Oppenheimer and the Bhagavad-Gita
J. Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York City on April 22, 1904. After graduating from Harvard and studying under Ernest Rutherford at Cambridge University, Oppenheimer received his Ph.D. in Germany in 1925. In 1929, he returned to the United States to teach at the University of California Berkeley and at Cal Tech. Oppenheimer had learned Sanskrit at Berkeley so as to read the Gita in the original; he always kept a worn pink copy of the bookshelf closest to his desk.
Upon hearing of discovery of fission in 1939, Oppenheimer immediately grasped the possibility of atomic bombs. In 1941, he was brought into the atomic bomb project and was asked to calculate the critical mass of uranium-235, the amount needed to sustain a chain reaction. The next year he assembled a group of some of the best theoretical physicists in the country to discuss the design of the actual bomb.
On the day of the first atomic test, Oppenheimer fully realized the enormity of what he had just accomplished. As he stood watching the mushroom cloud, a passage from the Bhagavad Gita flashed into his mind : If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the Mighty One —
Yet, when the sinister and gigantic cloud rose up in the far distance over Point Zero, he was reminded of another line from the same source : I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.
A Quicktime movie of Oppenheimer recalling the moment on the first atomic explosion
We waited until the blast had passed, walked out of the shelter and then it was extremely solemn. We knew the world would not be the same. 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 [Arjuna] that he should do his duty and to impress him he takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.