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What links Oppenheimer to an Indian lawyer from the 19th century?

The phrase from the ‘Gita’ that J. Robert Oppenheimer used is found in lawyer-activist Kashinath Trimbak Telang’s translation

Cillian Murphy in a still from ‘Oppenheimer’. Photo: IMDB
Cillian Murphy in a still from ‘Oppenheimer’. Photo: IMDB

"I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” These words have become synonymous with J. Robert Oppenheimer—a translation of a verse in the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna has shown Arjuna his full form in all its terrifying glory. Oppenheimer’s untiring efforts had given the Allies the atomic bomb during World War II, and seeing its destructive potential after the firsts test may have filled his mind with dread and foreboding.

This verse of the Gita perhaps conveys the sense of awe and fear Oppenheimer—the subject of a new film—must have felt when he first saw the power of the atom unleashed in the US’ Nevadan desert.

However, if you pick up the nearest copy of the Bhagavad Gita in English, you are unlikely to find those exact words. Oppenheimer was referring to the shloka kālo ’smi lokakṣayakṛt pravṛddho lokān samāhartum iha pravṛttaḥ” (Canto 11, Verse 32) but most translators do not translate this verse into English in the way Oppenheimer does.

Of over two dozen translations compiled by David Auerbach, a vast majority use the word “Time” instead of “Death” in translating this verse. Swami Srila Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon), translates it thus: “Time I am, destroyer of the worlds, and I have come to engage all people.” Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a philosopher himself and India’s second president, translates it thus: “Time am I, world-destroying, grown mature, engaged here in subduing the world.” While neither of these well-known translations were available to Oppenheimer, even the versions in his time largely use the words “time” instead of “death”.

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The very first English translator of the Bhagavad Gita, Charles Wilkins, translates this verse as: “I am Time, the destroyer of mankind, matured, come hither to seize at once all these who stand before us.” Shri Purohit Swami, an early 20th century scholar whose translation of the Upanishads from Sanskrit to English was recently presented to US President Joe Biden by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, translates this as: “I have shown myself to thee as the Destroyer who lays waste the world and whose purpose is destruction.”

So whose translation was Oppenheimer relying on when he said, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”? One possible answer is Arthur W. Ryder, Oppenheimer’s Sanskrit teacher at the University of California, Berkeley. But his translation of this verse reads: “Death am I, and my present task Destruction.” Close but different enough from Oppenheimer’s not to be the direct inspiration.

However, there’s another translator who used almost the exact words that make up Oppenheimer’s quote—Kashinath Trimbak Telang.

Telang, who wrote a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita for Max Müller’s Sacred Books Of The East, translates this verse as: “I am death, the destroyer of the worlds, fully developed, and I am now active about the overthrow of the worlds.” Published in 1886, Telang’s translation would have certainly been known to Oppenheimer and it is quite likely this that came to his mind when that mushroom cloud formed over Nevada. For Sacred Books Of The East, referred to by Sanskrit scholars around the world, would have been in print for nearly 40 years by the time Oppenheimer read it. Something about Telang’s evocative translation of this verse perhaps stayed with Oppenheimer even though it may not have been the most popular one. Telang himself is a somewhat forgotten figure in India.

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He deserves much wider recognition, for he was not only a Sanskrit scholar but a politician, a social reformer and a lawyer in 19th century Bombay (now Mumbai), throwing himself into each role full time and accomplishing a great deal before his untimely death at the age of 43. He was one of the first Indians appointed as a judge of the Bombay high court and is considered by P.B. Vaccha, the pre-eminent historian of that high court, as “the most versatile and brilliant of the judges of the Bombay High Court”. He had a brilliant career as a lawyer (even in times when Indian clients preferred to trust British lawyers with their cases in the high court) and was appointed as a judge by the colonial government.

Though Hindu, his appointment was welcomed by Parsis and Muslims thanks to his tireless political activism. He freely and openly criticised several measures of the government in speeches and writings. He supported the progressive Ilbert Bill of 1883, which stipulated that Indian judges could try Europeans, against backlash from Europeans in India and was in favour of age of consent laws despite orthodox Hindu opposition. With Pherozeshah Mehta and Badruddin Tyabji, he proved a formidable opponent of “every reactionary measure in the legislative, political or social sphere”, as Vaccha puts it.

Yet, like Oppenheimer, he found himself morally conflicted on many occasions. As Abhinav Chandrachud points out in An Independent, Colonial Judiciary, he accepted the high court judgeship even though it meant his political activism would be neutered. Even as he publicly opposed child marriage, his own daughter was married at the age of eight—an act he himself says would disappoint his friends and considers indefensible. Unfortunately, no detailed biography of Telang exists and we are forced to guess his motives and his conflicts through clues in his speeches and writing.

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In that way, perhaps Oppenheimer and Telang are not very different from the true protagonist of the Gita—Arjuna himself. While Krishna delivers the philosophical discourse, it is Arjuna whose moral conflict sparks the discussion. It is he who undergoes the true transformation during the discourse, coming to a better understanding of his role and purpose in life. Yet it is Arjuna’s moral quandary that prompts the exposition in the Bhagavad Gita—a feeling that Oppenheimer and Telang would have certainly wrestled with in their lives.

(This article wouldn’t have been possible without the help of my brother-in-law, James Carr).

Alok Prasanna Kumar is a lawyer and co-founder of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

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