Oppenheimer, Gita, and the specter of nuclear apocalypse

by Parveen Chopra

Ask an Indian about Bhagavad Gita, and promptly he or she will start reciting, ‘Karmanye vadhikaraste, ma phaleshu kadachina…’ — that you have control over your karma or actions, not over the fruits thereof.  After ‘Oppenheimer’, a blockbuster biopic of ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb’, people everywhere may know Gita for the “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds….” verse that the eponymous protagonist of the movie utters. In real life, the theoretical physicist said those words quoting the Gita in remorse, not triumph, after the first test of the atomic bomb in New Mexico in the US.

Inexplicably though, director Christopher Nolan has inserted that quote during an explicit sex scene. Expectedly, in India, there was outrage over the Hindu scripture getting quoted in a sacrilegious way. Indian I&B Minister Anurag Thakur wanted the contentious sequence to be removed from the movie.

Prominent mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik criticized the ‘I am death’ line as a flawed translation of verse 32 of Gita’s chapter 11, which really says ‘kaal-asmi’, meaning, ‘I am time, destroyer of the world’. The context is that Lord  Krishna, in order to persuade Arjuna to carry out his duty of waging the righteous war, tells him that time is the ultimate destroyer, and one way or another, the ones Arjuna does not wish to fight will die.

Robert Oppenheimer did not see himself as Krishna, he was Arjuna. He didn’t really want to kill his fellow people (atomic bombs dropped by the US on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed up to 200,000) Yet, he was enjoined to battle by physics, fission, the atomic bomb, and World War II, argues Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.

Wellerstein explains the ‘I am become death’ statement thus: “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.”

Oppenheimer’s was not a passing fancy in the Gita. He read it in original Sanskrit and cited it as one of the books that most shaped his philosophy of life.

Oppenheimer never expressly opposed the Hiroshima-Nagasaki twin bombings in August 1945. He had left the decision to statesmen; Harry Truman was wartime President. The US justified the questionable decision as necessary to end World War II. Even though Hitler had surrendered by then, US intelligence said Japan would not capitulate.

Nonetheless, a remorseful Oppenheimer met President Truman to express his revulsion, telling him he felt he had “blood on his hands”. He opposed nuclear proliferation thereafter.

Fortunately for humanity, the ‘Destroyer of Worlds’ part of Oppenheimer’s apocalyptic statement has not become reality so far.  But the nuclear arsenal remains a Damocles’ sword hanging over the world.

There are some 12,500 nuclear warheads worldwide currently and 90% of them belong to the United States and Russia. Many scholars, as quoted by Wikipedia, have projected that a global thermonuclear war with Cold War-era stockpiles, or even with the current smaller stockpiles, may lead to the extinction of the human race.

The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War believe that nuclear war could indirectly contribute to human extinction via secondary effects, including environmental consequences, societal breakdown, and economic collapse. A small-scale nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan involving 100 Hiroshima yield (15 kilotons) weapons, could cause a nuclear winter and kill more than a billion people.

In the Gita, Krishna revealed himself as Lord Vishnu in his cosmic form, Vishvarupa, luminous as “the radiance of a thousand suns.” This line too flashed through Oppenheimer’s mind at the Trinity test. “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one,” was his description of that moment in the desert of New Mexico.

The Gita is part of the ancient epic Mahabharat. It has a warning for our world. As the Kurukshetra battle rages, a superweapon called the Narayana gets deployed. It causes violent winds, splits the summits of mountains, and reverses the course of rivers. It turns the daytime battlefield dark and incinerates vast armies. The weapon sounds a lot like a nuclear bomb. In the story, millions die in just 18 days of war. The post-war scenes of death and desolation in Mahabharat are exactly how nuclear winter is envisioned by scientists.

Parveen Chopra, Founding Editor of The South Asian Times, has started ALotusInTheMud.com, wellness and spirituality web magazine.

Image courtesy of thesatimes

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