It’s unlikely, if not impossible, that J. Robert Oppenheimer and Jean Tatlock’s first tryst was punctuated by Tatlock asking the physicist to translate a portion of the Bhagavad Gita mid-coitus, as happens in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. In the film, the passage she picks just so happens to contain a quote Oppenheimer would make famous among English speakers: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The quote reemerges later in Oppenheimer, after the titular titan (Cillian Murphy) witnesses the awesome, terrible power of the atom bomb he’s shepherded into being. Again, Oppenheimer quotes this line from the Hindu scripture, the only words that seem able to capture what he and the other geniuses at the Manhattan Project have created.
Here, as in much of Oppenheimer, Nolan’s work is based in historical record. It’s unclear whether Oppenheimer actually said those words during or after July 1945’s Trinity Test, the first time an atomic bomb was detonated. (Though Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity Test—played in the film by Josh Peck—did reportedly respond to the outcome with a pithy quote of his own: “Now we are all sons of bitches.”)
20 years after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however, Oppenheimer appeared in a 1965 NBC News documentary called The Decision to Drop the Bomb. “We knew the world would not be the same,” he said onscreen. “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.”
Whether the quote actually crossed his mind at the time or came to him later—American Prometheus, the book on which Oppenheimer is based, notes that a friend of the physicist “once suggested that the quote sounded like one of Oppie’s ‘priestly exaggerations’”—Oppenheimer had a long and documented fascination with the Bhagavad Gita. He learned Sanskrit in the early 1930s while working at Berkeley, after befriending a professor of the language. “He liked things that were difficult,” another friend said, according to American Prometheus. Oppenheimer also had a “taste for the mystical, the cryptic”—things like the ancient Hindu text, a dialogue between a human hero named Prince Arjuna and Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu.
When Oppenheimer first read the text, he couldn’t have known the eerie relevance it would have to his future. “About to lead his troops into mortal combat,” historians Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin write by way of summary, “Arjuna refuses to engage in a war against friends and relatives. Lord Krishna replies, in essence, that Arjuna must fulfill his destiny as a warrior to fight and kill.”
Its eleventh verse is where Arjuna asks Krishna to show the prince his divine form. Krishna does, becoming something with “unlimited mouths and unlimited eyes…. If hundreds of thousands of suns rose up at once into the sky, they might resemble the effulgence of the Supreme Person in that universal form,” according to one translation.