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J. Robert Oppenheimer Explains How He Recited a Line from Bhagavad Gita–“Now I Am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”–Upon Witnessing the First Nuclear Explosion

J. Robert Oppenheimer Explains How He Recited a Line from Bhagavad Gita–“Now I Am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”–Upon Witnessing the First Nuclear Explosion

in History, Physics, Religion | September 4th, 2020 Leave a Comment

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No matter how little we know of the Hindu religion, a line from one of its holy scriptures lives within us all: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” This is one facet of the legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American theoretical physicist who left an outsized mark on history. For his crucial role in the Manhattan Project that during World War II produced the first nuclear weapons, he’s now remembered as the”father of the atomic bomb.” He secured that title on July 16, 1945, the day of the test in the New Mexican desert that proved these experimental weapons actually work — that is, they could wreak a kind of destruction previously only seen in visions of the end of the world.

“We knew the world would not be the same,” Oppenheimer remembered in 1965. “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 multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'” The translation’s grammatical archaism made it even more powerful, resonating with lines in Tennyson (“I am become a name, for always roaming with a hungry heart”), Shakespeare (“I am come to know your pleasure”), and the Bible (“I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness”).

But what is death, as the Gita sees it? In an interview with Wired, Sanskrit scholar Stephen Thompson explains that, in the original, the word that Oppenheimer speaks as “death” refers to “literally the world-destroying time.” This means that “irrespective of what Arjuna does” — Arjuna being the aforementioned prince, the narrative’s protagonist — everything is in the hands of the divine.” Oppenheimer would have learned all this while teaching in the 1930s at Berkeley, where he learned Sanskrit and read the Gita in the original. This created in him, said his colleague Isidor Rabi, “a feeling of mystery of the universe that surrounded him like a fog.”

The necessity of the United States’ subsequent dropping of not one but two atomic bombs on Japan, examined in the 1965 documentary The Decision to Drop the Bomb, remains a matter of debate. Oppenheimer went on to oppose nuclear weapons, describing himself to an appalled President Harry Truman as having “blood on my hands.” But in developing them, could he have simply seen himself as a modern Prince Arjuna? “It has been argued by scholars,” writes the Economic Times‘ Mayank Chhaya, “that Oppenheimer’s approach to the atomic bomb was that of doing his duty as part of his dharma as prescribed in the Gita.” He knew, to quote another line from that scripture brought to mind by the nuclear explosion, that “if the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One” — and perhaps also that splendor and wrath may be one.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

A Beatboxing Buddhist Monk Creates Music for Meditation

A Beatboxing Buddhist Monk Creates Music for Meditation

in Music, Religion | July 21st, 2020 Leave a Comment

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Most of us assume Japanese Buddhist monks to be silent types. In their personal lives they may well be, but if they want to go viral, they’ve got to log onto the internet and make some noise. This is the lesson one draws from some of the Buddhist figures previously featured here on Open Culture: Kossan, he of the Beatles and Ramones covers, or Gyōsen Asakura, the priest who performs psychedelic services soundtracked with electronic dance music. Depending on your taste in music, their performances may or may not induce the mental quiet one associates with Buddhist practice, and the music of Yogetsu Akasaka, the latest Japanese Buddhist monk to attain internet fame, may at first sound equally untraditional. But listen and you may well find yourself in a meditative state without even trying.

“The 37-year-old went viral in May, after posting his ‘Heart Sutra Live Looping Remix,’ a video that’s relaxing like ASMR, and engrossing like a DJ set,” writes Vice’s Miran Miyano. “With the loop machine, he layers sounds and chants all coming from one instrument — his voice.” A musician since his teens and a beatboxer since his early twenties, the Tokyo-based Akasaka became a monk five years ago, following the path taken by his father, an abbott at a temple in rural Iwate Prefecture.

“Before he was ordained in 2015, he belonged to a theatre company formed in Fukushima prefecture, northeast Japan, after the region was devastated by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami,” writes Richard Lord in the South China Morning Post. “He has also been a full-time busker in countries including the United States and Australia.”

A busker Akasaka remains, in a sense, albeit one who, from the corner of YouTube he’s made his own, can be heard across the globe. In addition to recordings like his hit version of the Heart Sutra, he’s also been live streaming performances for the past two months. Lasting up to nearly two hours, these streams provide Akasaka an opportunity to vary his musical as well as spiritual themes, bring different instruments into the mix, and respond to fans who send him messages from all over the world, mostly outside his homeland. “I think in Japan, people often associate Buddhism with funerals, and the sutra has a little bit of a negative and sad image,” he says to Vice. Indeed, as the saying goes, the modern Japanese is born Shinto, marries Christian, and dies Buddhist. But as Akasaka shows us, his tradition has something to offer all of us, no matter our nationality, in life as well.

via Metafilter

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Japanese Priest Tries to Revive Buddhism by Bringing Techno Music into the Temple: Attend a Psychedelic 23-Minute Service

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.