"I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds": where Oppenheimer's infamous quote came from and what it means
On July 16, 1945, the first experiment with the detonation of a nuclear bomb in the history of mankind was conducted in the United States. The so-called Manhattan Project was led by physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who later admitted that when he saw how powerful and destructive the bomb was, he recalled a passage from a Hindu scripture: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds".
Weird tells the story of the origin of this quote and what is wrong with it.
Oppenheimer was the head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, where the Manhattan Project, which aimed to build and test the atomic bomb, actually operated. Not surprisingly, he is considered the "father" of the atomic bomb for his contributions to its creation. But the physicist himself was ultimately left horrified by his own invention.
"We knew the world would not be the same. Some laughed, some cried, most were silent. I remembered a line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to convince a prince that he must do his duty and to impress him, takes his multi-armed form and says, "Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I think we've all thought that in one way or another," said the physicist as he recounted the impression the explosion of the atomic bomb made on him.
Oppenheimer was not a Hindu in the religious sense, but found the philosophy useful in constructing his life. Stephen Thompson, PhD in Sanskrit grammar, believes that Oppenheimer's interest in Hinduism was not simply out of curiosity; the scientist was trying to make sense of his own actions through this religion.
The Bhagavad-Gita is a 700 verse Hindu scripture written in Sanskrit. It is based on a dialog between a warrior prince named Arjuna and the god Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu (the supreme god in Hinduism).
Arjuna faces a dilemma as he has to face an army with his friends and relatives. But Krishna teaches him a higher philosophy that will enable him to fulfill his duties as a warrior, regardless of personal problems. This is called dharma, or holy duty.
Seeking advice, Arjuna asks Krishna to reveal his universal form. The deity then appears to him as a majestic, ghastly being with many mouths and eyes. It was at this point that Oppenheimer's consciousness entered.
"If the radiance of a thousand suns had flashed simultaneously in the sky, it would have been like the might of the Great One," Oppenheimer described an explosion in the New Mexico desert.
In Hinduism, time is non-linear, so the supreme god is involved not only in creation but also in destruction. The quote about the destroyer of worlds is uttered by Krishna in the thirty-second poem. But Oppenheimer does not translate it correctly.
"The quote 'Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds' is literally time destroying the world," Thompson explained. He said Oppenheimer, who knew Sanskrit, probably chose to translate "time destroying the world" as "death," which is a common interpretation. The meaning of this quote is simple: no matter what Arjuna does, everything is in divine hands.
Thompson believes that Oppenheimer, like Arjuna, sought to reconcile himself to his fate so that he would feel neither sadness nor joy for his deeds because it is simply what fate has dealt him.
"He doesn't seem to believe that the soul is eternal, whereas Arjuna does," Thompson says of the physicist.
In the Gita, there is the view that death is an illusion and that we are neither born nor die.
"That's the philosophy: that there is only one consciousness and that all creation is a great game" explains Thompson.
But Oppenheimer, he argues, never believed that the people killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the dropping of the atomic bombs would not suffer.
"Krishna says you should just fulfill your duty as a warrior. If you were a priest you wouldn't have to do that, but you are a warrior and you have to fulfill it. In a broader sense, the 'bomb' probably represented the way to fight the forces of evil, which were epitomized by the forces of fascism," Thompson continues to reflect.
He summarizes that it may have been relatively easy for Arjuna to be indifferent to the war because he believed that the souls of his opponents would live on no matter what, but Oppenheimer felt the effects of the atomic bomb acutely.
"He didn't have that certainty that destruction was, after all, an illusion," Thompson says, explaining that Oppenheimer's inability to accept the idea of an immortal soul caused his deeds to weigh on his mind.
Earlier OBOZREVATEL also told the main facts about Robert Oppenheimer.