’Art & Soul by BN Goswamy: ‘Oppenheimer & what Gita means to the West’ : The Tribune India

’Art & Soul by BN Goswamy: ‘Oppenheimer & what Gita means to the West’

From Henry David Thoreau to Aldous Huxley, here is an overview of the utterances of some great thinkers on the ‘Bhagavadgita’

’Art & Soul by BN Goswamy: ‘Oppenheimer & what Gita means to the West’

A popular rendering of the Vishwarupa of Krishna-Vishnu. Arjuna having a miraculous darshan.

BN Goswamy

I read the Indian poem (the Bhagavadgita) for the first time when I was in my estate in Silesia and, while doing so, I felt a sense of overwhelming gratitude to God for having let me live to be acquainted with this work. It must be the most profound and sublime thing to be found in the world.

— Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835)

I owed — my friend (Emerson) and I owed — a magnificent day to the Bhagavadgita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.

— Max Mueller (1823-1900), 

Great Philologist and Writer on India

I have not seen ‘Oppenheimer’ yet — I speak here of the recent movie that has made Hokusai-like waves all over the world — but I have read about it, heard from close friends about it, have even been offered smuggled snippets of it to watch at home. Someday, of course, I will. But, in the meantime, there is crass noise about it which one cannot keep from hearing: nowhere else than in my own, beloved country. It is all about the great scientist, overawed himself by the sight of the world’s first atomic explosion which he had almost ‘fathered’, a giant cloud of unimagined proportions rising and covering vast areas of land, spelling doom and death everywhere, citing one of the greatest utterances in the ‘Bhagavadgita’, a text of which he was a devotee:

I Am Death/Time; Destroyer of the Worlds.

The words are spoken by Krishna as he reveals his true self to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. There is no boast in it: it is simply a statement of the many things that He is, one among those that cannot be counted.

A portrait of Robert Oppenheimer in his office

The moment at which Oppenheimer utters this verse in the movie might — it can be argued — have been chosen differently, or more delicately, but as I see it, Oppenheimer was not boasting about his having himself become Death — ‘Mahakaala’ or Time: ‘Kaalo asmi loka kshaya kritapraviddho’ — but as if Krishna’s great utterance suddenly rose to his lips, as pieces of poetry often do, involuntarily, if they are embedded within yourself.

All around ourselves, in our land, we daily see mountains of injustice, insolence, scams, abuse, accusation, pass us by but the moment a molehill swings into sight which can be built on to yield political or financial benefit, we get to work constructing a mountain out of it. ‘Our great text has been insulted’; ‘it is a disturbing attack on Hinduism’; ‘a deliberate assault on Indian civilisation’.

Henry David Thoreau, a portrait

Much can be said about this, and long tales can be told. But I would rather turn at this time to taking an overview — strictly with reference to the West, which is so quickly identified as the villain out to insult us and deprive us of our dignity — of the utterances of some great thinkers on the ‘Bhagavadgita’. I cite them as one who reveres the great text himself and gets a sense of exultation when I read a passage such as this by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), the highly celebrated American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher. His thoughts on simple living — which Gandhiji so admired — have moved generations. At one point, thinking of Walden Pond and the sacred Ganga, he says:

In the morning, I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavadgita since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well.

An overview of the atomic explosion, possibly as seen by Oppenheimer.

I end with the words of Aldous Huxley, another great mind, which he wrote while introducing Christopher Isherwood’s translation of the ‘Bhagavadgita’:

The Bhagavadgita is perhaps the most systematic scriptural statement of the Perennial Philosophy to a world at war, a world that, because it lacks the intellectual and spiritual prerequisites to peace, can only hope to patch up some kind of precarious armed truce, it stands pointing, clearly and unmistakably, to the only road of escape from the self-imposed necessity of self-destruction. For this reason we should be grateful to this translation...

Evidently, these words are not meant for those making rash noises about Oppenheimer and his reverence for the ‘Gita’ — that brilliant but conflicted man had read Sanskrit for years — nor for those who still have problems distinguishing the ‘Bhagavadgita’ from the ‘Bhagavata Purana’.

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