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Oppenheimer, and “I Am Become Death”

Martin LeFevre: I waited to see “Oppenheimer” until after the “Barbenheimer” foolishness flamed out, the theaters were nearly empty again, and the tickets were a fifth of the original price.

Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” runs together and runs long. The acting is superb however, and the film has spectacular moments, such when “the gadget” is detonated, and the exchange between Oppie and Einstein at the end.

Though three hours is a long time to sit through a movie, it was a pleasant experience, beginning with the friendly, 20-something employees at the theatre. When the young man at the ticket counter was asked if there were assigned seats, he said, “Technically yes, but if you can’t sit wherever you like, I’m going to buy a lottery ticket.”

The film itself was filled with that kind of droll humor uttered by highly intellectual people, though it shaded into gallows humor just before Trinity’s big test. The eggheads determined that the chances were very low that the atom bomb’s test in the desert at Los Alamos would ignite a chain reaction in the atmosphere that would completely destroy the world. Even so, one of the scientists took bets.

It didn’t happen of course, though the movie implicitly makes the case that it metaphorically did, and we’re just living in limbo until all the nuclear bombs of man are used and the world is destroyed.   

The Trinity bomb, as tiny as it was compared to Edward Teller’s hydrogen bombs after World War II, was much more powerful than the theoretical physicists had predicted. So was the devastation and suffering unleashed on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But the psychological shock of two bombs completely destroying two Japanese cities didn’t change anything, as Oppenheimer hoped it would. Man’s penchant for more and more destructive weapons of war remains unquenched.  

The apocalyptic calculation that the Trinity test might ignite the earth’s atmosphere is the axis around which the film turns. Indeed, man’s destructiveness is behind the climactic scenes (literally as well as metaphorically), epitomized by Oppenheimer’s self-reported reaction to the Trinity test, taken from the Bhagavadgita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

In the context of the film, the line is at once the personal moral indictment Oppenheimer felt after the bombs were used on a prostrate Japan; an indictment of the egomaniacal Truman and an unfeeling America; and finally an indictment of man as a whole.

The “I am become Death” line from the Bhagavadgita is much more philosophically subtle than it would appear however. In the literal translation of the Gita verse, death means “world destroying time.” In other words, time is “the great destroyer of worlds.”

There is tremendous truth in that, though not time by the clock or even the purported “arrow of time.” To end time in the psychological and world destroying sense within oneself, one has to awaken insight at great depth.

As Stephen Thompson, who has spent over 30 years studying and teaching Sanskrit says, “The fourth argument in the Gita is really that death is an illusion, that we’re not born and we don’t die. That’s the philosophy, really. That there’s only one consciousness and that the whole of creation is a wonderful play.”

People could afford to comfort themselves with ideas of such complete detachment when the myth was written of Arjuna the soldier arguing with the god Lord Krishna before an earthly battle. But the true illusion is that the complete detachment that Lord Krishna insists Arjuna attain is only possible after death. And then only if the maxim, “reincarnation is a fact, but not the truth” is valid.

In other words, the gods, if they exist, may remain indifferent to humankind’s fate. But living human beings must care about what will happen if nuclear weapons are used again, or we are inwardly dead (which is a fate far worse than physical death).

Death is the one thing that is not an illusion. Nor is war, and the testing and threat of nuclear weapons.

Though I have my doubts about Oppenheimer (the man and the movie), I concur with the meaning Oppie apparently gave and director Nolan definitely gave to “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Which is, man has become the destroyer of worlds. That fact, in 2023, is undeniable. Our lifespans are limited; why doesn’t that impart urgency and responsibility to our lives? 

Buddhism and the Bhagavadgita offer no insight into how the evolutionary development of conscious symbolic thought, which gave humans the capacity for direct perception and reception of immanence, is also the greatest impediment to realizing our spiritual potential.

However as the ecological, psychological, social and spiritual crisis of man intensifies by the week it has become essential to understand how man could have the power to bring about the Sixth Extinction. And that’s if we avoid nuclear annihilation.  

The old faith in the Trinity, and the fatalism unleashed after scientific man’s Trinity, offer no insight and don’t light the way ahead. But insight is still available to us if we ask the right questions, and persist in asking them alone and together until insight ignites.


The real Oppenheimer?


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.