The dramatic and impactful mistranslation is for his intended audience—it allowed the translator (Arthur Ryder) and Oppenheimer to be equated with the God of the Bible who rains fire and brimstone to destroy an offending city like Sodom
Many Indians get excited when White People read Indian religious texts. Hindutva WhatsApp groups proudly shared how Oppenheimer, Father of Atomic Bomb, quoted lines from the Gita. But Oppenheimer quotes: “That I am death and destroyer of the world”. However, this is a mistranslation of Chapter 11, Verse 32, which states “Kala-asmi”, where Krishna identifies himself with Time. “I am time, destroyer of the world”.
The dramatic and impactful mistranslation is for his intended audience—it allowed the translator (Arthur Ryder) and Oppenheimer to be equated with the God of the Bible who rains fire and brimstone to destroy an offending city like Sodom. But Hindu gods, unlike Biblical gods, do not punish errant people or cities (despite popular misimagination of Hindutva political groups). There is no Judgement Day in Hinduism. God in Hinduism, God of Gita, is not a judge.
All religious books in the world can be misinterpreted. Human beings are very clever, and we can misinterpret everything in this world. So that’s very easy. You can read the Bible and misinterpret it. You can read the Quran and misinterpret it. You can read the Gita and misinterpret it. So, human beings are very smart. So the Left Wing can use the Gita and the Right Wing can use the Gita.
Gita is about “Dharma Sankat” or ethical and moral dilemma, what Oppenheimer was going through, where seemingly good actions can have bad repercussions, your duty can get you cursed. In Ramayana, Ram does dharma while killing Vali and Ravana and gets cursed by his widows. In Mahabharat, Krishna who does dharma is enabling the killing of Kauravas and gets cursed by their mother. Oppenheimer knows he is cursed by making the bomb. America is cursed by using the bomb to end a war against incorrigible fascists.
World War One was called the Great War and people thought after this war, all wars will come to an end. But another war was fought. When they threw the atomic bomb, even Oppenheimer said after this bomb, no war will be fought. After the devastation, he felt that people would stop fighting. But then there was the Cold War, the Gulf War, and now the Ukrainian war. Everywhere war continues. Indian philosophy says, after every war there will be another war. So Indian philosophy says that you don’t think Ahankar, or ego, will die because of a battle. It will keep coming back again and again and again. And that is what Kala-asmi, I am time, destroyer of worlds, destroyer of hope, but also creator of hopes. It is not just the destroyer, it is also the creator of the world. This part Oppenheimer does not talk about. Rebirth, the world will be reborn.
The Bible is about instructions. Gita is not about instructions, Hindutva political readings notwithstanding. At the end, Krishna tells Arjuna, do whatever you want to do. I’ve given you this knowledge, and do whatever you want to do. That’s the last line of the Bhagavad Gita, do whatever you want to do. Good or bad, all actions have consequences that we all have to bear. In the Bible, there is punishment by being cast into hell. In the Gita, there is endless rebirth till you repay your debt.
The author writes and lectures on the relevance of mythology in modern times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org