Unless one has been living under a rock, everyone is aware that the current talk of the cine town is Oppenheimer, the biopic on the Father of the atomic bomb, directed by Christopher Nolan. The movie premiered in India on July 21 and had a record-breaking opening weekend with a box office collection of Rs 13.50 crore in India on the very first day. The record accounts for the highest opening weekend ever for a Christopher Nolan film and a non-Franchise Hollywood film. However, there is more to the renowned physicist’s connection to the Indian subcontinent that the film does not reveal.
While the film depicts one short scene where Oppenheimer recites a line from the Bhagavad Gita, it does not completely encapsulate his innate fascination with the Hindu scripture or Hindu spiritualism. I mean we shouldn’t also expect a three-hour biopic to fit in every aspect of the man’s life. The book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, on which the biopic is also based, mentions how Oppenheimer found parallelisms between philosophies mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita and his own views about the nature of the world we live in.
The book also mentions that while studying at Berkley University, Oppenheimer reached out to Arthur Ryder, the only Sanskrit scholar at the university, to tutor him in Sanskrit so that he could read the Gita in the original. Now thanks to the film, the line "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds," has reached the zenith of mass popularity. However, the film does not quite contextualize correctly when Oppenheimer quoted this line from the Bhagavad Gita. According to the book, Oppenheimer said this after the first successful test of the atomic bomb in New Mexico referred to as the Trinity Test (July 16, 1945). It was then that he realized the magnitude of devastation that his invention was capable of, which filled him with regret.
Watch the video below made years after the Hiroshima bombing where Oppenheimer talks about his reading of the Bhagavad Gita and his invention. You will see a man plunged into the deepest caverns of guilt. When he refers to Lord Vishnu and the prince ( Arjun), my understanding is that he refers to himself as the prince and Lord Vishnu is a metaphor for the Government of the United States of America.
After the end of the Second World War, Oppenheimer was celebrated vehemently by his nation and the fellow scientific community. However as the days of the Cold War crept in, he was discredited and even falsely accused of being a Soviet spy because of the communist ties in his youth. The year was 1954, when the Cold War was at its peak, and there was an ongoing witch hunt against Oppenheimer by many members who belonged to the higher echelons of American politics. In the book Jawaharlal Nehru Civilizing A Savage World, written by Nayantara Sahgal, the niece of our nation’s first Prime Minister, the author mentions one particular phone call that was made during that time by Oppenheimer to deliver a secret message to Nehru. It is said in the book that renowned Bengali poet and academic Amiya Chakravarti acted as a liaison between the physicist and Nehru.
No one can confirm for sure if that secret phone call was the sole reason behind the fact that Nehru offered Indian citizenship to Oppenheimer as a getaway to escape the terrible accusations that were plaguing him in America at that time. However, the physicist was a patriotic man and did not consider Nehru’s proposition. There is also a key historical figure that must be talked about while understanding Oppenheimer’s connection to the Indian subcontinent. It is none other than the renowned Indian physicist, Homi Bhabha, the father of the Indian Nuclear Program.
The relationship between Homi Jehangir Bhabha and J Robert Oppenheimer was one of intellectual admiration and scientific collaboration. Both brilliant minds in the field of physics, Bhabha and Oppenheimer crossed paths during their time at the University of Cambridge, where Oppenheimer was Bhabha's senior. In 1936, Bhabha, along with Walter Heitler, published the Bhabha-Heitler theory of cosmic ray showers, which preceded a similar theory proposed independently by Oppenheimer. This early encounter laid the groundwork for a lasting connection between the two physicists.
Bhabha's fascination with cosmic rays and nuclear physics mirrored Oppenheimer's interests, and as the Manhattan Project unfolded, Bhabha sought to engage with Oppenheimer on scientific matters. Although the specter of the systematic discrediting of Oppenheimer loomed during the Cold War years and added a layer of complexity to their interactions, Bhabha remained undeterred. He leaned on his Western networks and sought Oppenheimer's assistance in building a research team at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). On March 1944 letter Homi Bhabha wrote a letter to the Tata Trust asking for support in setting up a ‘School of Physics’. This was the foundation responsible for Pokhran-II, India’s three-stage nuclear program, as we know it today. It is safe to say that Bhabha's vision and determination to establish India's nuclear program were bolstered by his respect for Oppenheimer's scientific acumen and guidance.
Beyond Homi Bhabha, a constellation of Indian scientists interacted with and sought inspiration from Oppenheimer. Figures such as Debendra Mohan Bose, Satyendra Nath Bose, Daulat Singh Kothari, Piara Singh Gill, and Meghnad Saha played instrumental roles in the development of modern physics in India. Alladi Ramakrishnan, a young physicist from the University of Madras, also benefited from Oppenheimer's mentorship, as he was offered a fellowship to spend time at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study.
Additionally, India invited Oppenheimer, along with other renowned foreign scientists, to visit Indian universities and research institutions. Despite the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Oppenheimer's inability to visit India, his connections with the Indian scientific community left a lasting impact on the country's scientific pursuits. The interactions between Oppenheimer and these Indian scientists exemplify the cross-pollination of ideas and the global significance of scientific collaborations during this transformative period in the history of physics and nuclear research.