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Remembering J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Real-life Fascination With the Bhagavad Gita
It shaped his life philosophy, even the building of the bomb.
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, in theaters now, tells the story of the famed physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, remembered today as the “father of the atomic bomb.” Looking back, it might be easy to think of Oppenheimer as a short-sighted death dealer, one of the most efficient killers of all time. But Oppenheimer, along with the other members of the Manhattan Project, were also trying to stop a very real and deadly wave of fascism spreading across the face of the world. Death was everywhere. Maybe that’s why, when faced with the most high-stakes trolley problem in the history of the world, Oppenheimer turned to Hindu scripture.
Oppenheimer’s Lifelong Fascination with Hindu Scripture
A young Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York City, to a non-observant Jewish family. While the Oppenheimers didn’t attend any church, temple, or synagogue, they did have a strong sense of morality and social responsibility. Oppenheimer’s father, also called Julius, was enamored by Dr. Felix Adler, founder of the Society for Ethical Culture School, where young Julius attended.
The school taught the usual topics of language, math, and science, but with a focus on moral instruction and social welfare. At Harvard, Oppenheimer found his own fascination not in a person, but in a story: the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most important Hindu texts.
Oppenheimer’s most famous association with the Gita came after witnessing the first atomic bomb blast at the Trinity test. Oppenheimer later recalled the event in a video interview, “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.”
While Oppenheimer’s love for the Gita was crystallized in that moment, it was a love he fostered throughout his life. Friends and colleagues recall receiving English translations of the Gita as gifts and a well-worn copy which Oppenheimer kept nearby at all times. Despite his clear appreciation for the text, there’s no evidence that Oppenheimer ever joined a temple or prayed. Instead, he likely found a kindred spirit in the Gita’s central character, Prince Arjun.
That’s because Oppenheimer was afraid of failure, just like most of us are. But most of aren’t building bombs, and Oppenheimer was also afraid of success. Like so many before and after him, he turned to scripture for comfort.
The Gita is scripture in narrative form, telling the story of a splintered family at war with themselves. When Prince Arjun realizes he is facing his family and friends on the battlefield, he puts down his weapons and seeks advice from his charioteer, Krishna.
Of course, Krishna is no ordinary person but a god, an incarnation of Vishnu in human form, and he has advice for Arjun. The bottom line, from Krishna’s perspective, is that Arjun should fight not because he wants to or even because he thinks he will win, but because he is a soldier, and it is his duty. The basic idea is this: each of us must play our role in the world, no matter what that role might be. The gods choose the winners and losers, it is our job only to play the game.
It isn’t difficult to see why the story may have appealed to Oppenheimer or why, given the situation he found himself in, he would have appropriated it to sooth the psychic wounds of his choices. He was, in a very real sense, a kind of Arjun himself. At Los Alamos, he led a project which was certain to make war more destructive and cost an untold number of lives. While Oppenheimer kept his feelings pretty close to the vest, even among friends, it’s likely he felt he had a supreme duty to build the bomb, coupled with an overwhelming terror of what it would mean.
That’s the kind of situation which might paralyze a person unless they could think their way through it. Oppenheimer did that with the Gita. He did his duty as he saw it; he played the game and won. How the cards fall in the fullness of time… that might be for the gods to decide.
Oppenheimer is in theaters now! Get your tickets here!