What made Oppenheimer interested in Sanskrit and the Bhagavad Gita – Times of India

What made Oppenheimer interested in Sanskrit and the Bhagavad Gita - Times of India


Christopher Nolan‘s new film ‘Oppenheimer’, featuring actor Cillian Murphy in the lead role, tells the story of the father of the atomic bomb, Robert J Oppenheimer. This is a story of a brilliant, ambitious, and flawed man, who was involved with one of the most momentous events of the 20th century. For the unversed, ‘Oppenheimer’ is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book ‘American Prometheus‘ by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. The physicist and polymath, Oppenheimer was familiar with the Sanskrit language and religious Hindu scriptures, including the Bhagavad Gita, as he was with quantum mechanics. In fact, in a recent interview actor Cillian Murphy revealed that he too read the Bhagavad Gita in order to prepare for his role in the film.

Giving more insight about the man that Oppenheimer was, here’s an excerpt from the book ‘American Prometheus’ about his interest in Sanskrit and the Bhagavad Gita. This excerpt is published with permission from Atlantic Books.
‘American Prometheus’ by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

“I am learning Sanskrit,” Robert wrote Frank, “enjoying it very much, and enjoying again the sweet luxury of being taught.” While most of his friends saw this new obsession as slightly odd, Harold Cherniss– who had introduced Oppie to Ryder– thought it made perfect sense. “He liked things that were difficult,’ Cherniss said. “And since almost everything was easy for him, the things that really would attract is attention were essentially the difficult.” Besides, Oppie had a “taste for the mysticalm the cryptic.”
With his facility for languages, it wasn’t long before Robert was reading the Bhagavad Gita. “It is very easy and quite marvelous,” he write Frank. He told friends that this ancient Hindu text- “The Lord’s Song”- was “the most beautiful philosophical song existing in any known tongue.” Ryder gave him a pink-covered copy of the book which found its way onto the bookshelf closest to his desk. Oppie took to passing out copies of the Gita as gifts to his friends.
Robert was so enraptured by his Sanskrit studies that when, in the autumn of 1933, his father bought him yet another Chrysler, he named it the Garuda, after the giant bird god in Hindu mythology that ferries Vishnu across the sky. The Gita- which constitutes the heart of the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata- is told in the form of a dialogue between the incarnate god Krishna and a human hero, Prince Arjuna. About to lead his troops into mortal combat, Arjuna refuses to engage in a war against friend and relatives. Lord Krishna replies, in essence, that Arjuna must fulfill his destiny as a warrior to fight and kill.
Ever since his emotional crisis of 1926, Robert had been trying to achieve some kind of inner equilibrium. Discipline and work had always been his guiding principles, but now he self-consciously elevated these traits to a philosophy of life. In the spring of 1932, Robert wrote his brother a long letter explaining why. The fact that discipline, he argued, “is good for the soul is more fundamental than any of the grounds given for its goodness. I believe that through discipline, though not through discipline alone, we can achieve serenity, and a certain small but precious measure of freedom from the accidents of incarnation… and that detachment which preserves the world which it renounces. I believe that throough discipline we learn to preserve what is essential to our happiness in more and more adverse circumstances, and to abandon with simplicity wat would else have seemed to us indispensable.” And only through discipline is it possible “to see the world without the gross distortion of personal desire, and in seeing it so, accept more easily our earthyly privation and its earthly horror.”
Like many Western intellectuals enthralled with Eastern philosophies, Oppenheimer the scientist found solace in their mysticism. He knew, moreover, that he was not alone: he knew that some of the poets he admired most, like W. B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, had themselves dipped into the Mahabharata. “Therefore,” he concluded in the letter to the twenty-year-old Frank, “I think that all things which evoke discipline: study, and our duties to men and to the commonwealth, and war, and personal hardship, and even the need for subsistence, ought to be greeted by us with profound gratitud; for only through them can we attain to the least detachment; and only so can we know peace.”
In his late twenties, Oppenheimer already seemed to be searching for an earthly detachment; he wished, in other words, to be engaged as a scientist with the physical world and yet detached from it. He was not seeking to escape to a purely spiritual realm. He was not seeking religion. What he sought was peace of mind. The Gita seemed to provide precisely the right philosophy for an intellectual keenly attuned to the affairs of men and the pleasures of the senses.
The book is published by Atlantic Books, and distributed by Penguin Random House India.


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