Oppenheimer, the new biopic on Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the Atom Bomb was released in cinema theatres all over the world on July 21. Within a few days, the film raked up a controversy in India as Oppenheimer, played by actor Cillian Murphy was shown reading a verse from the Bhagavad Gita and this was flashed during a sex scene in the film. This article by DR ANIL K RAJVANSHI is not about the controversial scene that the Indian IB minister has asked to be removed from the print of the film being shown in India, but is about the relevance of the quote from the Bhagavad Gita that Oppenheimer was known to have recited as he witnessed the explosion of the atom bomb. The point that Dr Rajvanshi is making in this article is that unfortunately, the acclaimed scientist quoted the wrong translation of the verse
Oppenheimer like most scientists of his era was fascinated by Indian philosophy and had read classics like the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads among others. Similarly, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and other such personalities were also influenced by these great books.
So when the Atom Bomb was exploded for the first time in New Mexico in 1945, the scene was out of this world with light from the blast being described as being greater than a thousand suns accompanied by a deafening sound. The spectacle of the mushroom cloud of the bomb was a sight never before seen by mankind. According to some scientists, it was a hair-raising experience and everyone who witnessed the explosion was profoundly affected by it. Oppenheimer was a great scholar of classics having read Homer and other western classics. He had also read translations of Eastern philosophical books like the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads and the Mahabharata among others and he had found them extremely fascinating.
So at the time of the Atom Bomb explosion, he remembered the classical phrase of Lord Krishna (in Chapter 11 of the Gita) where he shows Arjun his Virat (Divine) form.
In the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 11, Verse 32) Shri Krishna says that “I am the Mighty Time – destroyer of the world”. Oppenheimer used the wrong translation and said, “I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds” and this quote has been extensively used everywhere.
Oppenheimer had studied Sanskrit in the 1930s under Dr Arthur Ryder at Berkeley and so might have read the Gita in its original form. However, it was Ryder who translated ‘Kal’ in the original Sanskrit text to Death instead of Time and probably it was this phrase that was lodged in Oppenheimer’s mind. That may explain the mistake partially. The other reason could be that Oppenheimer probably never ever read the Gita in Sanskrit!
Dr Stanley Ulam was my acquaintance at the University of Florida in the late 1970s. Prof. Ulam was one of the key players in the Manhattan Project (the Atom Bomb Project) and was the true father of the Hydrogen bomb – that Edward Teller usurped unethically. Prof. Ulam was also a close friend of Enrico Fermi, one of the main players in the creation of the atom bomb and was regarded as one of the greatest physicists of the world.
According to Prof. Ulam, Fermi felt that Oppenheimer was something of a fraud and was prone to exaggerate about his knowledge of the classics and of Sanskrit. It is, therefore, quite possible that Oppenheimer had never read the Gita in Sanskrit though he professed to have done so and the Death translation was borrowed from Ryder, his Sanskrit teacher.
Though the Gita has been known to us in India, all along, it was Mahatma Gandhi who made it world-famous since it was his Bible. Now on the Oppenheimer film has once again brought the Bhagavad Gita into sharp focus the world over and it is a welcome opportunity to show to the world, the great ancient classic from India.
Indians knew about the concepts of time and space more than two to three thousand years before Einstein. Thus the Gita and the Patanjali Yoga Sutras talk about these subjects since the ancients realized that everything is dependent on time.
Oppenheimer was a close friend of Einstein, and both had spent time together at Princeton at the Institute for Advanced Studies. One can only speculate that had Oppenheimer read Gita in the original Sanskrit and translated Kal as Time instead of Death, there could have been an interesting dialogue between him and Einstein, the father of the concept of space — Time.
Time also occupies a central theme in the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. In one of the last sutras, Patanjali says that time stops once the mutations of gunas (memories) stop, and the Yogi achieves the ultimate liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
Lord Krishna rightly told Arjun that the Universe has a beginning and an end, and it is this Mighty Time which is the destroyer of the world. I feel Oppenheimer unfortunately missed out on this profound meaning of the verse.
The writer, Dr Anil K Rajvanshi is an IIT and US-educated engineer, and a 2022 Padma Shri award winner. He is Director, Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, Phaltan, Maharashtra. He can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the South Asia Monitor on July 27, 2023