The new Oppenheimer movie, telling of leading physicist-cum-mystic J. Robert Oppenheimer and his successful quest to build an atom-bomb for the United States during WWII, has been generally well-received – but not in India.
The problem surrounded Oppenheimer’s alleged gnomic utterance “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” at the moment of his A-bomb’s successful first detonation at Los Alamos in the New Mexico desert in July 1945, a line taken from his favorite poem the Bhagavad Gita (although some say Oppenheimer actually uttered the rather less memorable line “Well, it worked, then.”) On-screen, the physicist recited these words whilst having sex. This proved unfortunate, as the Bhagavad Gita is actually a millennia-old work of versified scripture sacred to Hindus.
Authorities in India have accused the film of being “a disturbing attack on Hinduism” and “a direct assault” on its believers, part of some “larger conspiracy by anti-Hindu forces”. India’s Information Commissioner requested the film-makers delete the scene in order to avert violence and instead “gift [them] the friendship of billions of nice people.”
The Indian Mutiny
Oppenheimer was a Sanskrit-speaker who nick-named his car ‘Garuda’, after the giant god-bird of Indian myth. But he didn’t believe in Hinduism, he just saw certain similarities between Eastern religions and the subatomic realm.
The Gita tells of an encounter between the ancient warrior-prince Arjuna and his charioteer, an incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu. Arjuna faces an army containing friends and relatives, and is conflicted about whether to fight them. Vishnu tells him he has no choice, it is just his dharma, or holy fate, to have been placed in this dire but inescapable situation. As a warrior, he must fight – to do otherwise would be pure mutiny.
Likewise, whilst Oppenheimer had no specific desire to nuke thousands of his brother men in Japan, that was just his own dharma. He had thereby become somewhat like a god, having world-destroying powers, but was simultaneously utterly powerless, it being his inexorable fate to comply – hence, his apt citation of scripture.
The A-bomb physicists couched their quest in religious metaphors; the New Mexico test-site was dubbed ‘Trinity’ after the Trinitarian “three person’d God” of the Metaphysical Poet John Donne, whilst one prototype plutonium core was christened ‘The Demon Core’ (its hellish radiations fried some Los Alamos physicists alive, echoing the similar invisible death-rays of a basilisk or gorgon).
The bomb’s innate apocalyptic power lends itself well to both demonic and deific personification. The Godzilla of the original 1954 Japanese sci-fi movie – a serious film, unlike its comical sequels – was a way of “making radiation visible”. Godzilla was a dinosaur, awoken from his sea-bed slumber by US atom-bomb tests, whose consequent radioactive death-breath represented that unleashed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Viewed correctly, the lizard’s head resembled a mushroom-cloud, whilst his scaly skin evoked that of radiation-burn victims.
Nobody would take the walking metaphor Godzilla literally as a representation of a real radiation-breathing dinosaur – because nobody sane believes in those. Plenty of sane people do believe in gods and demons, however, so have taken Oppenheimer’s poetic language to heart.
When asked if his Los Alamos bomb had been the first nuclear explosion, Oppenheimer replied “Yes, in modern times.” This was presumably a joke, referring to age-old atomic reactions in cosmic suns, or descriptions in Hindu scripture of what sound to modern ears amusingly like nuclear weapons being used by warring gods. But some so-called ‘ancient astronaut theorists’ think such texts do describe atomic weapons, wielded by ancient aliens in UFOs, later mistaken by primitive humans for deities due to the awesome power of their tech.
The God of the Old Testament, Yahweh, also sounds to ancient astronaut theorists like an atomic scientist. In Exodus 13, He is described as leading the Israelites through the Los Alamos-like desert as a pillar of fire by night, and a pillar of cloud by day … a mushroom-cloud, maybe. So, Yahweh, really an alien in a sky-hovering spaceship, was directing the Israelites towards the Promised Land via the highly inefficient method of using mini-Hiroshimas as direction-posts!
In 1960, a Soviet mathematician, Matest Agrest, suggested Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed not by Yahweh’s heavenly fire, as the Bible says, but by His heavenly atom-bombs. The area around the melted cities was rich in tektites, glassy elements containing radioactive isotopes, classic signs of a nuclear explosion (or a meteorite impact, skeptics may say …). So, God actually nuked the sodomites, argued Agrest, he didn’t just smite them. When Lot’s wife turned back to observe this wonder and was mutated into a pillar of salt, this was also the result of intense radioactivity.
He Dreams of Genies
A very learned 1980s essay by the Jungian-influenced esoteric writer Dennis Stillings, Meditations On the Atom and Time, argues the imaginative effect on mankind’s collective psyche of Los Alamos was so great it was as if the Hand of God really had come down to reshape our world anew forever, via elaborate quasi-alchemical means. One man who may have read Stillings’ essay is the notoriously obscure director David Lynch, whose 2017 reboot of the Twin Peaks TV series proves unexpectedly germane. The show tells the story of the murder of an icon of all-American innocence, the virginal blond teen Laura Palmer, by what turns out to be a human-looking demon with the dharma-laden name ‘Killer Bob’.
Episode Eight of Twin Peaks: The Return appears to depict how Killer Bob is born into our world via Oppenheimer’s baby blowing open an interdimensional rift or Hell-Mouth. Bob’s subsequent murder of innocent Laura thus becomes an allegory for how America murdered its own innocence by unleashing the atom-bomb out onto the world.
But there are people out there who think such a thing literally happened. James Shelby Downard was a conspiracy theorist who thought American history had been engineered wholesale by Freemasons. In his bizarre essay The Call To Chaos, Downard argued the true point of Los Alamos was to release a Killer Bob-style genie from its bottle to forcibly mutate mankind’s soul, Dennis Stillings-style.
One of the giant pressure-vessel containers for a prototype A-bomb mechanism was called ‘The Bottle’, and we all know that bottles are where trapped genies are said to reside in The Arabian Nights. Downard’s proof? Only that:
“In an October 1987 television news broadcast, reporting on Soviet-American arms talks … the commentator remarked, ‘They are trying to return the nuclear jinni to its bottle.’ Alas – it can’t be done. It’s too late! Too late! Too late! The damn bottle has been cracked up for keeps.”
In a figurative sense, Downard was perhaps correct. But he wasn’t speaking figuratively, was he? Maybe Oppenheimer was truly less destroyer of worlds, more destroyer of agreed human meaning …