J. Robert Oppenheimer Explains How, Upon Witnessing the First Nuclear Explosion, He Recited a Line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I Am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”

No mat­ter how lit­tle we know of the Hin­du reli­gion, a line from one of its holy scrip­tures lives with­in us all: “Now I am become Death, the destroy­er of worlds.” This is one facet of the lega­cy of J. Robert Oppen­heimer, an Amer­i­can the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist who left an out­sized mark on his­to­ry. For his cru­cial role in the Man­hat­tan Project that dur­ing World War II pro­duced the first nuclear weapons, he’s now remem­bered as the“father of the atom­ic bomb.” He secured that title on July 16, 1945, the day of the test in the New Mex­i­can desert that proved these exper­i­men­tal weapons actu­al­ly work — that is, they could wreak a kind of destruc­tion pre­vi­ous­ly only seen in visions of the end of the world.

“We knew the world would not be the same,” Oppen­heimer remem­bered in 1965. “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.’ ”

The trans­la­tion’s gram­mat­i­cal archaism made it even more pow­er­ful, res­onat­ing with lines in Ten­nyson (“I am become a name, for always roam­ing with a hun­gry heart”), Shake­speare (“I am come to know your plea­sure”), and the Bible (“I am come a light into the world, that whoso­ev­er believeth on me should not abide in dark­ness”).

But what is death, as the Gita sees it? In an inter­view with Wired, San­skrit schol­ar Stephen Thomp­son explains that, in the orig­i­nal, the word that Oppen­heimer speaks as “death” refers to “lit­er­al­ly the world-destroy­ing time.” This means that “irre­spec­tive of what Arju­na does” — Arju­na being the afore­men­tioned prince, the nar­ra­tive’s pro­tag­o­nist — every­thing is in the hands of the divine.” Oppen­heimer would have learned all this while teach­ing in the 1930s at UC Berke­ley, where he learned San­skrit and read the Gita in the orig­i­nal. This cre­at­ed in him, said his col­league Isidor Rabi, “a feel­ing of mys­tery of the uni­verse that sur­round­ed him like a fog.”

The neces­si­ty of the Unit­ed States’ sub­se­quent drop­ping of not one but two atom­ic bombs on Japan, exam­ined in the 1965 doc­u­men­tary The Deci­sion to Drop the Bomb (below), remains a mat­ter of debate. Oppen­heimer went on to oppose nuclear weapons, describ­ing him­self to an appalled Pres­i­dent Har­ry Tru­man as hav­ing “blood on my hands.” But in devel­op­ing them, could he have sim­ply seen him­self as a mod­ern Prince Arju­na? “It has been argued by schol­ars,” writes the Eco­nom­ic Times’ Mayank Chhaya, “that Oppen­heimer’s approach to the atom­ic bomb was that of doing his duty as part of his dhar­ma as pre­scribed in the Gita.” He knew, to quote anoth­er line from that scrip­ture brought to mind by the nuclear explo­sion, that “if the radi­ance of a thou­sand suns were to burst into the sky that would be like the splen­dor of the Mighty One” — and per­haps also that splen­dor and wrath may be one.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2020. In the light of the new Oppen­heimer film, we’re bring­ing it back.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Oppen­heimer: The Man Behind the Bomb

The “Shad­ow” of a Hiroshi­ma Vic­tim, Etched into Stone, Is All That Remains After 1945 Atom­ic Blast

Haunt­ing Unedit­ed Footage of the Bomb­ing of Nagasa­ki (1945)

63 Haunt­ing Videos of U.S. Nuclear Tests Now Declas­si­fied and Put Online

53 Years of Nuclear Test­ing in 14 Min­utes: A Time Lapse Film by Japan­ese Artist Isao Hashimo­to

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (4)
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  • Shivani says:

    It is real­ly impor­tant when quot­ing some­one that you are not selec­tive. Oppen­heimer has not espoused the crux of the mes­sage in the Gita — which is ‘ to do one’s duty with­out any agen­da and sur­ren­der the out­come’
    He is selec­tive­ly choos­ing one quo­ta­tion out of con­text. He very much had an agen­da — and this is clear­ly I. Vio­la­tion of the core mes­sage of the Gita .

  • Kevin says:

    With 20 years to curate this sto­ry it is prob­a­bly the most nev­er-hap­pened thing that ever nev­er-hap­pened. Pure self mythol­o­giz­ing and pompous as hell.

  • USN Veteran says:

    My broth­ers father in law was on a troop ship off the coast of Japan in August 1945 await­ing the Inva­sion order. He & his bud­dies who had sur­vived sev­er­al Island bat­tles talked about it. They were all of the belief they would not sur­vive the Inva­sion. My father in law was on a destroy­er escort in the Pacif­ic at this time also. He prob­a­bly would have also been involved. For­tu­nate­ly they both made it home & I got to hear their sto­ries first hand. My ques­tion is if they had not used the bombs & peo­ple found out they had this option what would they have told the fam­i­lies of those who would have died in an inva­sion?

  • Nadezhda Wall-Rossi says:

    Oppen­heimer was a Nazi, a psychopath,an evil man. Mon­sters can appear “nor­mal.”

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