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'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds'. The story of Oppenheimer's infamous quote

As he witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, a piece of Hindu scripture ran through the mind of Robert Oppenheimer: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. It is, perhaps, the most well-known line from the Bhagavad-Gita, but also the most misunderstood.


Oppenheimer died at the age of sixty-two in Princeton, New Jersey on February 18, 1967. As wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, the birthplace of the Manhattan Project, he is rightly seen as the “father” of the atomic bomb. “We knew the world would not be the same,” he later recalled. “A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent.” Oppenheimer, watching the fireball of the Trinity nuclear test, turned to Hinduism. While he never became a Hindu in the devotional sense, Oppenheimer found it a useful philosophy to structure his life around. "He was obviously very attracted to this philosophy,” says Rev Dr Stephen Thompson, who holds a PhD in Sanskrit grammar and is currently reading a DPhil at Oxford University on other aspects of the language and Hindu faith. Oppenheimer’s interest in Hinduism was about more than a soundbite, it was a way of making sense of his actions.

The Bhagavad-Gita is 700-verse Hindu scripture, written in Sanskrit, that centres on a dialogue between a great warrior prince called Arjuna and his charioteer Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu. Facing an opposing army containing his friends and relatives, Arjuna is torn. But Krishna teaches him about a higher philosophy that will enable him to carry out his duties as a warrior irrespective of his personal concerns. This is known as the dharma, or holy duty. It is one of the four key lessons of the Bhagavad-Gita: desire or lust; wealth; the desire for righteousness or dharma; and the final state of total liberation, or moksha.....

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