The Gita, the Bomb, and the Dharma of Oppenheimer

(Harmonist) The Gita, the Bomb, and the Dharma of Oppenheimer
by Harmonist staff

By Syama Allard, originally published by Religion News Service.

(RNS) — On July 16, 1945, in the desert 210 miles south of Los Alamos, New Mexico, a nuclear weapon was tested for the first time.

Recalling the scene 20 years later, J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the “father of the atomic bomb,” uttered words he would henceforth be known for. Pale and emaciated for his 61 years, eyes gaunt, the physicist persistently avoided the camera as he spoke with emotionally subdued precision:

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.

At the time, only a small number of Americans knew much about the Scripture Oppenheimer quoted, though his hauntingly poignant delivery gave his recitation a special weight. The true impact its spiritual source had on Oppenheimer, however, and on the development of atomic weaponry remained largely unknown.

According to James A. Hijiya, author of “The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” Oppenheimer’s interest in ancient Indian philosophy grew out of a rebellion against his own upbringing. Of Jewish descent, his family was affiliated with Felix Adler’s Society for Ethical Culture and sent young Oppenheimer to the society’s school in New York, where his father was on the board of directors.

Abandoning religion’s spiritual and supernatural aspects, the school taught the importance of human welfare based on a foundation of secular moral principles. It also provided excellent training in the sciences and classics, but Isidor Isaac Rabi, a physicist who met the young Oppenheimer in 1929, before working with him later on the Manhattan Project, said Oppenheimer was already seeking “a more profound approach to human relations and man’s place in the universe.” He appeared to have found this approach in the Hindu classics, which seemed to interest him even more than physics.

In 1933, while he was teaching at Berkeley, his interest apparently reached new depths when he met Arthur W. Ryder, a professor of Sanskrit who taught Oppenheimer the language. Especially captivated by the Gita, Oppenheimer called it “the most beautiful philosophical song existing in any known tongue.”

Always keeping a well-worn copy of it near his desk, he gave the book to friends and regularly quoted passages, once at a memorial service for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. When asked by Christian Century magazine in 1963 to name the top 10 books that shaped his “vocational attitude” and “philosophy of life,” Oppenheimer listed the Gita, along with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”

A 700-verse dialogue between an ancient warrior named Arjuna and his cousin Krishna (a form of Vishnu), the Bhagavad Gita is set on a battlefield at the edge of war.

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