J. Robert Oppenheimer, a prominent theoretical physicist known for his groundbreaking work that led to the creation of the atomic bomb in 1945, is once more a point of interest following the release of the film “Oppenheimer.” Christopher Nolan’s newest biographical cinematic venture has sparked conversations about the scientist’s deep connection with the Bhagavad Gita, a holy Hindu text.
However, the film has sparked controversy since its July 21 release. A scene showing the physicist reading the Bhagavad Gita following an intimate encounter has provoked an outcry from the global Hindu community, who perceive it as a disrespectful portrayal of their religious beliefs. Calls for censoring the contentious scene are particularly strong in India.
Oppenheimer’s Journey to the Gita through Sanskrit
Oppenheimer, known for his linguistic prowess, already had a firm grasp of Greek, Latin, French, and German. Moreover, he displayed a remarkable ability to quickly acquire new languages, as demonstrated by learning Dutch in six weeks.
The physicist’s pathway to the Bhagavad Gita began with Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language in which the sacred text was written. Arthur W. Ryder, a Sanskrit professor at the University of California, Berkeley, initiated this journey and provided Oppenheimer with private tutoring sessions on Thursday evenings.
Oppenheimer enthusiastically wrote to his brother Frank, “I am learning Sanskrit and thoroughly enjoying the sweet luxury of being instructed.” The same correspondence revealed how the scientist’s core principles, discipline, and perseverance, were deeply influenced by Eastern philosophy.
However, some found Oppenheimer’s fascination with the ancient Indian language perplexing, although Harold F. Cherniss, who introduced Oppenheimer to Ryder, found it fitting due to the physicist’s affinity for mysticism.
According to reports by CNN, Oppenheimer, in an attempt to ease his tension, recited verses from the Bhagavad Gita in the days preceding the detonation of the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert in July 1945.
Biographies of the famed scientist acknowledge the profound impact of his engagement with Eastern philosophy and the Bhagavad Gita on his life and work. Still, this dimension of his personality is now under scrutiny due to the controversial portrayal in Nolan’s film.
Oppenheimer’s Religious Background and Spiritual Journey
Born into a wealthy, secular Jewish family in New York City, J. Robert Oppenheimer did not adhere strictly to Jewish religious practices in his upbringing. His parents, Julius S. Oppenheimer and Ella Friedman, although of Jewish descent, were not observant and raised their children in a mostly secular environment.
Despite this, the family maintained a connection to their Jewish heritage. Oppenheimer acknowledged his Jewish roots as an adult, though he did not actively participate in religious rituals or practices. Notably, his Jewish identity played a significant role during the McCarthy era, when he was accused of communist sympathies, with anti-Semitism being an underlying current.
His spiritual journey later in life led him towards Eastern philosophies, particularly those found in Hinduism. He was not a Hindu convert but deeply appreciated Hindu philosophy and scriptures, primarily the Bhagavad Gita, which significantly influenced his worldview. This affinity for Eastern philosophy can be observed in his studies of Sanskrit, in which he undertook to access Hindu texts in their original language.
When the first atomic bomb was successfully detonated in 1945, Oppenheimer famously quoted a verse from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” signifying his acknowledgement of the potentially devastating impact of the weapon he had helped to create.
Thus, Oppenheimer’s spiritual journey can be characterized as synthesising various influences – his secular Jewish upbringing, cultural Jewish identity, and profound respect and interest in Hindu philosophy, especially as articulated in the Bhagavad Gita. His intellectual curiosity and openness to diverse philosophies contributed significantly to his complex persona, extending beyond his scientific achievements.