “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.’” His sinister phrase would forever become synonymous with the atomic bomb and would ripple across the post-war nation.
Oppenheimer first read the original Sanskrit Bhadavad-Gita when he was a professor at Berkley in the 1930s. According to his colleague, Isidor Rabi, this manifested in him, “a feeling of mystery of the universe that surrounded him like a fog.”
The resulting aftermath of the United States’ dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan remains a heated matter of debate. Oppenheimer would go on to become an advocate against nuclear weapons describing himself to former President Harry Truman as having “blood on his hands.” As he continued to clash with misgivings about bestowing humanity with the means to annihilate itself, the physicist turned once again to the Bhagavad-Gita for understanding.
I am become Death
The Bhagavad-Gita, which translated to “Song of God” in Sanskrit, is a 700-verse Hindu poem recounting a conversation between the kshatriya (warrior) Prince Arjuna, and his charioteer Lord Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu.
The story takes place in a war-torn land. The protagonist, Prince Arjuna, is on the precipice of a great battle between an opposing army which included members of his family and friends. Arjuna wavers on his next decision in regards to killing his kin.
Arjuna ascertains that he cannot bear to kill his cousins, who he fears would destroy his family’s dharma (holy duty.) Arjuna mentions his reservations about the justice of killing his loved ones, to his charioteer Krishna who acts as both a bodyguard and court historian.
Krishna scolds Arjuna for his “cowardice.” He reminds the warrior prince of the Hindu fundamental truth, that people’s souls don’t cease to exist after the death of their bodies. He explains that the eternal souls of Arjuna’s loved ones will be reincarnated in new bodies, therefore Arjuna should not grieve for those who will be killed instead he should follow his dharma as a kshatriya and fight.
The essence of Krishna’s reply is that with the right understanding, one does not need to renounce actions, one must only renounce the desire (karma) for the result of the action (fruits of actions.) Therefore, acting without desire is the key to salvation.
The next few verses follow this continuous dialogue as Krishna incorporates multiple basic teachings of the Upanishads, the philosophy of Samkhya Yoga, and the doctrine of transmigration (reincarnation.) This generally accepted doctrine describes the cycle of samsara, the process of rebirth, which consists of an infinite cycle without a clear end of beginning.
Actions influenced by desire bind one’s soul to this incessant cycle. The Bhagavad-Gita explores this theme through the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna. Tackling philosophical question, such as: desire vs. lust, righteousness or duty, liberation or delusion, and how to fulfill moksha.
In the 11th verse, both men remain at an impasse, Arjuna asks Krishna to reveal his true cosmic nature. Krishna obliges and metamorphosizes into his godly doomsday embodiment – Krishna transforms into a form with a fiery mouth, innumerable eyes and limbs that seem to contain everything in the universe.
In this new form, Arjuna finally understands. Krishna is the source of all things, both physical and metaphysical. He is the highest mountain, the deepest valley and he is the greatest god, containing all the gods within himself. He is both the creation of everything and its dissolution.
It is here that Oppenheimer reaches an epiphany.
Destroyer of worlds.
In an interview with Wired, Dr. Stephen Thompson who has a PhD in Sanskrit grammar, deciphers Oppenheimer’s sudden realization.
“Arjuna is a soldier; he has a duty to fight. Krishna not Arjuna will determine who lives and who dies, and Arjuna should neither mourn nor rejoice over what fate has in store, but should be sublimely unattached to such results.” says Thompson.
In the years that followed the atomic bomb’s launch, Oppenheimer attempted to make sense of the impact of his creation and tried to find peace with his legacy.
Oppenheimer would struggle to make peace with his creation until the end of his life, never quite able to make sense of it, “The physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose,” said Oppenheimer.
“The fourth argument in the Gita is really that death is an illusion, that we’re not born and we don’t die. That’s the philosophy really: that there’s only one consciousness and that the whole of creation is a wonderful play,” said Thompson.
During the early inception of atomic bombs, Oppenheimer was merely a scientist. He had no idea this creation would lead to mass casualties and the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like Arjuna, Oppenheimer had a duty, one that didn’t match his values but was his duty nonetheless.
“If you were a priest you wouldn’t have to do this, but you are a warrior and you have to perform it. In the larger scheme of things, presumably The Bomb represented the path of the battle against the forces of evil, which were epitomized by the forces of fascism.” says Thompson.
The tale of Arjuna and Krishna’s pre-battle dialogue ends with Arjuna accepting that fate is not in his control and that the immortal soul will live on despite his actions.
Oppenheimer’s life has a less heartwarming ending, forever haunted by the consequences of his creation, he couldn’t accept the Bhagavad-Gita’s teaching that destruction is an illusion. Oppenheimer only found release from the weight of his creation after death, never quite able to accept the idea of the immortal soul.