“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” So J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II, said he had reflected while witnessing the detonation of the first atomic device in July 1845. The source of this inspiration, or despair, was the Hindu scriptural epic, the Bhagavad Gita. (On another occasion, Oppenheimer claimed to have recalled another passage: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one . . ,”)
Great works of literature, including religious literature, often have a major influence on the strategic culture and outlook of civilizations and nations. The Bible is certainly Exhibit One. Yet such literature does not always generate a single strand of thought about war and peace, but often competing strands, or ideas that metamorphose under different circumstances.
In a recent New York Review of Books essay, Wendy Doniger asks: How did Indian tradition transform the Bhagavad Gita (the “Song of God”) into a bible for pacifism, when it began life, sometime between the third century BC and the third century CE, as an epic argument persuading a warrior to engage in a battle, indeed, a particularly brutal, lawless, internecine war? Doniger uses Richard H. Davis’ new book Bhagavad Gita: A Biography, to explore this question.
As described Doniger in the New York Review of Books, “the Gita (as it is generally known to its friends) occupies eighteen chapters of book 6 of the Mahabharata, an immense (over 100,000 couplets) Sanskrit epic. The text is in the form of a conversation between the warrior Arjuna, who, on the eve of an apocalyptic battle, hesitates to kill his friends and family on the other side, and the incarnate god Krishna, who acts as Arjuna’s charioteer (a low-status job roughly equivalent to a bodyguard) and persuades him to do it.”
For Doniger, the insights contained in the Gita can be, and have been, read in contradictory fashion: whether the superior life is that of engagement with the world (the warrior), or disengagement (the philosopher, to use her term). She argues that the Gita’s theology binds the two points of view in an uneasy tension that has persisted through the centuries, with which the Nationalists (and later the BJP of current Indian Prime Minister Modi) and Gandhi have tried to come to grips.
These are deep waters, indeed. Churchill remarked that “a man must nail his life to a cross either of thought or of action.” Perhaps this tension, creative or not, is exemplified in the modern, or post-modern West by Oppenheimer, the philosopher-scientist who is also the potential destroyer of worlds. Modern science, in its own way, has a foot in both camps: it contemplates nature in order to learn its secrets but also (according to Bacon) tortures natures in order to control it — or, we might say, hope to control it.