Was Oppenheimer's Gita quote accurate?

In Gita (Chapter 11, Verse 32) Lord Krishna says that “I am the "Kal" (Mighty Time) – destroyer of the world”.  Oppenheimer said “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, and this is extensively quoted.

Anil K. Rajvanshi Jul 27, 2023
Bhagavad Gita-Oppenheimer

A new epic biopic on American physicist Robert Oppenheimer, known as the creator of the atom bomb, has been recently released in cinema theaters all over the world. 

Oppenheimer like most scientists of that era was fascinated by Indian philosophy and read classics like Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads among others. Similarly, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, etc. were also influenced by these ancient Indian texts.    

So when the atom bomb was exploded for the first time in New Mexico, US in controlled testing in 1945 the scene was out of this world with light from the blast greater than a thousand suns and deafening sound. The spectacle of the mushroom cloud of the bomb was a sight never seen by mankind. According to some scientists, it was a hair-raising experience and everyone who witnessed the explosion was affected by it and the event changed the character of lots of them. 

Oppenheimer was a great scholar of classics having read Homer and other Western classics authors. He also read Eastern philosophical books and found them extremely fascinating.

Incorrect understanding of Gita? 

So, at the time of the atomic bomb explosion he remembered the classical phrase of Lord Krishna (in Chapter 11 of Bhagavad Gita) where he shows Arjun his divine form.   

In Gita (Chapter 11, Verse 32) Lord Krishna says that “I am the Mighty Time – destroyer of the world”.  Oppenheimer said “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, and this is extensively quoted.

Oppenheimer had studied Sanskrit in the early 1930s under Dr. Arthur Ryder at Berkeley and so might have read the Gita in its original form. However, it was Ryder who translated ‘Kal’ to Death instead of Time and probably it is this phrase that got lodged in Oppenheimer’s mind. That may explain the mistake partially. The other reason could be that Oppenheimer probably never read the Gita in Sanskrit! 

Dr. Stanley Ulam was my acquaintance at the University of Florida in the late 1970s. Prof. Ulam was one of the key players in the Manhattan Project (the project to make the atom bomb) and was the true father of the hydrogen bomb that Edward Teller usurped unethically.  Prof. Ulam was also a close friend of Enrico Fermi, one of the main actors in the creation of the atom bomb and one of the greatest physicists.            

According to Prof. Ulam, Fermi felt that Oppenheimer was something of a fraud and prone to exaggeration about his knowledge of classics and Sanskrit.  It is therefore quite possible that Oppenheimer never read the Gita in Sanskrit though he professed to have done so and the Death translation was borrowed from Ryder, his Sanskrit teacher. 

Indians knew about space-time concepts     

Though Gita has been known to Indians for a long, it was Mahatma Gandhi who made it world famous since it was his Bible.  Now this film on Oppenheimer has brought Bhagavad Gita again into sharp focus the world over and it is a welcome opportunity to show the world the great ancient classic of India. 

Indians knew about time and space concepts 2000-3000 years before Einstein. Thus Gita and Patanjali Yoga Sutras talk about these subjects since the ancients realized that everything is dependent on time.  

Oppenheimer was a close friend of Albert Einstein and both were together at Princeton in the Institute for Advanced Study.  One can only speculate that had Oppenheimer read Gita in Sanskrit and translated Kal as Time instead of Death, there could have been an interesting dialogue between him and Einstein the father of the concept of space-time.           

Time also occupies a central theme in Patanjali Yoga Sutras. In one of the last sutras Patanjali says that time stops once the mutations of 'gunas' stop, and the yogi achieves the ultimate liberation from the cycle of birth and death. 

Lord Krishna rightly told Arjun that the Universe has a beginning and an end, and it is this Mighty Time which is the destroyer of the world.

(The writer, an IIT and US-educated Indian engineer,  a 2022 Padma Shri award winner, is the Director, of Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, Phaltan, Maharashtra. Views are personal. He can be reached at anilrajvanshi@gmail.com)

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