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Why Did Oppenheimer Say "Now I am Death, the Destroyer of Worlds" and What Did It Mean?
It’s a powerful quote that has, understandably, become a part of history — and a part of Christopher Nolan’s film.
Christopher Nolan’s new film Oppenheimer is a gripping biopic about Robert J. Oppenheimer, the man primarily behind the creation of the atomic bomb. So of course, the film features his most famous quote. As Oppenheimer recalled in a 1965 NBC News documentary called The Decision to Drop the Bomb, he thought of Hindu scripture while watching the first-ever atomic bomb explode during the Trinity Test: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
It’s a powerful quote that has, understandably, become a part of history — and a part of Nolan’s film. (This article will have mild spoilers for the film, although most of what it covers is actual history and therefore not really able to be spoiled.)
In the movie, we first hear Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) say the words while having sex with Jean Hatlock (Florence Pugh), the Communist he dated and later had an affair with. Oppenheimer, who was an avid reader and spoke many languages, had the Bhagavad Gita on his bookshelf, and he translated a passage from the original Sanskrit upon Hatlock’s request. Later when we see the bomb go off at the Trinty Test, we hear an echo of those words. But, where are they from and what do they mean?
What Is the Full “Destroyer of Worlds” Quote?
The full quote, according to Oppenheimer’s telling in that 1965 NBC News documentary, goes as follows:
“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 multiarmed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”
Where Is the Quote From and What Does it Mean?
The quote is from the Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse Hindu scripture that dates back to the first millennium BCE. The narrative is a conversation between a prince, Arjuna, and Krishna, an avatar of the deity Vishnu. Arjuna does not wish to go to war against his kin, but Krishna insists that he must because it's his destiny — a holy duty known as dharma that does not have an exact English translation. At one point in the scripture, Arjuna asks Krishna to reveal his divine form — the “multiarmed form” Oppenheimer mentions in his quote.
According to one translation of the verse, what Arunja sees is as follows: “If hundreds of thousands of suns rose up at once into the sky, they might resemble the effulgence of the Supreme Person in that universal form.”
Hundreds of thousands of suns rising up at once into the sky — you can see why it might come to mind while watching a nuclear bomb go off.
Did Oppenheimer Actually Say It — and What Did He Mean By It?
Oppenheimer did say the quote (you can watch video of him saying it in the NBC News documentary above), but it’s doubtful he actually said it right after the Trinity Test. Frank Oppenheimer, his brother who was present at the test, recalls that he said something along the lines of “I guess it worked,” in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. And it’s impossible to know if he thought it or if it was something he came up with later, upon reflection. American Prometheus, the biography the film is largely based on, contains quotes from his contemporaries that suggest he may have come up with the story later.
(It’s also impossible to know if he said it while having sex with Jean Hatlock, though that seems like it was almost certainly an invention for the movie.)
The meaning of the quote seems pretty clear — Oppenheimer has personally unleashed a supreme power that can destroy the world, though that might not be a totally accurate reading of the original quote from the Bhagavad Gita. Sanskrit scholar Stephen Thompson, who spoke to Wired, says that the world-destroying aspect of the quote has a different meaning in Hinduism, as there is a cyclical, non-linear aspect to the fair. “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.”
So, in Bhagavad Gita, the quote is part of a passage that means that Arjuna ultimately should put his faith in Krishna and not concern himself with the battle — the outcome of which the divine controls, not him, and the victims of which aren’t necessarily dead and gone forever. For Oppenheimer, it could have been much more final and literal. As the ending of Oppenheimer suggests, his creation, becoming the literal destroyer of the world, was very much something he concerned himself with.
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