Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Tuesday February 18, 2003

Filed under: General — Tags: — m759 @ 12:00 PM

Fat Man and Dancing Girl


Dance of
Shiva and Kali

Paul Newman as
General Groves


Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, portrayed in the film "Fat Man and Little Boy," died on this date in 1967.

He is sometimes called the "father of the A-bomb."  He said that at the time of the first nuclear test he thought of a line from the Sanskrit holy book, the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."  The following gives more details.

The Bomb of the Blue God

M. V. Ramana

Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, Princeton University

Published in SAMAR: South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection, Issue 13

Oppenheimer had learned Sanskrit at Berkeley so as to read the Gita in the original; he always kept a worn pink copy on the bookshelf closest to his desk. It is therefore likely that he may have actually thought of the original, Sanskrit, verse rather than the English translation. The closest that fits this meaning is in the 32nd verse from the 11th chapter of the Gita.

 kalosmi lokaksaya krt pravrddho

This literally means: I am kAla, the great destroyer of Worlds. What is intriguing about this verse, then, is the interpretation of kAla by Jungk and others to mean death. While death is technically one of the meanings of kAla, a more common one is time.  Indeed, the translations of the Gita by S. Radhakrishnan, A. C. Bhaktivedanta, Nataraja Guru and Eliot Deutsch say precisely that. One exception to this, however, is the 1929 translation by Arthur Ryder. And, indeed, in a 1933 letter to his brother, Robert Oppenheimer does mention that he has "been reading the Bhagavad Gita with Ryder and two other Sanskritists." The misinterpretation, therefore, may not have been the fault of Oppenheimer or Jungk. Nevertheless, the verse does not have anything to do with an apocalyptic or catastrophic destruction, as most people have interpreted it in connection with nuclear weapons. When kAla is understood as time, the meaning is drastically changed to being a reminder of our mortality and finite lifetimes ­ as also the lifetimes of everything else in this world (including plutonium and uranium, despite their long, long, half-lives!). It then becomes more akin to western notions of the "slow march of time" and thus having little to do with the immense destruction caused by a nuclear explosion. While the very first images that arose in the father of the atomic bomb are a somewhat wrong application of Hindu mythology, his recollection of the Bhagavad Gita may have been quite pertinent. As is well known, the Bhagavad Gita was supposedly intended to persuade Arjuna to participate in the Kurukshetra battle that resulted in the killing of thousands. Thus, Oppenheimer may well have been trying to rationalize his involvement in the development of a terrible weapon.

Source: Google cache of

See also
"KAla" (in the Harvard-Kyoto transliteration scheme) is more familiar to the West in the related form of Kali, a goddess sometimes depicted as a dancing girl; Kali is related to kAla, time, according to one website, as "the force which governs and stops time."  See also the novel The Fermata, by Nicholson Baker.

The fact that Oppenheimer thought of Chapter 11, verse 32, of the Gita may, as a mnemonic device, be associated with the use of the number 1132 in Finnegans Wake.

 See 1132 A. D. & Saint Brighid, and my weblog entries of January 5 (Twelfth Night and the whirligig of time), January 31 (St. Bridget's Eve), and February 1 (St. Bridget's Day), 2003.


  1. Thanks for the links and the references to the Bhagavad Gita!

    I understood Kali to be a wrathful manifestation of Parvati, the wife of Shiva the Destroyer. Any thoughts on this?

    Comment by iride — Wednesday, February 19, 2003 @ 4:23 PM

  2. According to one source, Parvati was the manifestation and Kali was the goddess manifested. Heinrich Zimmer, in Philosophies of India (Princeton paperback, 1989, p. 141) says:

    “Parvati was an incarnation of the supreme goddess of the world, Kali-Durga-Sati, Siva’s eternal female counterpart and projected energy, whom the god, for the well-being of the universe, was to be brought to recognize and know.”

    Comment by m759 — Wednesday, February 19, 2003 @ 6:47 PM

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