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Jul 15 2013

Cantina Quote o’ the Week: Bhagavad Gita

I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.                  

-Bhagavad Gita

This is another translation of the quote that crossed Robert J. Oppenheimer’s mind when he saw the first atomic bomb explode at Trinity site. I like it better than his translation: one word change, a slightly different impact: destroyer, while apt, doesn’t have quite the effect of shatterer. Destroyer is a word; shatterer gives you the cacophony of a world broken into a trillion pieces, the sharp sound of all those shards falling on the ground.

In any form, it was an apt quote for a world-shattering event. The world changed. The people who wielded this weapon now had the power to destroy it utterly. And these words, thousands of years old, were there to describe what it was, precisely, we had become.

I love the old Hindu myths. They’re so often whimsical, sometimes funny, comical, and then they take a sudden turn. They become vast and deep and terrifying and serious. Sometimes they’ve brought me to a new understanding of the world. I come away with different eyes, when I read them, and this is what all good stories should do.

Someday, I might even get around to reading the Bhagavad Gita in its entirety. Myths are wonderful things for a storyteller to mine, and there are stories in those non-Western tales that just beg to be enfolded into my own story world.

But this moment, it stands by itself. I can think of nothing more suitable to say whilst watching a mushroom cloud rise, and knowing what that means.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    Pierce R. Butler

    Ann Day’s version of the Bhagavad Gita is short and pleasant reading (though I can’t vouch for its accuracy as a translation).

    Swami Bhaktivedanta (founder of the Hare Krishna cult in the US) also produced a translation, which is a long and painful read: stodgy, pompous, and repetitious. Unless you find yourself forced to cross verbal swords with a Hare Krishna fundie, avoid that one.

    1. 1.1
      Lithified Detritus

      Ann Day’s version of the Bhagavad Gita is short and pleasant reading (though I can’t vouch for its accuracy as a translation).

      I couldn’t find that online – do you know of a link?

      1. Pierce R. Butler

        Alas, I’m striking out on that one too.

        My memory of this dates from the ’70s, and includes that the author was a poet – so it seems most likely, judging from my amazon.com search, that I’m misremembering the name of BG translator Ann Stanford.

        1. Lithified Detritus

          Thanks!

          Some of my memories from the 70′s are a bit hazy, too. ;-)

  2. 2
    Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach

    I’m afraid I’m biased against the Bhagavad Gita, despite not having read much of it, as a result of a long frustrating internet argument against a twit who insisted that the moon is actually 800,000km further away than the sun, and cited the Bhagavad Gita as his proof. By Odin, that man was irritating!

  3. 3
    rq

    I remember the few stories from the Bhagavad Gita we read in high school as being highly entertaining, but somewhat weird and mysterious to someone with a monotheistic Christian upbringing. Fascinating stuff, especially the thinking and the philosophies behind many of the stories – just… different!
    Then I got into some stuff about how Hindu mythology actually predicted quantum physics and was totally compatible with it and…
    Anyway. This is one of my quotes ever, in this wording, probably for the same reasons you name. Especially with the lines right before it:

    If the radiance of a thousand suns
    Were to burst at once into the sky,
    That would be like the splendor of the Mighty One…
    I am become Death,
    The shatterer of Worlds.

    1. 3.1
      Lithified Detritus

      If the radiance of a thousand suns
      Were to burst at once into the sky,
      That would be like the splendor of the Mighty One…
      I am become Death,
      The shatterer of Worlds.

      Wow. Yes, that makes it even more to the point.

  4. 4
    Trebuchet

    I have become death, the shatterer of pumpkins.

    Sorry!

    1. 4.1
      rq

      ‘Tis the season, or not quite yet? :)

      1. Trebuchet

        Getting close. Two months to go. I’m building.

        1. Lithified Detritus

          Good news, that you have recovered enough to be able to build.

  5. 5
    Acolyte of Sagan

    I love the old Hindu myths. They’re so often whimsical, sometimes funny, comical, and then they take a sudden turn. They become vast and deep and terrifying and serious. Sometimes they’ve brought me to a new understanding of the world. I come away with different eyes, when I read them, and this is what all good stories should do

    I’m glad you said that; I’ve had a rather large and imposing-looking book on Hindu myths lying around for a couple of years, and you’ve finally given me the inspiration to dip in to it.
    Thank you (I think, I’ll let you know).

  6. 6
    Gregory in Seattle

    If you are interested in non-western myths being mined, have you ever read Nalo Hopkinson? Very interesting fantasy and science fiction drawing from Caribbean stories.

    1. 6.1
      Acolyte of Sagan

      Not read that one, but as one who reads on average two books a week, thanks for the recommendation. I recall as a child buying a book of Japanese legends of ghosts and gods; it was one of the most gruesome things I’ve ever read, but utterly fascinating. I just wish I could remember the title, ‘cos I’d love to track down a copy to scare the grandsons with when they’re a little older.

      1. rq

        Neil Gaiman’s The Anansi Boys looks at some non-Western mythology, too.

  7. 7
    aziraphale

    I have my doubts about the Gita. There’s wonderful language in it and some fine stories. But at the centre of it is Arjuna, about to fight in a battle against some of his friends and kinsmen. He says to his charioteer (who happens to be the Lord Krishna) “I can’t bear the thought of killing these noble men. It would be better to die myself, or go and live in poverty”. Krishna says (in much more beautiful words) “You and they have lived many times before and will live many times again. You can only destroy their bodies, not their souls. Therefore, do your duty, go and fight.”

    Arjuna goes and fights.

    I can’t help feeling that, for those of us who don’t expect to be reincarnated, that’s a bad example to follow.

  8. 8
    sparks

    Primates with plutonium. The only thing scarier was Teller and Ulam running the numbers on The Super and then making it deliverable via aircraft.

    Good christ on a crutch.

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