“Now I become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” the verse from the Hindu sacred text Bhagavad Gita popularized by Julius Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the first American atomic bomb, symbolizes chillingly awesome and dreadful significance of the most important, the most life-changing event of the twentieth century, the beginning of the Nuclear War Era. Understanding it, Oppenheimer is not celebrating such a great achievement in the field of science.
Being a man of reason, Oppenheimer, along with other prominent scientists, was trying to warn the people about the imminent danger of reproducing his creation for military use, yet, as never before, the number and the degree of the destructive force of nuclear weapons became the measure of one’s political power in the global arena. For many decades, the stand out between the Soviet Union and the United States was highly politicized by the conflicting governments. The pressure to be “politically correct” was the biggest obstacle for a researcher, who was trying to represent the facts in an unbiased way. Before or after the Cold War, this topic always was one of the most popular topics in scholarly circles and student’s research papers; however, this paper is an epistemological experiment. The goal of this work is to collect both, the popularized information and the information that was overlooked by mainstream historians; analyze it from the position of a “New Age person,” and to come up with three hypotheses, which could reveal a new edge in understanding the significance of nuclear power today. The idea of the atomic bomb as a weapon of mass destruction lies in Hindu scriptures, which more likely gave Nazis inspiration to persuade scientists to research substances and methods of their use that would produce an explosion of immense power. The moral burden with which the nuclear physicists, the creators of the nuclear bomb, had to live called for the revision of certain collective values, such as nationalism, patriotism, duty, and faith to one’s homeland or nation, which is important to understanding Globalization as a fusion of world cultures. The Cold War and everyday existence under the threat of nuclear Holocaust produced a favorable social environment for the rise of New Age culture and the free market of philosophies and religions, similar to one that existed during the times of the Ancient Roman society.
Brahmastra and Nuclear Weapons
In spite of widely cited Hitler’s mocking remarks made in public about occult and mysticism, Hitler himself and many high ranking Nazis were involved in secret occult organizations and were influenced by German historians of the beginning of the twentieth century (Schwartzwaller). The Sanskrit studies of German linguists and historians led to translations of the prominent Hindu scriptures, including epic Mahabharata, the history of Arians. In the beginning of the twentieth century Germany was saturated with Sanskrit and Indology scholars, and knowledge of Sanskrit became a sign of intelligence, a status quo of an “Arian.” Many scientists, even those in the field of “hard sciences,” found a new source of inspiration and wisdom in ancient Asian thought (Hijiya). Oppenheimer, the American physicist who studied in Europe and read Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, was one of these people. In Mahabharata, Arjuna, a prince and a military leader, had in his possession a powerful weapon known as Brahmastra. The description of its destructive powers resembles these of a nuclear bomb. Mahabharata says that the weapon could “reduce to ashes the entire race,” which refers to a population of a region. After the explosion the corpses were burnt and became unrecognizable. Survivors would experience hair and nail loss. The environmental damage would last for many years, and it also says that food and soil would become infected (Berlitz).
The scientists who studied nuclear fusion could predict the aftermath of using an atomic bomb since the effects of radiation on humans, animals and the environment were well documented in the early decades of the twentieth century. SS Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler simply could not escape drawing the similarities between such an “inspirational” image of a super-weapon from Hindu scriptures and the idea of using radioactivity in warfare. Himmler was frequently visiting a death camp Mauthausen-Gusen, where many Jewish physicists and chemists were imprisoned. The large underground tunnel structure shows very high radiation levels, which may be due to the Nazi’s nuclear experiments. Coincidently, Himmler had an unusually fanatical fascination with Hinduism, and he was known to carry a copy of Bhagavad Gita with him. A German historian Mathias Tietke quotes from Himmler’s personal letter, “Kshatriyakaste, that is how we need to be. This is the salvation” (Ghosh). Kshatriyakaste was the kaste of the military ruling elite in ancient India, which Nazi leaders tried to emulate. Moreover, Himmler often used Bhagavad Gita to justify Nazi’s actions, identifying himself with Arjuna, who was persuaded by God to fight in the righteous war.
More likely, Himmler and other Nazis fantasized about the mystical Bramashtra as a suitable weapon for powerful Kshatriyas. He also believed that as a Kshatriya, he had to follow his duty without attachment to the fruit of action. Interestingly, Oppenheimer used the same concept in the spiritual doctrine of the Bhagavad Gita to deal with his own moral burden years after the success of the Manhattan Project.
Moral Responsibility of the Atomic Bomb Creators and Globalization
Oppenheimer and Heisenberg, the American and Nazi master-minds behind the historical nuclear projects, conducted their own wars against human ignorance. Heisenberg, a quiet and reserved person, in the beginning of the Second World War, knew that the atomic weapon could be developed as fast as it was developed later in the Manhattan Project. In September 1941, he met with Niels Bohr. Heisenberg sketched him a secret experimental reactor, which could produce the necessary substance in a short period of time. According to the historian Thomas Powers, at that meeting “…he (Heisenberg) tried to propose to Bohr an agreement by the world’s physicists to scuttle bomb programs by telling authorities—German and Allied like—that building a bomb would be too big, too difficult, too uncertain a project” (480).
Although Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is one of the fundamentals of the modern quantum mechanics, a similar approach applied to politics and human nature worked only for him but not for others. Using the uncertainty as an excuse for delays, he successfully guided “the German atomic research effort into a broom closet, where the scientists tinkered until the war ended” (Powers). Bohr did not support Heisenberg’s position that the issue of using science by ignorant governments had to be dealt with using clever arrangements and psychological manipulations, although they remained friends even after the war finished. Shortly after that 1941 meeting, Bohr contacted Albert Einstein, who, in turn, alarmed Roosevelt. As Einstein himself, Oppenheimer, at that point, had been in the state of mind that human reason would prevail over human ignorance—soon, he would reach out to Bhagavad Gita to seek explanations to and justifications of what he had done.
The source of the Oppenheimer’s anxiety was the crucial ethical dilemma. Perhaps, while watching the devastating footage from Hiroshima, he dreadfully thought that in the beginning of the war he wanted to build an atomic bomb to fight evil, but it turned out that he and the other scientists of the Manhattan Project empowered the evil. Struggling with the moral burden, Oppenheimer found peace of mind in Bhagavad Gita, which says, “In the material world, one who is unaffected by whatever good or evil he may obtain, neither praising it nor despising it, is firmly fixed in perfect knowledge” (Bhagavad Gita as It Is 2:57).
As in the example of Heisenberg and Oppenheimer, the differences between good and evil in the global political arena appear to be very subtle. The world’s intellectual elite had already realized it and acted as one community without borders, pledging their allegiances to the laws of the universal moral code and taking responsibility for the actions of political leaders who unjustifiably used scientific achievements to attain power. The following generations of westerners, especially the generation of Baby Boomers in America, were driven to erase boundaries among different cultures, and, just like the intellectuals of the previous generation, they welcomed the global fusion of ideas, which actually started the process of Globalization.
Cold War and the New Age Culture
The Cold War and the New Age culture are tightly interconnected beyond the chronological order. To explain such a connection, the New Age culture should be defined first. The New Age phenomenon started in the seventies, and it is associated with spirituality, journey to self-discovery, quest for life purpose, and so on. Most believe that New Age comes from Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, but many scholars include modern Christian mega-churches and other attempts of mainstream religions to appeal to younger populations in the New Age category (Melton). Historian Howard Resnick in his 2012 Stanford lecture “Science and Spirituality” describes the tendency towards coexistence of different religions and philosophies in modern society as the “free market of ideas” similar to the one which existed during the Roman Empire before Christianity became the dominant religion in Western Europe. Similarly to the present situation, ancient Romans enjoyed religious pluralism during many centuries. One of the common practices was that emperors sponsored services equally in the official Greek-Roman temples and in the temples of various foreign religions, including Eastern and Egyptian ones, before their major military endeavors to ensure the success of their conquering campaigns. Different religions were viewed by Romans as “the different channels to the divine power—and one can never have enough of the divine power” (Resnick).
The arrival of Eastern religions to the West in the last trimester of the twentieth century, first of all, was fueled by the demand for the variety of spiritual practices. In some ways, Baby Boomers were a cohort of people who were trying to escape the uniformity of the traditional American society based on consumerism, so some of them abandoned their traditional Judeo-Christian institutions while many of them were coming to new religions, including New Age Judeo-Christian religions, from atheistic backgrounds. Why was there such a need for spirituality at that point of time? The answer would be rather complex taking in considerations many sociological, historical, and political factors. In connection to the Cold War, the answer is simply based on the basic human need to survive by remaining sane under the fear of a possible nuclear Holocaust. For the first time in history many people had to adopt psychologically to the new type of social and biological thread—one’s life could be interrupted so suddenly and without any warning regardless of one’s survival skills and no matter how safely one was situated—not even the fittest or the most adaptive ones had a chance. The possibility of an atomic explosion that could happen any day, any time, and sweep away an entire population reminded people of the fragility and temporality of human existence despite the rapidly growing life expectancy and overall wellbeing of an average American or a Western European citizen. Since life became so uncertain, the generation raised on “duck-and-cover” drills needed to know what happens after life, and the answers to these metaphysical inquiries were found in the domain of theosophy and religion.
Nazis adopted symbolism and some ideas from different cultures for their ideology without realizing that they promoted the tendency for reconsideration of collective values of nationalism and patriotism. In addition, the Cold War sprang from the chain reaction initiated by the Nazi’s quest for atomic power. In turn, these events influenced the process of Globalization as a fusion of world cultures. The New Age would not be possible without the Cold War, which profoundly altered the natural and social laws of human survival and facilitated the rise of spirituality. Although the New Age phenomenon reached its peak in the seventies, it experienced a gradual transformation from chaotic invasion of new religions and philosophies to stable philosophical, spiritual and religious pluralism, which exists today in Western society.
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Bhagavad Gita as It Is. Trans. A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Praphupada. Los Angeles: BBT, 1983. 118. Print.
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