Did Oppenheimer get his Indian scripture wrong?

On the podcast this week I remastered my episode on elite competition. But my Fragment of the Burning Archive this week relates to my video on Oppenheimer.

In later life, Oppenheimer did a television interview in which he reflected on his reaction to his nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This clip from the interview has had 26 million views on YouTube. He quoted a line by Krishna (or Vishnu or Shiva) from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.” It is this representation of the Gita that Christopher Nolan placed in the middle of a steamy sex scene in Oppenheimer, and so provoked a major controversy in India. As one of my Indian YouTube viewers commented “if the maestro [Nolan] had depicted that [Oppenheimer’s original interview] in the movie, it would have been so marvellous. But we felt it to be just bad in taste. Although, a marvellous movie.”

Reportedly, Oppenheimer read Sanskrit. But one small archival discovery I made in making the video was that Oppenheimer may have misquoted or used a poor translation of the line from the Gita. Here are the two translations I had to hand.

The Penguin Classics Bhagavad Gita 1962 translation of this verse was:

I am all-powerful Time which destroys all things, and I have come here to slay these men. Even if thou dost not fight, all the warriors facing thee shall die.

Bhagavad Gita (trans Juan Mascaró, 1962)

The Penguin Classics 2009 Mahabharata translation (which contains the Gita) was

I am time, the destroyer of worlds, fully developed, and I have set out to bring the worlds to their end. Even without your presence in battle, all these warriors arrayed in opposing ranks will cease to be.

The Mahābhārata

Now since all people must die in time, there is always a sense in which time can be death. But with both of these translations, it appears the mythologised Oppenheimer might have misread his Hindu scriptures. Almost certainly, Christopher Nolan has misrepresented them in his celebrated film.

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