Religious people can be so touchy

Some Hindu groups in India are up in arms about a scene in the new film Oppenheimer, a biopic about physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the Manhattan project that developed the first atomic bomb in the top secret laboratory created just for that purpose in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Oppenheimer was a very cerebral person who taught himself Sanskrit and was fond of the classic work the Bhagavad Gita that is considered one of the holy scriptures of Hinduism. He said in a later interview that when he witnessed the first explosion of the bomb at the Trinity test site in the New Mexico desert and saw its explosive power, these words from the book “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” came to his mind. Here is a more complete quote from the interview of the reactions of the observers as they witnessed the mushroom cloud:

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed; a 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 multiarmed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” 

You can watch this clip from the TV interview.

That quote by Oppenheimer has now become firmly part of his legend, almost always repeated when stories are told about him. So it was inevitable that the new film would have that quote somewhere. The screenwriters and directors have chosen to have him say it during a sex scene. (Note: I have not seen the film.)

The blockbuster tells the story of Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the atomic bomb and includes a sex scene in which the tortured physicist, played by Cillian Murphy, reads the Bhagavad Gita to his lover Jean Tatlock, played by Florence Pugh.

The words he reads aloud, which he translates from Sanskrit, are those of the god Krishna – “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” – a quote the real Oppenheimer recalled after the first detonation of the atomic bomb he had invented. Oppenheimer taught himself Sanskrit and during his life, he spoke of drawing from the Hindu text.

This has, of course, triggered outrage from the religious right in India, primarily members of prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party the BJP.

The presence of the Bhagavad Gita in the middle of the sex scene prompted a member of India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government to call the film an “attack on Hinduism”.

In an open letter, Uday Mahurkar, an information commissioner, said the scene was “a direct assault on religious beliefs of a billion tolerant Hindus”. He alleged it amounted to “waging a war on the Hindu community” and almost appeared to be part of a “larger conspiracy by anti-Hindu forces”.

Anurag Thakur, the information and culture minister, was among those to demand that the scene be removed and called for action to be taken against India’s Central Board of Film Certification. The film was rated U/A, which recommends parental guidance for viewers aged under 12.

However, the film has proven to be popular with the general Indian audience, taking in the biggest box office opening day for a Hollywood film in India this year.

This outcry by Hindu nationalists is particularly odd since explicit sex acts are prominently depicted in the carvings that adorn some famous Hindu temples that would be considered in some circles to be hard-core pornography and yet is openly displayed to all people of all ages. God is also most likely to be invoked by people while engaged in sex.

I was struck by Uday Mahurkar speaking of his outrage on behalf of a “billion tolerant Hindus” when the BJP is an utterly intolerant group that seeks Hindu supremacy. But then, hypocrisy and lack of consistency tends to be standard among outspoken religious zealots. For them, religion is not a guide to a meaningful way of living but mainly a political weapon to be used to gain power and attack opponents.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”

    Translations (Chapter 11, verse 32 of the Bhagavad Gita) ) I’ve seen from Sanskrit say “I am time, the destroyer of worlds”. Not quite as dramatic.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    Gosh, I have forgotten who created the Kama Sutra! Anybody in the BJP care to remind me?

  3. moarscienceplz says

    @#1 Well, if you substitute ‘entropy’ for ‘time’ (which I think would be closer to the original intent), they become pretty much synonymous.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    @5: Sure, but Oppenheimer wasn’t thinking about the long, slow natural process, which seems to be the intended meaning in the verse.

  5. birgerjohansson says

    I am pretty sure Modi and his party are OK with nuclear weapons. They have not done any nuclear disarmament during their long stay in power.

    In regard to sex, I recall the top hindu god (Indra? i am not certain) was every bit as randy as Zeus.

  6. Deepak Shetty says

    Religious people can be so touchy

    I think most of my (mostly hindu, male) religious friends are more thinking “boobies” and any touchiness will usually be a fantasy involving themselves and the celebrities in question . And yes almost none of them actually understand the religious work they supposedly revere -- See for e.g. the Mahabharata -- way ahead of its time and mostly misunderstood.-

    On a more serious note -- The BJP needs to be seen as the custodian of Hindusim to maintain their vote bank and the above is mostly performative (They are also true believers) -- They need these issues to distract from other important issues ( for e.g. the rape of women in Manipur) and other sundry issues which they are both incapable off and unwilling to address.

  7. says

    My translated copy* has this line as “I am all-powerful Time which destroys all things” I think it prefer it, although it does not sound quite so dramatic. I did not find the Bhagavad Gita to be all that compelling when I read it a few decades back, but then I am not much for the supernatural. Like most religious texts, it just strikes me as fairy tales for grown-ups, or more accurately, fairy tales to keep grown-ups in line by the existing power structure.

    *Juan Mascaro, 1962

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    jimf @9:

    Like most religious texts, it just strikes me as fairy tales for grown-ups, or more accurately, fairy tales to keep grown-ups in line by the existing power structure.

    Depends what you mean by “existing power structure”. It inspired many Indians to oppose the existing power structure imposed by the British.

    It can also be interpreted in many ways, as can any ideological text. Can’t ever get away from the grifters, no matter the original intent.

  9. says

    “I am death, the destroyer of worlds” could be taken to mean “There will be death if you don’t do your duty.”

    “I am time, the destroyer of worlds” could be taken to mean “You only have so much time to do your duty, and it’s running out.”

    Not sure what that story was meant to say, never read the book.

    PS: It kinda looks like some Hindu bigots are trying to drum up a Toon Tantrum of their own, possibly to compete with Muslim bigots’ ability to whip up hysteria and outrage to distract attention from real problems they don’t want to address.

  10. Deepak Shetty says

    @Raging Bee

    It kinda looks like some Hindu bigots are trying to drum up a Toon Tantrum of their own, possibly to compete with Muslim bigots’ ability to whip up hysteria and outrage

    Yeah -- Fatwa envy is quote common in BJP supporters

  11. jaytheostrich says

    Time, destroyer of worlds makes more sense. It’s hard to kill an entire world.

  12. lanir says

    A lot of people seem to loudly find religion when they think they can manufacture a reason to be a jerk. The names change but as far as I can tell it’s always the same religion. All the parts that don’t let them be a jerk are discarded so it doesn’t really matter what religion they claim they’re representing. That’s all a lie, they just slap the name of a large religion on their actions so they can pretend all the people who follow that religion are backing them.

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