Even as a child I was fascinated with science, and, in those days, the big science was atomic energy. My hero was Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who directed the development of the atomic bomb. I was impressed when Oppenheimer famously said that when he saw the first successful atomic blast he immediately recalled the verse from the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
What was the Bhagavad Gita? I had never heard of it, yet he obviously knew much of it by heart.
Only during retirement did I have time to pursue this. It is a Hindu religious discussion buried in the huge Indian epic “The Mahabharata” and is often published as a separate book. (The complete Mahabharata fills a bookshelf.)
It turns out, Oppenheimer had recalled a poor translation of the original Sanskrit, as anyone could have guessed from the awkward phrase, “I am become . . .” What kind of stilted English is that?
The word translated as “death” is “Kali” who is the symbolic goddess of time, and only by consequence of that is she the goddess of death and destruction, for, as we know, time eventually destroys all things, including us and all of our loved ones.
So, a more accurate and sensible translation would be, “I am time, destroyer of worlds,” but that would hardly describe an atomic blast.
Kali is always depicted in terrifying form. She has black skin (or blue as all Hindu gods and goddesses) with bloody fangs and a foot-long tongue lolling from her mouth. She wears a necklace of human skulls and a skirt of severed arms strung together, bloody end up. She is merciless and no amount of beauty, talent, or good deeds will protect us from her relentless destruction.
But Hindus give a twist of insight to the story of Kali, Goddess of Death. She is only terrifying from a distance. Up close, she becomes our beautiful, comforting mother.