In reference to the Trinity test of Atomic Bomb in New Mexico, the father of atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, famously recalled the Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky that would be like the splendour of the mighty one. . . . Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Was the scientist quoting the verses from Gita to justify the destructive invention, after all Mahabharata is replete with the usage of such destructive weapons?
It remains a matter of debate whether Oppenheimer misunderstood the overall significance of Gita. However, he did misquote a particular verse as a half-truth under an impression that the Gita is a treatise on war and peace only. War as envisaged by Gita is not incompatible with a life of peace and righteousness if waged for its preservation (as dharmayuddha).
In my opinion, Oppenheimer made a quotation out of context. In fact, the importance of Gita stems from its prescribed value of human life and fighting for its maintenance and resurrection if need be. Human beings then, perhaps, not only knew how to destroy but also realised the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
The rules contained in Mahabharata generally governed issues ranging from the general prohibition of the use of weapons that caused unnecessary pain, to overcoming the enemy, to the treatment of the enemy’s property and persons in the conquered territory. If the modern laws of war were to require that when war breaks out, fighting must be conducted on the basis of ‘like with like’ or by using like weapons, it would not only minimise the impact of war but would also deter aggression and make war more humane.
Coming to the point of the use of nuclear weapons (called divyastra e.g. Brahmastra and Pashupatiastra) during the times of Mahabharata, before Arjuna acquired the divyastras from the respective gods, he was strictly advised by them to use it as a “threat weapon” rather than a weapon to be actually used in the war. There are extensive dialogues between various characters in the war of Mahabharata on not using the divyastras which were the ultimate weapons that any warrior could then possess.
At the end of the epic war, when Aswathama, son of Drona, frustrated by defeat in war uses the weapon, he is cursed by Krishna, and the same was diffused to result in minimal devastation.
Thus one can safely say that the quoting of Gita for the said event was definitely out of place and needless to say, a very poor justification.