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10 October 2005

Shiva, Hindu Goddess of Death, Destruction

Shiva, the incarnation of God
associated with destruction and death.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904 - 1967) was a professor of theoretical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, and, during World War Two, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the American and British program which built the first atomic bomb. Though the Bomb had thousands of mothers and fathers, more than any other single person, Oppenheimer was The Father of the Atomic Bomb.

Oppenheimer was a brilliant scholar in all fields. Though he had to travel all over the USA constantly for the Manhattan Project, his Army superiors forbade him to fly. During one transcontinental train trip, he read Proust's entire "Remembrances of Things Past" (21 volumes, I think) in French, later describing it as the most profound intellectual experience of his life. (An awful lot of people, like me, have an awful lot of trouble getting past Page 4 in any language.)

He had mastered Sanskrit as an undergraduate, and had read the ancient sacred scriptures of Hinduism. They are written in a long-extinct Indo-European language. One of the most famous of these texts, with Hindus and with devotees of the treasures of world literature, is the Bhagavad Gita, "The Song of God." It is believed to have been written between 500 and 200 BC.

When the first atomic bomb was detonated in the Alamagordo desert of New Mexico just before dawn on 16 July 1945, predictions among the scientists who witnessed it ranged from dud to an explosion which would ignite and consume the Earth's atmosphere. The Trinity bomb produced something in the middle, an explosion of a magnitude that no human had ever witnessed. Less than a month later two of its brothers, Fat Man and Little Boy, were dropped on the Japanese cities and populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Oppenheimer and the scores of other witnesses turned their backs to the bomb tower a few seconds before the Bomb was to be detonated --

"Man does not look upon the face
of the Gorgon, and live."

-- Dr. Morbius, "Forbidden Planet"

-- but they had no doubt the explosion was remarkable from the burst of light that dwarfed the sunrise and cast their shadows against the ground in striking contrast.

At that instant, a passage from Chapter XI of the Bhagavad Gita ran through Oppenheimer's mind.

Just before a great battle, God -- in the incarnation of Lord Krishna -- speaks with the warrior Arjuna. Arjuna wants to know what God truly looks like, but Krishna explains He cannot show His true self to a mortal; a mere mortal could not possibly comprehend or even survive the experience.

Assuming it ran through Oppenheimer's mind in the original Sanskrit (a luxury unavailable to me), this is an attempt, from several English translations, to catch its sense:

If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst suddenly in the sky

That might be like the splendor of the Holy One ...

Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.


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