How Hinduism guided J Robert Oppenheimer's life and work

The father of the atomic bomb was greatly influenced by the Bhagavad Gita, which is considered a holy text in India

J Robert Oppenheimer, creator of the atomic bomb, at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, in 1957. AP
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Despite a scene in nuclear arms biopic Oppenheimer sparking backlash in India, owing to the way in which a holy Hindu scripture has been featured, the fact remains that US physicist J Robert Oppenheimer had a long fascination with and respect for Hinduism.

Christopher Nolan's film is based on Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin's 2005 biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer. In the book, the authors detail how Oppenheimer, a polyglot, became obsessed with the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit when he joined the University of California, Berkeley, in 1933, as an assistant professor, aged 25. This is where he met Arthur W Ryder, a professor of Sanskrit who would teach him the language.

Oppenheimer, they write, had a "taste of the mystical and the cryptic". And his subsequent obsession with the 700-verse holy Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita "made perfect sense".

He also extensively read the Meghaduta, a lyric poem written by Kalidasa, a classical Sanskrit poet, author and playwright. Oppenheimer was so "enraptured by his Sanskrit studies" that he named his car Garuda, after the mythological Hindu bird.

The Bhagavad Gita is part of the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic that is believed to be more than 2,000 years old.

But Oppenheimer, who was born Jewish, never became a Hindu. Still, he found it useful to structure his life around the tenets of Hinduism, Sanskrit scholar Stephen Thompson told

"He was obviously very attracted to this philosophy. It was a way of making sense of his actions."

The Mahabharata narrates a battle between two groups of cousins in the Kurukshetra War, which forms the basis of the Bhagavad Gita. Written as a dialogue between the Pandava prince Arjuna and his charioteer guide Krishna, an avatar of the deity Vishnu, the Bhagavad Gita's poetry forms the pillars of many Hindu ideologies.

And it is one phrase in the holy book that the "father of the atomic bomb" employed to rationalise the situation after he witnessed the destructive power of his creation.

At the start of the Kurukshetra War, Arjuna finds himself in a dilemma, despairing about the death and destruction the war would cause to his own cousins. Krishna then counsels him to fulfil his duty.

In a clip from a 1965 NBC documentary that has now gone viral, Oppenheimer reflects on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 that killed tens of thousands of people, but also ended the Second World War.

"If it was needed to put an end to the war and had a chance of so doing, we thought that was the right thing to do," he says. "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 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 the worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another."

Updated: July 25, 2023, 11:18 AM