Swans Commentary » swans.com October 22, 2012  



The Esoteric J. Robert Oppenheimer


by Manuel García, Jr.





"We dream of travels throughout the universe: is not the universe within us? We do not know the depths of our spirit. The mysterious path leads within. In us, or nowhere, lies eternity with its worlds, the past and the future."
—Novalis (Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, 1772-1801)


(Swans - October 22, 2012)  Julius Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) was the brilliant American theoretical physicist who guided the Manhattan Project during World War II (1942-1945) when it industrialized the technology of nuclear fission power and produced the first atomic bombs, including the only two ever used in warfare.

Immediately after the war, Oppenheimer advocated publicly for international control of nuclear arms, and against the urge for an arms race. This stance brought him into conflict with the political factions and economic interests that Dwight D. Eisenhower would call the "military-industrial complex" fifteen years later, and who were intent to revamp the economic engine that had pulled the United States out of the Great Depression and through World War II, into the war-machine industrialized economy Gore Vidal would call "the national security state." This politics was Oppenheimer's undoing as a national policy advisor, but the arguments used against him were phrased as doubts about his loyalty to the nation, and imputed deficiencies of character and judgment, not as political analysis and policy differences. Little has changed.

Every now and then when a new sensationalist book is published with a rehashing of the intrigues detailed in once-secret files of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) wiretaps, domestic spying, and subterfuge, the question of "the real story" behind J. Robert Oppenheimer's true loyalties and fate resurfaces. Having worked in the Livermore nuclear weapons lab (1978-2007), some have assumed I know more about that presumably untold story. However, I am too young to have gained any direct or even indirect knowledge about Oppenheimer or any of the bomb physicists of his generation. Beyond riding in an elevator with Edward Teller once (which he did not like, he wanted a private ride) I only know about these people by what I have read or seen on television, like everyone else. The Wikipedia article on J. Robert Oppenheimer summarizes what I have read, heard, and seen about Oppie.

In 1933, Oppenheimer learned Sanskrit to read the Bhagavad Gita in its original language. The Bhagavad Gita is an ancient Hindu scripture (written between the 5th to 2nd centuries BCE), which is a masterpiece of philosophical integration as it combines the monism of the Upanishads, the dualism of Samkhya, and the theism of Yoga.

The philosophy contained in the collected texts of the Upanishads (most written between about 1200 and 600 BCE) is called Vedanta, which asserts the existence of one absolute reality called Brahman, and urges seekers of truth to bypass ritual in favor of meditation governed by loving morality, as this will assuredly lead to blissful enlightenment. The 19th-century German Sanskritist Theodore Goldstücker found the philosophy of Spinoza to be a European equivalent of Vedanta, and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) himself to be "a man whose very life is a picture of that moral purity and intellectual indifference to the transitory charms of this world, which is the constant longing of the true Vedanta philosopher."

Samkhya philosophy (which coalesced between the 5th and 2nd centuries BCE) asserts that reality is a duality of consciousness (Purusa) and material phenomenology (Prakriti), and that no God or other external influence exists. For the existentially trapped, a glue of desire bonds their Purusa to Prakriti, for example being a wage slave in the rat race to keep up with the Joneses. Liberation (Moksha) is the ending of this bondage, when materialism no longer imprisons your consciousness and there is no distinction between your individual and the universal Purusa.

Yoga means union, and is a school of Hindu philosophy based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (written in the 2nd century BCE, codifying yogic traditions that originated between the mid 3rd millennium BCE and about 400 BCE). The aim is to use meditation to gain enlightenment and tranquility by merging with God, the ultimate and fundamental reality.

The Bhagavad Gita unfolds as a philosophical conversation between Prince Arjuna and his guide and charioteer Krishna, on the eve of battle in a fratricidal war. Arjuna seeks guidance from Krishna, who is an avatar of the preserver-god Vishnu. Krishna instructs Arjuna to proceed vigorously with fully committed selfless action (Karma Yoga), a complete devotional surrender to God (Bhakti Yoga), and finally to experience Brahman directly, which knowledge will carry him past his own desires and materiality (Jnana Yoga).

The Dharma, or law fitted to his nature, which Arjuna must follow, is this linking of the paths of selfless action, devotion to, and knowledge of the ultimate reality. These linked paths are yogas because Arjuna must unite with and embody selfless action and devotion to the sacred ultimate, and the experience of merging consciousness with It.

The Bhagavad Gita has resonated with the stirrings in many souls, besides that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, for over two millennia because each of its readers is always Arjuna forever on the eve of the battle for the salvation of his or her soul.

Oppenheimer followed the path of selfless action in guiding the Manhattan Project because he was motivated to prevent the globalization of fascism, and he was motivated to use his physics knowledge and personal charm to develop technology that under international control could checkmate the aggressive impulses of dictators and prevent the recurrence of massively destructive and profoundly tragic wars like World War II. In reference to Heinar Kipphardt's 1964 play In The Matter Of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which he disagreed with, Oppenheimer stated:

"I had never said that I had regretted participating in a responsible way in the making of the bomb. I said that perhaps he [Heinar Kipphardt] had forgotten Guernica, Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, Dachau, Warsaw, and Tokyo; but I had not, and that if he found it so difficult to understand, he should write a play about something else."

Guernica, Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo are cities that suffered merciless aerial bombardment; Dachau was the site of a Nazi concentration camp; and Warsaw was the scene of the Jewish Ghetto Uprising of 1943 (a resistance to the population transfer to Treblinka) and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when the Nazis defeated the Polish Resistance Home Army and destroyed the city during 63 days of fighting while the Red Army waited encamped 5 minutes flying time east of the Vistula River (which runs through Warsaw).

Since I, too, have an interest in Eastern philosophy (Buddhism), I can identify with Oppie as both a "hard" science guy and a person of poetic sensibility and mystical inclination, always at odds with simplistic thinking and narrow vision.

I would suggest that Oppie's mystical-poetic side was akin to the sensibilities of the esotericists Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925, metaphysics out of late German Romanticism, "anthroposophy") and Peter D. Ouspensky (1878-1947, psychology out of Gurdjieff esotericism). I assume that sensibilities of this sort would have seeped into Oppie's subconscious by cultural osmosis, as he was a New York Jew born of cultured and prosperous German immigrant parents early in the 20th century (1904), and his own personality was naturally refined and thus easily receptive to esoteric thought. The way he worked out bringing these subconscious metaphysical currents into the foreground of his conscious mind was to invoke the conceptual structures and language of Hindu philosophy, and specifically that of its philosophical and literary jewel the Bhagavad Gita.

The popular awareness of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s was likely to be a result of exposure to esotericism based on borrowed Asian ideas, such as with the theosophy of Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), and the dervish-yoga collage of George Gurdjieff (1866-1949); and more accurately through the traveling or immigrant Vedanta teachers like the swamis Vivekananda (1863-1902), Prabhavananda (1893-1976), and Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), and the writer and speaker Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986).

Oppenheimer flourished in the highest strata of American and European academia, and could easily interact with Sanskrit, Indology, and Sinology scholars. So, it was an unusual commitment for him to learn Sanskrit to independently read and interpret the Vedas (the Sanskrit scriptures) instead of just relying on the lectures and scholarly translations by his fellow academics. But, he was thus better informed.

A highly regarded and popular translation into English of the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Prabhavananda appeared in 1944; it was coauthored with Christopher Isherwood, and its introduction was written by Aldous Huxley. In describing the yoga of knowledge, Krishna tells Arjuna:

"Die, and you win heaven. Conquer, and you enjoy the earth. Stand up now, son of Kunti, and resolve to fight. Realize that pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat are all one and the same: then go into battle. Do this and you cannot commit any sin."

A book retelling an ancient teaching of selfless action during the conduct of war, published near the end of World War II; I wonder if Oppenheimer read it?

Consider the following projections of how Oppenheimer might have internalized Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Jnana Yoga.

Karma Yoga

Commit to swinging the sword and letting the blood flow. This is your unique time and place in the universe, your dharma, and to gain the enlightening insight that can be taken as the purpose of life it is necessary to learn from the consequences of your acts, your karma. So, lay down the best karma you can trail in the wake of your actions by being unattached to personal gain from them. Fulfill your duties and act out your existentially appointed role in a selfless manner, for the noble though temporal purpose of defeating fascism, and for the higher and eternal purpose you are now aware of. You cannot moan that "the world is a mess" because for all men and women at all times and places the world is and has always been a mess. It is forever imperfect and filled with suffering and injustice. You are of this world, this realm of phenomenal existence, and cannot remake it. What you can do is to change yourself from a being trapped by lack of awareness of the ultimate reality, and your own true nature as part of that ultimate reality. Do not run from the unavoidability of karmic diffusion that material existence entails, but instead merge with your karma selflessly, and realize you are the ultimate unrecognized. Then you will begin to see that ultimate, and transcend karmic diffusion.

Bhakti Yoga

Devote yourself to the appreciation of the ultimate reality by delving into the workings of phenomenal manifestations. Unfolding these for the understanding of others raises the amount of such appreciation among men and women, and inspires others to follow along similar paths of discovery, bringing more souls toward self-realization. This is so different from chicken-scratching in the dirt of reality to peck out some hidden nugget, some secret recipe, to be used in petty schemes of self aggrandizement and in temporal power plays. Devotion to the ultimate reality is that "moral purity" which elevates you to "intellectual indifference to the transitory charms of this world." This is completely beyond conventional social morality, which is entirely a matter of seeking acceptance, currying favor and maintaining social standing. All that is about keeping Purusa glued to Prakriti. Devotion to the ultimate and indifference to the temporal are liberating, they are Moksha.

Jnana Yoga

Oppenheimer used his considerable intellectual talent to pursue this goal of "knowing," which paradoxically is unattainable by the conscious effort of abstract thinking alone. Jnana Yoga is like Zen, the direct experience of the ultimate, or "cosmic consciousness" as Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) called it. This is knowledge by direct experience, not the mere thinking in abstractions, which is so much of theoretical physics. The understanding of quantum mechanics and general relativity is not the same as the experience of cosmic consciousness. Still, such abstract thinking on philosophical concepts can prepare you to recognize when the plunge into cosmic consciousness envelops you. One usually seeks the experience by some form of meditation, or is jolted into it by the force of circumstances. Rather than trying to tease out a verbalization of the experience of the ultimate, from distortions of Vedanta in European languages, Oppenheimer learned Sanskrit to burrow down into the primary references in their original language. Is this not Bhakti Yoga, a devotion to the appreciation of the ultimate? Is this not Karma Yoga, a selfless merging with the task to be done for the greater purpose of complete enlightenment, the merging with "the one," Brahman?

"The true philosophical Act is annihilation of self; this is the real beginning of all Philosophy."
—Novalis (1772-1801)

I can only assume that Oppenheimer experienced his true self at some point, and perhaps several times during his eventful life. Certainly, we will all merge with eternity eventually when we die, though sadly so many will pass through still unrealized.

Oppie was a man of much keener vision than the average Joe, so from the perspectives of mundane viewpoints comfortably settled within conventional thinking and behavior, he was always seen to be on the edge intellectually, psychologically, morally, and politically. To those of straightforward robotic thinking at the service of monomaniacal ambition within the bureaucracies of the US military-industrial-political complex, Oppenheimer would be instinctively perceived as a threat. It was inevitable that people like Lewis L. Strauss, Edward Teller, and Leslie Groves would oppose Oppenheimer in 1954 during his security clearance hearing. In 1945 they had loved him because he enabled their ambitions and because he was acknowledged as "absolutely essential" to the gargantuan Manhattan Project.

It just so happens that people with any psychological similarity to Oppenheimer tend to be Democrats (or far more leftist), and people like Oppie's psychological opposites tend to be Republicans. So, at the time there was also a partisan divide on the matter of Oppie's security clearance, which struggle was entirely about allowing the arms control perspective to be given a place in the councils of government or suppressed, and was framed as an argument over the degree of policy-forming power that Oppenheimer was to be given or denied. Today as then, the battles over what types of ideas and thinking are to hold sway in the making of government policy are couched as arguments over the personal merits or deficiencies of selected high-profile individuals. Oppie "lost" his security clearance (one day before it was to expire anyway) because he was a high-profile symbol of the type of prewar East Coast urban leftist Jewish intellectual New Dealer who was now being excessed, since the war was won, in favor of a new generation of guardians of concentrated wealth, in the tradition of Robert A. Taft (1889-1953), the establishment white Christian grand bourgeois managers of post-war corporatism.

Was Oppenheimer subversive? Did he betray the trust put in him? Oppenheimer's marital life was complicated, being interspersed with extra-marital affairs. But then, so are the lives of billions of other husbands of all political persuasions. His marital fidelity or infidelity was really a matter of concern best left to his wife, Kitty Harrison, who remained with him till he died in 1967. However, on the matter of national security the record is clear, Oppenheimer never passed any classified information to the Soviet Union (based on the Alexander Vassiliev notebooks of KGB archival material), and even removed Los Alamos scientists whom he suspected of excessive Soviet sympathies from the Manhattan Project. He did not break trust in his technical-academic nor public-technocrat lives.

Oppenheimer was a "subversive" only in the sense of being opposed to, and opposed by, the postwar military-industrial corporatists. These included J. Edgar Hoover, who would use the federal policing agency he lorded over to undermine Oppenheimer's postwar political standing, rather than protecting him from intrigue as the FBI had been required to do during the war, when Oppenheimer was "absolutely essential."


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About the Author

Manuel García, Jr. on Swans. He is a native of the upper upper west side barrio of the 1950s near Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City, and a graduate engineering physicist who specialized in the physics of fluids and electricity. He retired from a 29 year career as an experimental physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the first fifteen years of which were spent in underground nuclear testing. An avid reader with a taste for classics, and interested in the physics of nature and how natural phenomena can impact human activity, he has long been interested in non-fiction writing with a problem-solving purpose. García loves music and studies it, and his non-technical thinking is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Jungian ideas. A father of both grown children and a school-age daughter, today García occupies himself primarily with managing his household and his young daughter's many educational activities. García's political writings are left wing and, along with his essays on science-and-society, they have appeared in a number of smaller Internet magazines since 2003, including Swans. Please visit his personal Blog at manuelgarciajr.wordpress.com.   (back)


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Published October 22, 2012