The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Indian scripture, has exerted a profound influence on Western thinkers from a myriad of backgrounds. However, it is perhaps most intriguing to examine its impact against the backdrop of the tumultuous 20th century, specifically through the lens of figures such as T.S. Eliot and J. Robert Oppenheimer. While Eliot's poetry, particularly "The Waste Land", and Oppenheimer's atomic endeavors might seem worlds apart, the Gita emerges as a common thread, offering solace, insight, and, paradoxically, consternation. By examining the Gita's reception in their works and lives, one can glean insights into the broader societal anxieties of the era, especially concerning war and destruction.
T.S. Eliot and the Dance of Shiva
T.S. Eliot, a literary giant of the 20th century, was known for his extensive knowledge of world literature, religious texts, and philosophy. His poem, "The Waste Land," albeit not directly referencing the Gita, is imbued with a profound sense of spiritual desolation, akin to Arjuna's despair at the start of the Gita. The world Eliot presents is fragmented, devoid of meaning, and teetering on the brink of collapse.
This despair finds resonance in the figure of Shiva, the cosmic dancer, mentioned in Eliot's later work, "Four Quartets". Shiva's dance in Hindu cosmology represents both creation and destruction. Eliot's fascination with this duality suggests an alignment with the Gita's teachings: the cyclical nature of life, where destruction is not the end but merely a prelude to creation.
Oppenheimer: Arjuna in the Atomic Age
For J. Robert Oppenheimer, the "father of the atomic bomb", the Gita provided not solace but confrontation. Upon witnessing the Trinity test's success, Oppenheimer recalled the lines, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." At this moment, he identifies with Krishna, revealing the weapon of destruction to Arjuna. However, instead of divine insight leading to righteousness, Oppenheimer faced the paradox of creating a weapon of mass destruction to ensure peace.
Oppenheimer's invocation of the Gita encapsulates the moral ambiguities of the atomic age. Like Arjuna, he grappled with his role in a larger cosmic narrative, questioning the morality of his actions while recognizing their inevitability.
Contrasting Approaches to the Gita
While both figures engaged with the Gita, their receptions diverge. Eliot's interaction is more abstract, employing the text as a lens through which the chaos and fragmentation of the post-war world can be understood. Oppenheimer's engagement, meanwhile, is immediate and visceral. For him, the Gita is not a distant text but a stark reality, forcing him to confront the moral quandaries of his actions.
War and the Western Reception of the Gita
The Gita, fundamentally a dialogue on the battlefield, finds renewed relevance in the context of the World Wars. As the Western world grappled with unprecedented destruction, figures like Eliot and Oppenheimer turned to the Gita, seeking answers to the moral and existential crises of their times. In a sense, the Gita's battlefield, Kurukshetra, became a metaphor for the ravaged landscapes of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the war-torn psyche of the 20th century.
The Bhagavad Gita, with its profound philosophical insights, has long transcended its geographical origins, influencing thinkers worldwide. In Eliot and Oppenheimer, we witness a convergence of the Gita's teachings with the unique challenges of the 20th century. While their engagements with the text differ, both underscore the Gita's enduring relevance, especially in times of moral and existential crises. Whether as a balm for a fragmented world or a mirror reflecting uncomfortable truths, the Gita remains a testament to the universality of its teachings.