Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Death, the destroyer of worlds

Lots of people know Oppenheimer's quote about being present at the Trinity test, the first man-made nuclear explosion: 

"We knew the world would not be the same. Few people laughed, few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that, one way or another."
I've often wondered if he had originally been thinking of an earlier part of Chapter XI:

If a thousand suns were to rise
and stand in the noon sky, blazing,
such brilliance would be like the fierce 
brilliance of that mighty Self.

Arjuna saw the whole universe
enfolded, with its countless billions
of life-forms, gathered together
in the body of the God of gods.


I see you everywhere, with billions
of arms, eyes, bellies, faces,
without end, middle or beginning,
your body the whole universe, Lord.

Crowned, bearing mace and discus,
you dazzle my vision, blazing
in the measureless, massive, sun-flame
splendor of your radiant form.

You are the deathless, the utmost
goal of all knowledge, the world's base,
the guardian of the eternal
law, the primordial Person.

I see you beginningless, endless,
infinite in power, with a billion
arms, the sun and moon
your eyeballs, the flames of your mouth

lighting the whole universe with splendor.
You alone fill all space

But the chapter gets much darker almost immediately:

As you touch the sky, many-hued,
gape-mouthed, your huge eyes blazing,
my innards tremble, my breath
stops, my bones turn to jelly.

Seeing your billion-fanged mouths
blaze like the fires of doomsday,
I faint, I stagger, I despair.
Have mercy on me, Lord Vishnu!

All Dhritarashtra's men
and all these multitudes of kings--
Bhishma, Drona, Karna,
with all our warriors behind them--

are rushing headlong into
your hideous, gaping, knife-fanged
jaws; I see them with skulls crushed,
their raw flesh stuck to your teeth.

As the rivers in many torrents
rush toward the ocean, all
these warriors are pouring down 
into your blazing mouths.

As moths rush into a flame 
and are burned in an instant, all
beings plunge down your gullet
and instantly are consumed.

You gulp down all worlds, everywhere
swallowing them in your flames,
and your rays, Lord Vishnu, fill all
the universe with dreadful brilliance.

Who are you, in this terrifying form?
Have mercy, Lord; grant me even
a glimmer of understanding
to prop up my staggering mind.


I am death, shatterer of worlds,
annihilating all things.
With or without you, these warriors
in their facing armies will die.

(Stephen Mitchell translation)

Hard to imagine a verse more fitting the dawn of the atomic age.

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