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Hiroshima, Robert Oppenheimer And The Gita

08/06/2016 12:49 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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This May, Barack Obama became the first American President to visit Hiroshima, which was ravaged by the world's first atomic bomb attack in 1945. More than 140,000 people lost their lives, while others died a slow death over the years due to the effects of radiation. While Obama did not apologize for America during his speech at Hiroshima, he did call for a "world without nuclear weapons." This, ironically, was also the eventual dream of the man who was known as the "father of the atomic bomb."

Oppenheimer formulated a code of living that was distilled from the Gita and stood on the pillars of Duty, Fate and Faith.

Just as World War II was at its peak, it came to light that Germany was making advances on developing atomic weapons. The US feared that this would lead to the Nazis developing a lethal bomb. Leading scientists in the US led by Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt that America should take a lead in developing a bomb at the earliest. Accordingly, the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in New Mexico was formed with a group of nuclear scientists, led by Robert Oppenheimer. A brilliant scientist who had his education in Harvard and Cambridge, and had written several celebrated papers on quantum theory, Oppenheimer had another facet to his personality: as a student he was highly attracted to Eastern philosophy, particularly Sanskrit and ancient Hindu texts. He was riveted by the Gita and read the original several times, even translating it. He called it the most beautiful poem in any language and kept a copy of it in his desk. He often referred to its wisdom, periodically making copies and distributing it amongst his friends. Though he was never formally initiated into Hinduism, Oppenheimer formulated a code of living that was distilled from the Gita and stood on the pillars of Duty, Fate and Faith.

Oppenheimer said, "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." This saying is actually derived from the Gita, where Lord Krishna exhorts Arjuna to do his duty in battle.

"Do your Duty" is the principal teaching of the Gita and Oppenheimer set out to do this as he brilliantly directed the Los Alamos bomb development programme. Several times he was plagued by self-doubt about what the bomb would unleash but each time he would turn to the Gita for solace, and return to his work. He was a mere instrument in this effort, he reasoned, and was put there by fate. He would do the duty that his government had asked him to do. There were ethical questions about the use of the bomb but Oppenheimer refused to be drawn into these discussions. Again and again he turned to the Gita for inspiration and courage to go on with the task he had to accomplish. He was not sure if the project would succeed; that was to be decided by "fate".

When the first test was conducted and was a success, he was filled with pride and excitement at his effort as a mushroom cloud rose over the Nevada desert. But success was at once tinged with a certain amount of dread and he suddenly remembered Lord Krishna saying that he would bring death and destruction to evil. He immediately uttered the line from the Gita which later would always be associated with him and all literature on nuclear weapons: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." This saying is actually derived from the Gita, where Lord Krishna exhorts Arjuna to do his duty in battle.

Later in his life Oppenheimer would become a strong advocate for non-proliferation and international controls for nuclear technology.

Let us hope that the meaning of the Gita, where evil is destroyed, is correctly interpreted in the way that great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi did.

It is interesting to see that the gentlest scientists with interests in arts and music have been associated with the nuclear program in India. Homi Bhabha who pioneered India in nuclear science was also a noted artist. Vikram Sarabhai had varied interests and Raja Ramanna was also a pianist. The architect of the missile program was Abdul Kalam who was a deeply spiritual man.

Why do such people take up nuclear science, which can potentially be used for mass destruction? Perhaps it is the excitement of discovery and the development of science itself. It seems almost paradoxical that it was the Bhagavad Gita, the most revered religious text of Hinduism, that cleared the doubts that Oppenheimer had when he directed the atomic bomb. But the Gita was also an inspiration for Mahatma Gandhi who was an apostle of peace and non-violence!

The world today is a dangerous place with several nations having a lethal arsenal. One can hope that the visit of President Obama to Hiroshima will give a message to nations on the dangers of nuclear war. Let us hope that the meaning of the Gita, where evil is destroyed, is correctly interpreted in the way that great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi did.

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