July 21, 2023
“Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
On July 16, 1945, the day the U.S. tested the atomic bomb in the New Mexican desert, it was this Hindu scripture that came to American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s mind. The U.S. would eventually detonate two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, annihilating their people and bringing an end to World War II.
In an NBC interview following the bombings, the man who came to be known as “the father of the atomic bomb” recalled what he felt on the day of the test: “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, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’”
The line is infamous. It has reappeared relentlessly in pop culture, from Godzilla to Mad Men. But it was Oppenheimer’s uttering that left many believing it was his original quote. After all, on the cusp of the release of Christopher Nolan’s titular biopic on the physicist, Oppenheimer, one of the most surprising pieces of his history that has once again come to light is just how much Hinduism influenced the nuclear scientist. Oppenheimer regularly turned to it as a reassuring life philosophy, when it came to not only crafting a weapon of the greatest destruction we have come to see, but in later life as a pacifist.