Oppenheimer and the Gita

y.r.rani at mail.utexas.edu y.r.rani at mail.utexas.edu
Mon Nov 13 04:39:55 UTC 1995

Strange as if may seem, this "Oppenheimer and the Gita" story is not just a
bit of urban folklore.  I lived in Los Alamos, New Mexico (a short period
of time spent in a dreadfully ugly little town located in the magnificently
beautiful Jemez Mountains).  It is well documented there and in other
places that as the bomb exploded, indeed, Oppenheimer quoted the Gita.  I
have only seen the quote in translation and so I am not sure which verses
he actually quoted as the flash from the first atomic device lit up the
morning sky like "the sun rising twice," but the one line that is
attributed to him is usually quoted as "I have become as time (or death),
the destroyer of worlds."  I don't know if that is  Gita X:29 or X:33 or as
mentioned, 11:12.  But, that is the story.

There is one interesting aside about the first atomic explosion.
Oppenheimer and his colleagues in Los Alamos were not sure if their
invention was going to work.  They had speculated three possible scenarios:
1)  It would work according to expectations.  2)  It would be a failure
and nothing would happen.  3)  The bomb would explode and the atomic
fission would set off a chain reaction that would cause the all the atoms
in the earth's atmosphere to ignite and thus destroy the world.  The
question then always arises:  "And they STILL DID IT?"

You asked: >How would Oppenheimer have been familiar with Gita in the first

Oppenheimer was a very unusual individual.  He was Jewish at a time when
Jews were not treated very well in this country.  Later, during the
fifties, he was black-balled by the House on Un-American Activities.  He
lost his security clearance and also could not get a university teaching
job for quite a while due to his leftists leanings.  For a physicist, he
was well read in Indology and may have even known some Sanskrit!  I think
he later suffered a lot a guilt about his role in the development of
nuclear weapons and he and his brother may have started a peace museum of
some kind. . .  He died fairly young.

Yvette C. Rosser

   TOO SURE IT IS ALWAYS RIGHT."  *  Justice Learned Hand


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