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Oppenheimer’s Understanding Of The Bhagavad Gita Wrong? Devdutt Pattanaik Says He’s Unaware Of ‘I am Death’ Line

When Oppenheimer witnessed the very first nuclear explosion during the Trinity Test (Manhattan Project), he had quoted a verse from Gita. It was done to describe the mushroom cloud and the massive firepower which he witnessed.

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Oppenheimer early reactions

WRITER Devdutt Pattanaik, who enjoys a huge fan following for the manner in which he has made Indian mythological stories lucid and comprehensible to the masses through his works, has shared his reaction on J Robert Oppenheimer’s interest in the Bhagavad Gita. After successfully carrying out the Trinity test, which led to the creation of the world’s first atomic bombs, Oppenheimer recalled a quote from the Gita.

“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One… I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” Oppenheimer thought, after the test was effectively carried out in New Mexico in 1945.

When Oppenheimer witnessed the very first nuclear explosion during the Trinity Test (Manhattan Project), he had quoted a verse from Gita. It was done to describe the mushroom cloud and the massive firepower which he witnessed. This was originally used when Arjuna gave description of Krishna upon witnessing his full divine form.

The quote has also been featured in the Christopher Nolan film.

Devdutt was surprised with this because while doing his research on Oppenheimer, he didn’t come across the quote in the Gita.

“I had never heard this line. Someone said it was chapter 11, verse 32, which really says ‘kaal-asmi’, which means ‘I am time, destroyer of the world’. So, his translation itself is wrong. It is not ‘I am death’. It is time, time is the destroyer of the world,” he said in a recent interview.

In Devdutt’s words, J Robert Oppenheimer was in a “dharam sankat (ethical dilemma) when he carried out the tests, and said that humanity has a history of interpreting religious texts differently.”

He went on to add that Oppenheimer came from a Judeo-Christian background, where God is known for destroying humanity with floods and fire.

Continuing, Pattanaik said: “For a scientist, if he has used this sentence… And I have seen that video also of his, where he keeps saying, ‘I am death, I am death’. It is very clearly, ‘I am time’. ‘Kaal’ means ‘time’. That is what he is saying, but of course, he gets excited because he’s seeing death and destruction at a massive scale, and he’s obviously seeking some kind of a spiritual background.’

“This act of killing humanity with violence is very much a big part of Biblical religions, but has nothing to do with any dharmic schools and isn’t found in any of the Sanatan texts, be it Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism.”

He further added, “I think he was looking for some solace and found this verse very dramatic.”

For those unfamiliar, J. Robert Oppenheimer who is credited as the ‘Father of the atomic bomb’ was deeply interested in Hinduism and classical Sanskrit, reading the Gita in original Sanskrit. While he did not turn to Hinduism as a devotee, he was nonetheless philosophically aligned with it as the Gita helped him explore what he called ‘the metaphysical aspects and mysteries of the great unknown, which transcend scientific calculations.’

He also went on to call Gita ‘the most beautiful philosophical song in existence’ and it continued to influence him throughout his life, where he even went as far as to call it among the most important books of his life as it reshaped his thinking.

Despite his knowledge of the Gita however, the scientist’s own interpretation has come under much scrutiny by not just Devdutt Pattnaik but many other researchers who have said that he only interpreted the text and its verses the way he wanted it to.


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