It is a spectacular show at the horizon every dawn and dusk, with the soft, feather-touch colors of the sky pleasing to the eyes and enjoyable to the heart, as we leisurely watch the orange sun rising or setting in quiet elegance.
But the mid-day sun, up right above, is bright, brilliant and blazingly hot, making it impossible for us to look at it even for a second.
Then what happens if a thousand suns were to burst forth in the sky simultaneously, flooding us all with their collective, searing brilliance, as the Bhagavad Gita says, divi surya sahasrasya…? Will anything, anything at all, survive in that intense radiating heat?
Sanjaya was waxing eloquent when he recounted to King Dhritharashtra what he saw at Kurukshethra, through the mind’s eye: the great, frightening, apocalyptic manifestation of the Supreme Being before Arjuna. This is undoubtedly the most important point, in fact a game-changing moment, in Krishna’s lengthy discourse to that reluctant warrior against the backdrop of the mighty assemblage of rival forces at Kurukshethra, a celebrated battlefield soon to become the worst ever killing field in the entire history of mankind.
bhaved yugapad utthita
yadi bhah sadrsi sa syad
bhasas tasya mahatmanah.
What brilliance there would have been if a thousand suns were to blaze forth all of a sudden in the sky – to that was comparable the splendor of the Great Being (Tr: Swamy Tapasyananda).
This was a game-changer not only for the hesitant Arjuna of the puranas, but also for J Robert Oppenheimer, the Jewish-American theoretical physicist credited with the making of the Atom Bomb that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the fag end of the Second World War. In fact the most famous Bhagavad Gita quote among the international scientific community happens to be what Oppenheimer was believed to have thought when he witnessed the world’s first nuclear explosion at the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, where the experimental detonation of the atomic device took place. “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst forth at once in the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One"(Bhagavad Gita 11-16), he thought, quoting that celebrated passage from his own translation of the Gita.
The next Gita passage Oppenheimer remembered was more ominous, but more meaningful for him. As he saw the giant mushroom cloud of the explosion menacingly rising up in the sky he said “I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.” That was his way of translating the passage kalo'smi loka-ksaya-krt pravrddho,’ taking kalo’smi to mean ‘Death am I’ instead of ‘Time am I’ as most Gita translators did.
“Time am I, the destroyer of the worlds, and I have come to engage all people. Even without you, all the soldiers here on both sides will be slain.” (Bhagavad Gita 11-32)
The quote is important as it clearly indicated the awesome destructive power that Oppenheimer thought his super weapon possessed. He was obviously proud of his achievement and, at that moment, there was no hesitation, no remorse, no thought of the hundreds of thousands of people who would instantly perish because of it. He likened himself to Arjuna, whose confusion and hesitation were removed by Krishna not only through his lengthy discourse, but also through the fearsome manifestation of the Supreme Self.
But the effect of the actual bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and of Nagasaki three days later was much beyond what Oppenheimer or any of his project colleagues had anticipated. The intensity of the radiating heat from the explosion was such that thousands of people simply melted into nothingness in seconds while vast multitudes suffered grievous burns and fatal radiation. The exact number of the victims of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was never known though estimates put them between 120,000 and 240,000, with millions more affected in subsequent years because of nuclear radiation. Even 75 years after the bombings now, the evil let out by ‘Little Boy,’ of Uranium vintage, and ‘Fat Man,’ of Plutonium make, was claiming lives and causing suffering from afflictions like cancer and genetic disorders
Oppenheimer was perhaps an unlikely head of a project for the development of the most lethal weapon in history known till then. His early education was in the Ethical Culture School in New York founded by the great social reformer and pacifist Prof Felix Adler and during his higher education in England he was a supporter of the anti-war movement. It was when he was working as Professor of Theoretical Physics in the University of California, Berkeley, that he was chosen to head the ‘Manhattan Project’ constituted for the development of nuclear bombs.
Was he ever in a dilemma over his heading a project for the development of a weapon of mass destruction the like of which the world had not seen till then? Probably no, as he was passionately attached to the Bhagavad Gita which gave him the moral justification to do what he was doing. In fact, he had learnt Sanskrit and read the Gita in its original language over a decade before he took the reins of the Manhattan Project. He had even translated the Gita into English in the early 1930s.
Though never involved with Hinduism in a religious sense, he always carried a worn out copy of the Gita to his workplace, obviously to draw sustenance from it and find a justification for doing something that many would have considered sinful. He used to quote the Gita and say he had a job to do and he would do it. It was his duty. He was only an instrument, nimitta-matram as Krishna told Arjuna (Bhagavad Gita 11.33) as the decision to make the bomb or use it was someone else’s. In justification of his role, Oppenheimer also used to quote Shakespeare in Hamlet, “There is a divinity that shapes our ends.” Much later, he would find solace from the fact that though the Atom Bombs dropped in Japan caused colossal human casualties and suffering, they did help to end the war.
Can the Gita then be interpreted as an exhortation to do one’s duty even if it were evil, like resorting to mass killing in an unimaginably horrendous way? Krishna’s persuasive advice to Arjuna to engage in war, ‘in keeping with his chaturvarnya station in society as a warrior,’ formed only part of the discourse that covered every aspect of human endeavor. But to Oppenheimer what was of great importance in the discourse was the advice to do one’s duty, whatever be the outcome of its execution. According to him, the job was his, but the responsibility for its execution was someone else’s.
The immediate effect of Krishna’s advice was definitely the all-out war at Kurukshethra that saw the annihilation of 18 akshauhinis of army formations in just 18 days. The Mahabharata says that the only survivors at Kurukshethra were eight people on the Pandava side and four on the Kaurava side, besides Krishna. From the elaborate details of the army formations described in the epic, the casualties could be estimated as 4.7 million foot soldiers and several lakhs of war elephants and horses, whose carcasses filled the vast battlefield. After such colossal losses, the war achieved its very limited purpose of installing the Pandavas in power.
Likewise, following Oppenheimer’s successful conclusion of the bomb making mission, hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children in two populous cities perished and thousands more were subjected to a life of untold suffering, but the evil that was let out helped to bring about an end to the World War.
In either case, was it not more akin to a Pyrrhic victory? In fact, all wars in history, and mythology, end at too great a cost for the winners as well as for the losers. Everywhere and every time it is a replication of the experience of King Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose lament was that with one more victory like the one he had he would be a totally ruined man.
Can the world afford another war of the magnitude of the Kurukshethra War with its super heroes and super weapons or of the Second World War? It goes without saying that if such a situation comes up, God forbid, the world will come to naught.
But unfortunately, war is in the air we breathe, it is part of our psyche, part of our imagination. With toy weapons and addictive war games we groom our children for war and violence, not peace. And as adults we make occasional war cries and try to implement our civilian plans and projects on a war footing. We do not circumscribe the usage of the word war at all. Instead we appear to be fascinated by it, using it wherever we can. For instance, even when we deal with a totally un-warlike situation such as a pandemic, we designate its Control Room as “War Room.”