Nuclear Krishna: Kant, Morality and the Atomic Bomb

“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.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

- J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Decision to Drop the Bomb (1965)

The ancient Vedic text of the Bhagavad Gita, dated between the 5th and 2nd centuries BCE, is recognized as one of the most influential spiritual and philosophical works of the Hindu tradition. There are myriad interpretations of the work, which consists of the dialogue between the divine Krishna and the Pandava prince Arjuna just before the epic battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas to establish the rightful ascendant to the throne. Although interpretations of the text vary widely across schools of Hindu thought, much can be illuminated by going outside of Hindu tradition to examine the Gita in the light of other philosophical works. Drawing parallels and noting differences between the Gita and works from other traditions recontextualizes the Gita and provides us with new sets of questions that enliven the relationship between the student of Hindu philosophy and the text. By examining the Gita alongside the Enlightenment-era philosophy of Immanuel Kant, I argue that we can illuminate both texts’ relationship to ethics, aesthetics, and violence. The fruit that such a comparison bears becomes useful for a discussion of one of the most world-changing events of our modern age: the creation and detonation of the atomic bomb. 

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called “father of the atomic bomb,” listed the Gita as one of the ten most influential books of his life. His own ethical and moral code, as has been well documented, was based in Krishna’s teachings within the text, and his quotation of Krishna’s famous utterance when he takes on his divine form has fascinated and perplexed many who have wondered how Oppenheimer, who attended a pacifist meeting in 1925 and criticized the use of atomic weapon after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, could have helmed the construction of the deadliest weapon in human history (Hijiya 127). The complex answer to this apparent contradiction lies partially in Oppenheimer’s interpretation of the ethics the Gita puts forth. This interpretation can be examined alongside Kant’s ethical and aesthetic concerns, whose own analysis of human experience is, I argue, a missing piece that knits my other subjects together. Kant’s contribution to the philosophies of metaphysics, ethics, and, in particular, the aesthetic category of the sublime transformed Western civilization in a way that becomes especially pertinent to my discussion of Oppenheimer and the Gita. 

Some background is necessary to set up the context of the comparative analysis I am positing. The teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, like many Hindu philosophical and religious texts, are presented via a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna in which the two discuss—and to some extent debate—metaphysical issues that include selfhood, the immortal soul, karma, duty, and devotion. The 700 verses of the Gita cover the gamut, but ultimately (leaving out the eschatological elements for the moment) the teachings can be summarized (more or less) thusly: 

  • Duty should be undertaken in life for duty’s sake, and without regard or attachment to any potential outcome.
  • The path of action is preferable to the path of ascetic withdrawal from life.
  • Actions or duties should be performed with devotion (bhakti).
  • The higher, true Self (Atman) exists in all beings and is unchangeable. It is the pure and perfect essence of each soul, and is accessible through the combination of devotion, duty, and meditation.
  • Access to Atman and the eventual movement of the soul into connection with the divine (Brahman) happens through an eventual release of attachment to the senses and to the gunas, which make up human nature itself. This release of attachment takes place over many incarnations and can be hastened or stalled by karma, but the possibility of self-improvement and moral and spiritual evolution is always available to everyone. 

The Gita thus presents the view that movement towards a state of perfection—understood as uninterrupted connection to divinity—is possible for everyone through the devoted performance of one’s duties, the release of desire and attachment, and the recognition that the characteristics that make up the human personality are impermanent. 

Immanuel Kant’s Enlightenment-era philosophical treatises and critiques represent his attempts to approach metaphysics empirically and scientifically. They are rigorous, and often difficult, works in which he sets out the fundamental aspects of human experience around the topics of morality, reason, aesthetics, and the sensible world. In Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Kant examines moral law and the rationality of human beings, arguing that rationality separates us from other beings in existence. A moral life is available to humans through our gift of pure reason, which leads to the growth and highest form of the self. While Kant’s list of things that can be known a priori is relatively small, morality belongs on this list, because its existence across people and cultures means that it must be a product of reason. Kant’s also stresses the importance of free will: the human inclination and ability to follow laws and rules is proof that our lives are not wholly dictated by our experiences. Kant sketches out criteria for this moral life, in which he posits the following: 

  • Actions are moral only when they are performed as “duty for duty’s sake.” 
  • The motivations for acting are more important than the consequences of a given action.
  • Actions are moral when they are not performed out of any sort of desire or need, but are rather performed rationally and in conscious concert with the moral code.
  • Morality is independent from human experience because of its universal validity.
  • Living a moral life means seeing others not as means to an end, but as agents with their own free will who are “ends in themselves.”
  • Human ability to reason is proof of the existence of God because it means that the “true destination [of reason] must be to produce a will, not merely good as a means to something else, but good in itself” (Kant 4:396). Perfection of the self through a moral life is the ideal goal. 
  • Scholars have noted similarities between the worldviews of the Gita and Kant; namely, the valuation of reason, the existence of moral law, the importance of fealty to one’s duty, and the belief in the immortality of the soul and a higher being (God for Kant, Krishna/Brahman for the author of the Gita). 

Both the author of the Gita and Kant thus ask similar questions about the path of the moral life and the relationship of morality and action versus inaction. In the Gita, this is explicitly connected to the question of engagement in warfare, which Arjuna feels to be an immoral course of action. Sarvepalli Radakrishnan comments on the key passages concerning the morality of engaging in warfare: 

[The war] is a situation, a most critical one, requiring a solution. Reason stands against sense; duty is opposed to inclination. Arjuna refers the matter to Krishna, his divine guide . . . Krishna asks Arjuna to be of good cheer and fight. He says: There is no cause for grief: you cannot kill or be killed, for you and your relatives are all immortal souls, and though the body be slain in the performance of your duties in life, you and they are, in essence, indestructible. If you shirk from, or decline to do, your duty, you will sin. And, besides, you can never be actionless by shunning action. Life is action and action must go on. Come good or evil, wealth or poverty, do your duty regardless of result. . . . The demands of the power self, or sense, have to be subordinated to the dictates of reason. (471-2) 

In both the Gita and in Kantian philosophy, the question of whether something is moral comes down to the motivations that produce the action. If the motivations for a given action are in accordance with the moral law and the action is performed with disinterest, it is moral. In the Gita, this becomes clear through the discussion of dharma, often translated as “duty.” It is Arjuna’s duty to fight because of his caste (he is a member of the Kshatriya, the warrior and ruling caste). And even though war may seem immoral because of the Hindu emphasis on ahimsa, or non-harming, there are times when it is necessary to fight. As James Hijiya points out, “In the ancient Indian ethical system, one’s obligations as a member of a family or class take priority over one’s obligations as a member of the human race. . . Everyone must follow his particular dharma, even it if requires him to do evil . . . Waging war is a ‘blemish,’ but one ineluctable for members of the princely class” (134-5). 

The relationship of duty and ethics becomes even more interesting when we examine how the Gita influenced the particularly contemporary event that began our discussion: the creation and detonation of the atomic bomb. How did Oppenheimer use the Gita to justify the creation of the weapon? What do we make of the fact that both Oppenheimer, creator of the most destructive weapon in human history, and Ghandi claimed the Gita as the text by which they lived their lives? 

The answer lies in the approaches each man had to the text. Eknath Easwaran identifies two different schools of thought on the Gita—the orthodox, which “claims that the Gita condones certain acts of violence by the warrior class: ‘it is the dharma, the moral duty, of soldiers to fight in a good cause.’ On the other hand, the ‘mystic’ view asserts that the battle Arjuna fights with his bow and arrow is allegorical, not literal—a metaphor for the real war, the struggle ‘between the forces of light and the forces of darkness in every human heart’” (Hijiya 135, Easwaran 7-8, 50). Ghandi's approach to the Gita led him to understand the war of the Pandavas and Kauravas as allegorical, while Oppenheimer seems likelier to have taken it more literally, understanding his role as a scientist during wartime as a duty. Hiijya reads Oppenheimer’s approach as orthodox, while Ghandi’s is mystic. 

Although Oppenheimer expressed remorse and guilt after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he more often defended his decision to help create the bomb. Although there was no caste system in the Western world, Oppenheimer’s definition of himself as a scientist provided him with a role in life and the dharma that accompanied it. His own studies of Hindu texts and his reading of the Gita in Sanskrit under the tutelage of Arthur Ryder influenced his initial decision to work with the Manhattan Project, and his devotion to his work and his dharma kept him from feeling guilt over the outcomes of his research. Hijiya comments that “Oppenheimer knew that the Manhattan Project would release the dangerous genie of nuclear weaponry, yet he believed that scientists, as scientists, had an obligation to serve on the project. . . . It was the duty of the scientist to build the bomb, but it was the duty of the statesman to decide whether or how to use it. Oppenheimer clearly and repeatedly acknowledged these very different dharmas” (137). At the same time, Oppenheimer also believed that the bomb’s final purpose was not to cause the destruction of lives and cities, but rather to help implement peace. He saw its detonation as one step on a path that would eventually lead to a greater good. This does, indeed, seem to be an investment in an outcome—something that the Gita counsels against. However, Oppenheimer also viewed the creation of the bomb as inevitable, and likely viewed himself as simply a tool through which it came into being and set off the events of history that followed. Depending on how one understands the teachings of the Gita, Oppenheimer’s devotion to his duty as a scientist could make perfect sense or could seem like an excuse—in either case, wondering what would happen with the bomb after its creation was simply not his job. 

Is it ethical, in the sphere of the Gita as well as beyond it, to empty morality completely from the understanding of duty? We return here to Oppenheimer’s invocation of the Gita as he remembered the Trinity test. It is possible to read Oppenheimer’s words as his characterization of himself as Krishna in his role as destroyer. However, I agree with Alex Wellerstein that Oppenheimer's famous reference reveals that he saw himself not in the role of God, but in the place of Arjuna witnessing the transformation of Krishna into his most terrible and incomprehensible form. Wellerstein argues that

it isn’t a case of the “father” of the bomb declaring himself “death, the destroyer of worlds” in a fit of grandiosity or hubris. Rather, it is him being awed by what is being displayed in front of him, confronted with the spectacle of death itself unveiled in front of him, in the world’s most impressive memento mori, and realizing how little and inconsequential he is as a result. Compelled by something cosmic and terrifying, Oppenheimer then reconciles himself to his duty as a prince of physics, and that duty is war.

If we return to Kant, we discover another text that illuminates our discussion here: The Critique of Judgment (1790), in which Kant moves his attention away from ethics and towards aesthetics, or questions of taste. This work famously articulates Kant's philosophy of the beautiful and the sublime, two categories of judgment that Kant argues are separate from the ethical and the good. The sublime in particular becomes key for this analysis. While something is beautiful if it enables the "free play" between our understanding of an object and our imagination of it, producing a feeling of pleasure within us, the sublime is that which is actually beyond our comprehensive capacities and which, for this reason, inspires fear. Sublime objects are "boundless" and ultimately highlight the inability of the human senses to understand those objects via sensorial experience. The atomic bomb most aligns with Kant's analysis of the "dynamically sublime," defined as

nature considered in an aesthetic judgment as might that has no dominion over us . .. Bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piled up the vault of heaven, borne along with flashes and peals, volcanos in all their violence of destruction, hurricanes leaving desolation in their track, the boundless ocean rising with rebellious force, the high waterfall of some mighty river, and the like, make our power of resistance of trifling moment in comparison with their might. But, provided our own position is secure, their aspect is all the more attractive for its fearfulness; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the forces of the soul above the height of vulgar commonplace, and discover within us a power of resistance of quite another kind, which gives us courage to be able to measure ourselves against the seeming omnipotence of nature. (§ 28) 

Key to the experience of sublimity is that an object or situation creates fear, but is not actually dangerous for the person experiencing it. In the end, we feel pleasure rather than fear. While the explosion of an atomic bomb clearly causes injury and death, witnessing its detonation at a distance meets all the criteria of the sublime. The incomprehensible nature of the sublime has two outcomes: the first is that it highlights the inadequacy of perceptual understanding, and the second is that the (human) ability to recognize the limits of our understanding, as well as to experience the singularity of the sublime, indicate the superiority and power of reason over the phenomenal world (what Kant describes as our ability to “measure ourselves against the seeming omnipotence of nature”). The real experience of the sublime, Kant argues, lies in the recognition of our own reason. While the sublime seems at first to be unrelated to questions of morality, Kant argues that sublime experiences can only occur in moral cultures that value rationality. And for Kant, as we know, morality is expressed through the disinterested fulfilment of duties. At this point we can revisit Oppenheimer’s beliefs about the bomb and his own dharma. 

Peter B. Hales makes the claim that the atomic explosion “arrived as something close to what Roland Barthes has called a ‘pure sign’—a visual icon so unprecedented that, for a moment at least, it lay outside the webs of signification that comprised a watching culture” (5). Described by witnesses in terms that evoked natural disasters, organic forms, and atmospheric events, it seemed to tie together the human and the natural world through the innovations of science. In the Kantian sense, we can analyze the explosion as a dynamically sublime event that is the ultimate expression of human rational ability. In the atomic bomb, the human mind created an inconceivable, sublime object—“a man-made marvel of nature” (Hales 10). We must cycle back to Oppenheimer’s words one more time with this in mind. In the Gita, Arjuna has no part in the creation of Krishna’s divine form—he merely asks to see it. But Oppenheimer was involved in the creation of the bomb, and then experienced it as an expression of the divine. The experience of the bomb as a divine destroyer further excuses its creators, just as the description of it through natural imagery “pressed the atom bomb away from human responsibility, even as it imbedded it in a comprehensible historical heritage of destructiveness mixed with awe and beauty” (Hales 10). 

Oppenheimer’s Gita-inspired ethics are also inextricable from his experience of American exceptionalism. Hales points out that

this anchoring of the pure sign in an older sublime tradition also transformed the tradition itself. As [witnesses] described and redescribed the atomic sublime, these accounts came to fit themselves symbiotically within the broader constellation of ideas that had developed in nineteenth century America around the notions of blessed nature, landscape, religion, personal psychology and manifest destiny[, reinvoking] the American doctrines of nature in a way that enabled this profoundly disruptive new presence to enter the language of American culture as an element of the mythic natural landscape. And so in the macrocosm as well as the microcosm, the atomic explosion became not a purely human circumstance (for which we must accept responsibility), but rather a part of that benign collaboration among man, nature and divinity that had defined American destiny, a predetermined, even foreordained event. (13)

Ultimately, then, we must resituate Oppenheimer’s adherence to duty and his experience of the bomb during the Trinity tests according to these insights. A text can never be divorced from its web of contexts, and the Gita, like many spiritual works, has been read in a multitude of ways across a staggering expanse of time. While Oppenheimer’s steadfast adherence to the Gita’s ethical code is undeniable, the context in which he read it is perhaps more important for us as we try to follow the threads of human history and culture from India’s Vedic age to the Enlightenment and, finally, to the apocalyptic moment ushered in by the explosion of the atom bomb, which heralded a new and unsettling era of humanity’s relationship to the divine.

Bibliography

The Bhagavad Gita. Ed. Eknath Easwaran. Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 2007.

Hales, Peter B. “The Atomic Sublime.” American Studies 32.1 (1991): 5-31. 

Hijiya, James A. “The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 144.2 (2000): 123-167.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. James Creed Meredith. Oxford University Press, 1911. <http://denisdutton.com/kant_third_critique.htm>

---. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals. New York: Modern Library, 2001.
Majumdar, Ruchira. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy in Relation to Indian Moral Philosophy as Depicted in Srimad-Bhagavad-Gita.” In Cultivating Personhood: Kant and Asian Philosophy. Ed. Stephen Palmquist. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2010. 715-723.

Radakrishnan, Sarvepalli. “Ethics of the BhagavadGita and Kant.” International Journal of Ethics 21.4 (Jul 1911), 465-476.

Wellerstein, Alex. “Oppenheimer and the Gita.” Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog.  May 23, 2014. Accessed February 10, 2016.  <http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2014/05/23/oppenheimer-gita/>.


Ali McGhee

Ali McGhee

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