Reema Patel
6 min readApr 27, 2024

An Arjuna Moment? What Oppenheimer might have concluded from the Mahabharata on ethics and war

The film Oppenheimer depicts the moral ambivalence with which J. Robert Oppenheimer grapples with his (and others’ creation) of the Atomic Bomb. Oppeinheimer was deeply influenced by Sanskrit literature, which became apparent through his use of a (loosely) translated Sanskrit verse — ‘Now I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds’. (In actual fact, the closest translation is — I am all-powerful Time which destroys all things, and I have come here to slay these men.’)

The quotation comes from the over 2000 year old 1.8m word Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, of which a very small (but spiritually significant) fragment is called the Bhagavad Gita, itself a notable contribution to the ethical literature from India on Just War, as well as a religiously significant text in Hinduism. Whilst it is very clear that Oppenheimer had a copy of, and had read the Bhagavad Gita, it seems unlikely that he was fully across the entire story as set out in the wider book — the Mahabharata. Whilst much has been written about Oppenheimer and the Gita’s central characters Arjuna and Krishna, I want to take the opportunity to broaden the lens out to consider the Mahabharata itself, which deals with the aftermath of the types of decisions these individuals have all had to confront.

In using this Sanskrit quote, Oppenheimer seems to invoke a connection between his own context as a scientist in WWII, and the context of Prince Arjuna, a skilled archer and central actor in the Kurukshetra battlefield, which is the site of battle between two clans of brothers — the Pandavas and Kauravas and the location in which the Bhagavad Gita takes place. What is to become an 18 day battle follows decades of unresolved peaceful and passive-aggressive attempts to resolve the rulership of the kingdom of Hastinapur. By this point, the stakes are high, and it doesn’t look like not fighting is much of an option with all other options having been exhausted. The battle is yet to begin, but once it does, it is horrific, ugly, and will claim all rules of established ethical conduct and innumerable lives. Arjuna doesn’t know this — yet.

Prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna debate the ethics of action and non action (karma yoga).

Before the battle begins, and in what I describe as an ‘Arjuna moment’ at this pivotal point, Arjuna is beset by immense moral ambivalence. And so, before beginning the war, he asks his best friend, cousin and charioteer Krishna to drive him out, so he may see the field of battle before it begins;

‘When I see all my kinsmen, Krishna, who have come here on this field of battle, Life goes from my limbs and they sink, and my mouth is sear and dry; a trembling overcomes my body, and my hair shudders in horror…And I see forebodings of evil….Because I have no wish for victory, nor for a kingdom, nor for its pleasures…..

Facing us in the field of battle are teachers, fathers, sons, grandsons, grandfathers, wives’ brothers, mothers’ brothers and fathers of wives. These I do not wish to slay, even if I myself am slain. Not even for the kingdom of the three worlds : how much less for a kingdom of the earth!’

Krishna’s response to this is to espouse a theory of karma yoga (the yoga of selfless action, performed for the benefit of others). He distinguishes conduct as itself the site of obligation and an act of sacrifice (yagna), distinct from the privilege of renunciation (not exclusively available, he says, to most people, especially a warrior such as Arjuna). He gives Arjuna relatively short shrift for his ‘Arjuna moment’, tells him that his personal attachment to his kingdom and his personal attachment to his relatives on the other side of battle are not morally relevant — and points out that failing to engage in the war is itself an action that will also have moral consequences for those who would otherwise find themselves ruled by immoral rulers who would take advantage of Arjuna’s refraining from action — (non action is not distinct from action):

Not by refraining from action does man attain freedom from action…for not even for a moment can a man be without action….’.

In a final effort to convince Arjuna, he then reveals himself as an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu, with the quotation Oppenheimer is now famous for lifting directly from the Gita — ‘I am all-powerful Time which destroys all things, and I have come here to slay these men.’

The parallel drawn here by Oppenheimer seems clear — choosing to sit the war out, or otherwise not developing the atomic bomb was not a viable moral or ethical option for the U.S.A and Allies in the context of totalitarian powers willing to use whatever they can or might be able to develop at their disposal. In the Oppenheimer film, this is a constraint that is made evident by the ‘race against time’ that all actors in WWII seem to be engaged in towards developing the atomic bomb. The ethical question is not about whether Allied scientists should take steps to develop the Atomic Bomb or not, but rather, about the right and most appropriate uses of the bomb in the circumstances, given that it is very likely it will be created regardless. In the Gita — it is very obvious the war will happen regardless of what Arjuna chooses individually to do. How it will unfold, however, comes down in part to Arjuna’s own decision making about whether to participate or not. In a sense, the use of the Gita and its exposition of karma yoga offered to Oppenheimer a justification for the development of the Atomic Bomb, as well as the very clear realisation of the wide ranging, morally ambivalent consequences of pursuing its discovery. It also perhaps set out the limits of Oppenheimer’s own control, also stressed in the film, in Truman’s response to Oppenheimer’s claim that he feels he has blood on his hands. So far, so good.

Krishna attacks Bhishma, Arjuna’s grandfather, with a divine weapon, the Sudharsan Chakra, on the ninth day of war. He is stopped from killing him by Arjuna.

Or was it? What of the rest of the Mahabharata story that Oppenheimer had not then gone on to read? If he’d turned the pages past the Bhagavad Gita, then perhaps his interpretation of his own actions would have been quite different. He would have realised that the war Arjuna entered into willingly, persuaded by the divine revelation from Krishna, and other exhortations from Krishna would have resulted in the deaths of millions in just 18 days, with a remainder of just 11 men left alive from both parties by the end. Arjuna’s own son is entrapped into a deadly military formation (the Chakrayuvha), and killed simultaneously by six warriors in a breach of all codes of war, and following this event, the supposedly virtuous five sons of Pandava who are the few to outlive the remainder of their peers themselves do not refrain from breaking a single rule in the just war rulebook by the very end.

The consequences of this sort of reasoning seems to be a very slippery slope indeed, and the Mahabharata doesn’t exactly refrain from unfolding these conclusions from the aftermath. The ‘winner’, Prince Yudhisthira, and Arjuna’s older brother, is racked by guilt from the consequences of the war; and all five of the Pandava brothers end up going on a long pilgrimage for their sins following their 36 year reign of the kingdom. One gets the sense that, far from a justification of the interventions of skilled warriors and all dialogue about duty and righteousness in the Bhagavad Gita, the text Oppenheimer was so close to — they, like Oppenheimer, never quite fully managed to come to terms with the effects of the consequences of their decisions or the realities of their bloodshed.

If anything, once you turn the pages past the Bhagavad Gita, the rest of the story seems as much an indictment of these types of actions or behaviours, not an unequivocal justification of them.

The moral of the story? The Arjuna (and Oppenheimer) moment and continued sense of moral angst and anxiety is very real, as is the very understandable (and legitimate desire) to pause, reflect and debate before an intervention — especially an intervention in which both action and non-action lead to equally questionable ethical conclusions.

Reema Patel

Participation/deliberative democracy/futures/emerging tech specialist. Researcher at Ipsos and at ESRC Digital Good Network.