Robert J. Oppenheimer, ever heard of this name? I’m sure that a lot of you might have read about him in your science or history text books. Well! for starters he was a physicist, a nuclear physicist and a professor at University of California. He is something of a mystique figure to me, a pacifist himself, ironically he is regarded as the “father of the atomic bomb”. He was the one to head over the Manhattan Project, the World War II project that developed the first nuclear weapons used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Although Oppenheimer had little managerial experience and some troublesome past associations with Communist causes, General Leslie Groves recognized his exceptional scientific brilliance. Less than three years after Groves selected Oppenheimer to direct weapons development, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, leading to Japan’s unconditional surrender. As director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, Oppenheimer proved to be an extraordinary choice.
How could a theoretical physicist having a strong dislike towards violence and inclination towards pacifism contributed towards the development of first ever nuclear bomb? This is the question which if asked to Oppenheimer would make him uncomfortable but he had an answer to it. The answer which he somehow forged from his variety of beliefs and dis-beliefs, ideologies and his own interpretations of Bhagavad Gita, a sacred religious text found inside the epic of Mahabharata, literally meaning “Song of the Lord”.
Oppenheimer acquired a deeper knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita in 1933 when, as a young professor of physics with interests ranging far beyond his academic specialty, he studied Sanskrit with Professor Arthur W. Ryder at Berkeley. The Gita, Oppenheimer excitedly wrote to his brother, was “very easy and quite marvelous.” This is the earliest direct evidence of the impression the book made on Oppenheimer, and a lasting impression it was. Later he called the Gita “the most beautiful philosophical song existing in any known tongue.”
Trapped in between his beliefs and his duties, an uncertain soldier like Oppenheimer, nervously fashioning his own atomic “arrow,” Arjuna sets a good example, a prince caught up in a war between the two sides which hailed from his own family willing to shed blood for the cause of greed and pride. But would you be able to call the courage within and fight till death to members of your own family? The answer given by Lord Krishna in Geeta is what sets everything at ease. The answer lies in the paramount importance of duty, something which defines a being. To perform your “Karma” is your duty no matter what the situation is, how big the price you have to pay but you must perform your duty.
In a popular magazine article published at about the same time, he asked whether it is good to give the world increased power, then concluded, “Because we are scientists, we must say an unalterable yes.” “If you are a scientist,” “Because we are scientists” clearly Oppenheimer believed that scientists had a dharma all their own.
Just as Arjuna and Yudhishthira honored their elders by submitting to their decisions, even when those decisions were wrong, so did Oppenheimer yield to those he recognized as his political and military superiors. He was a scientist, so it was his duty to make judgments on scientific matters, like how to build the bomb. But when it came to politics and war, he refused to oppose decisions made by people seemingly more qualified than himself thereby leading the bomb in the hands of military which as per Oppenheimer was their job to use the might of the atomic bomb as per the government’s discretion.
It must had been a tough decision for everyone but for Oppenheimer it was probably all he cared for, the test as we all know was success and later the bomb was deployed by US army for the mass destruction of two cities of Japan leaving them into shambles. Was it a good idea for Oppenheimer to work on the bomb? There is no clear answer for that nor will I try to answer it. The purpose of this post is not to discuss the political and humanitarian aspects of an atom bomb though its very existence is clearly disastrous to the humanity instead I tried to look inside the brain of the man who made the scientific feat possible along with several others but through out had the audacity to stand up to the world for questions and performed his duty as dictated by the Gita. His life maybe will serve as an inspiration for us when we need to perform our duty in certain undesirable conditions.
- Documentary: The Moment in Time – The Manhattan Project
- “The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer” JAMES A. HIJIYA
Professor of History, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth