The much-anticipated release of Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer this past weekend has garnered attention from viewers in India for its explicit scene featuring the holy Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita.
Oppenheimer narrates the undertaking and aftermath of the invention of the nuclear bomb by American theoretical physicist, Julius Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), and his team of scientists. It grossed $80.5 million at the box office, well ahead of projections of a $50 million opening weekend, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The Central Board of Film Certification in India gave the film a U/A Certificate, according to Variety. This rating means that anybody can watch the movie, but it is recommended that adults accompany kids under the age of 12. The sex scene remained intact. While the intercourse itself was blurred, the reference to the Bhagavad Gita remained.
During the scene, Oppenheimer is engaging in sexual intercourse with his partner, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), when she asks him about a verse in the Gita. The film translates the verse as “I am become death, destroyer of worlds,” Variety reports.
The Bhagavad Gita is a 700-verse Hindu scripture about Prince Arjuna seeking guidance from the avatar of lord Vishnu, Krishna, in order to navigate his moral dilemma. The line referenced in the film is one of the most well-known lines of the text, according to Wired.
In the context of Oppenheimer’s biopic, however, it takes on a new significance: those was the very line that ran through his mind upon the first detonation of the nuclear bomb, his creation, on Hiroshima on July 17, 1945.
Founder of the Save Culture Save India Foundation Uday Mahurkar expressed how hurtful the scene was to Asian News International (ANI).
“[The scene is] an insult to Bhagavad Gita, which is our holy book. It sends out powerful and meaningful messages to the entire world. How could someone demean it this way?” Mahurkar said. “The scene is an assault on our values and civilization. It’s an assault on the Hindu community.”
In the same interview, Mahurkar also called on Nolan to remove the scene because “[i]t reeks of religious hatred. If he doesn’t take out the scene, we will act.”
Mahurkar also published an open letter on Twitter addressed to Nolan, writing, “We urge, on behalf of billion Hindus and timeless tradition of lives being transformed by revered Geeta, to do all that is needed to uphold dignity of their revered book and remove this scene from your film across world.”
The validity of the Gita’s translation in the film is also being questioned by viewers. In an interview with The Indian Express, mythologist writer Devdutt Pattanaia recalled being “stumped” by the quote as he was unfamiliar with the translation.
“I did some research on Oppenheimer, and I had never come across this line. I had never heard this line. Someone said it was chapter 11, verse 32, which really says ‘kaal-asmi’, which means ‘I am time, destroyer of the world’. So, his translation itself is wrong. It is not ‘I am death’. It is time, time is the destroyer of the world,” he said.
Pattanaik further elaborated that all religious books are liable to misinterpretation by human beings. “I have seen that video also of his, where [Oppenheimer] keeps saying, ‘I am death, I am death,’” he said to The Indian Express. “It is very clearly, ‘I am time.’ ‘Kaal’ means ‘time.’ That is what he is saying, but of course, he gets excited because he’s seeing death and destruction at a massive scale, and he’s obviously seeking some kind of a spiritual background.”
“He comes from a Judeo-Christian background, where God is known to punish people with floods and fire,” Pattanaik added. “This act of killing humanity with violence is very much a part of Biblical traditions; it’s not a part of Hindu traditions, not a part of Jain or Buddhist traditions… I think he was looking for some solace, and he found this verse very dramatic.”
Oppenheimer is not the only Hollywood film to feature a line from the Bhagavad Gita during an explicit scene. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) depicted an orgy scene, which included the lines, “For the protection of the virtuous, for the destruction of evil and for the firm establishment of Dharma, I take birth and am incarnated on Earth, from age to age.” When Hindu groups protested the scene, the Warner Brothers edited the lines out of the soundtrack, according to Variety.
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