Today is the 67th anniversary of the first successful atomic explosion, in the in section of the southern New Mexico desert known as Jornada del Muerto, “Journey of the Dead Man,” or more precisely, day’s journey through the landscape of death.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Trinity Project and father of the A-Bomb, is supposed to have quoted the Bhagavad Gita as he witnessed the explosion: “I am become death the destroyer of worlds.” More likely, his actual words on the dead man’s ground were “It worked.” (The Trinity Test Director, physicist Kenneth Bainbridge, is supposed to have remarked, “Now we are all sons of bitches.”)
The quotation from the Gita was a retrospective word-shaping during an interview afterwards, perhaps the only way for this erudite man to express the power of the singular experience. That these words were uttered in the Jornada del Muerto is now a modern-era myth — and an apt one. Making myths is an ongoing human psychic activity, and has a name: mythopoiesis, meaning “myth-making.” The more exact etymology to the Greek words from which the term was coined in the 19th century would be: “mouth-making” — the creation of inspired, memorable and therefore powerful words. All of the ancient Vedas are about powerful word-making, the poetry of creation and, even before eyes were present to see, about the powerful primacy of sound, of vibration, of energy waves.
Virat Swarup is the Sanskrit term meaning, “divine appearance of the god, in unimaginable power.” It appears in the Bhagavad Gita, which is a long dialogue between the hero Arjuna and his charioteer and friend, Krishna, who is an avatar of the supreme god Vishnu, who is both world-creator and destroyer. Arjuna is tired of so much death, and is questioning the ethics of his participation in the continued and seemingly endless killing in the long and bloody family war that is the center of the massive epic Mahabharata. At the climax of their extended dialogue, Krishna reveals himself in his exalted god-form, the Virat Swarup. It is Krishna who speaks the words that Oppenheimer remembered, then or later, as the only words that could express his experience.
The message that Krishna conveys to Arjuna in the Gita is that we all have the responsibility to act in accordance with our gifts — Arjuna was the best killer — within the context of the unimaginably huge tapestry wherein which each of our destinies is but a single yet significant thread.
Consider too, that mythopoeisis — the creation of new myths — is divinely inspired as well. Nor is Arjuna’s story quite so simple as his decision, in that moment, to honor the commitment to kill, for now, and to honor the logic of that particular talent. Arjuna’s story was not complete, and ultimately, he chose a different ending.
Nor is any of our stories quite so simple, nor, for now at least, at an end. And, we can choose how we commit to continue, or alter, it. And, how we wish it to end.