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Tempest in a Teapot: Most Hindu Americans are Not Offended by Gita Reference During Sex Scene in ‘Oppenheimer’

Tempest in a Teapot: Most Hindu Americans are Not Offended by Gita Reference During Sex Scene in ‘Oppenheimer’

  • While the bulk of the objection came from India’s Hindu right, some desis in America chided the intimate moment when the father of the atomic bomb read a stanza from the sacred scripture.

Indian Americans, mostly Hindus, were not offended by the recitation of a few lines from the Bhagavad Gita during a sex scene in Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.” The biopic, which opened in theaters worldwide on July 21, tells the story of Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) known as the father of the atomic bomb. The said scene shows Oppenheimer reading a stanza from the Gita to his lover Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). The words he reads aloud, which he translates from Sanskrit to “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” These words are also famously said by the scientist after the first detonation of the atomic bomb he helped create. 

Most of the objections to the scene came from India’s Hindu right. In a letter to Nolan, Uday Mahurkar, a senior official at the government’s Central Information Commission called the film “a direct assault on religious beliefs of a billion tolerant Hindus.” He also urged the director to cut the scene. 

A demand to censor the scene also came from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad which said the film was an attempt to “launch an attack” on Hindu society. “The makers should apologize to the Hindu community all over the world whose sentiments have been badly hurt,” spokesman Vinod Bansal told AFP.

While some Hindu Americans echoed this sentiment, a majority of them that American Kahani spoke to did not find the scene objectionable. 

“I wasn’t offended at all,” Amit Vijay Sonavne, a New Jersey-based banking and financial services professional said. “Gita is for all occasions; all acts in life deserve a reference to the ways of life explained in the text,” he said. “Sex is also a transaction if you think about it deeply and hence the reference and the reverence thereof is okay to me,” he added. “People may be prejudiced because they haven’t read it. I have.”

Similarly, Maryland-based actress and filmmaker Sangeeta Agarwal didn’t have an issue with the way the intimate moment was depicted. “I am not the least bit offended by that scene,” she said. As a filmmaker herself, she said she was “more interested in why the director chose to place the Sanskrit lines there.” She offered her reasoning as well. “Perhaps, because Oppenheimer was most vulnerable there. Naked, with the woman he loved. It was not just sex.”

Some like Pallavi Banerjee, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Calgary, were chary in expressing their opinion. She denounced “the fundamentalist version of any religion,” adding that she didn’t have any opinion as “this gets into that territory.” She was quick to add that as she doesn’t study religion, “it is not my place to comment on this.”

Murphy has called the sex scenes “vital” to the film. “I think they were vital in this movie,” he told Variety magazine. “I think the relationship that he has with Jean Tatlock is one of the most crucial emotional parts of the film. I think if they’re key to the story then they’re worthwhile. Listen, no one likes doing them, they’re the most awkward possible part of our job. But sometimes you have to get on with it.”

Nolan shared a similar view with Insider. “When you look at Oppenheimer’s life and you look at his story, that aspect of his life, the aspect of his sexuality, his way with women, the charm that he exuded, it’s an essential part of his story,” he said. “It felt very important to understand their relationship and to really see inside it and understand what made it tick without being coy or allusive about it — but to try to be intimate, to try and be in there with him and fully understand the relationship that was so important to him.”

“Hindutva fanatics are jokers,” a Twitter user wrote, offering an explanation for her comment. “They praised Cillian Murphy as he claimed to have read Bhagavad Gita in order to prepare for his upcoming movie. Later, it was found that Bhagavad Gita was recited during a sex scene in the movie.’

The Scientist and the Scripture

In real life, Oppenheimer took an interest in Sanskrit and was known to have read and studied Kalidasa’s “Meghadūta” and the Bhagavad Gita. Citing a 2005 biography, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, BBC India correspondent Soutik Biswas wrote Oppenheimer was introduced to Sanskrit by Arthur W Ryder, a professor of Sanskrit at the University of California, Berkeley.

Soon, Oppenheimer started getting private lessons in Sanskrit by Ryder. Biswas quotes from a letter Oppenheimer wrote to his brother Frank. “I am learning Sanskrit,” read the letter, adding that he is “enjoying it very much and enjoying again the sweet luxury of being taught.”

As noted in the biography, “many of his friends found his new obsession with an Indian language odd,” Biswas wrote. “One of them, Harold F Cherniss, thought it made ‘perfect sense’ because Oppenheimer had a ‘taste of the mystical and the cryptic.'” Biswas mentions an incident in July 1945, two days before the explosion of the first atomic bomb, when Oppenheimer recited a stanza from the Bhagavad Gita. Hence, Biswas opines that “Oppenheimer’s knowledge of Sanskrit and the Gita is clearly germane to telling his story.”

Analyzing the scientist’s study of the Gita, Biswas wrote that the scripture “seemed to provide precisely the right philosophy for an intellectual keenly attuned to the affairs of men and the pleasures of the senses.” Kalidasa’s “Meghaduta,” was his favorite. He recalled “reading it with delight, some ease and great enchantment,” in a letter to his brother,” Biswas wrote, citing the biography.

Oppenheimer’s biographers discuss his “fervently” turning to Gita “and its notions of karma, destiny and earthly duty,” Biswas wrote. “Perhaps the attraction Robert felt to the fatalism of the Gita was at least stimulated by a late blooming rebellion against what he had been taught as a youth,” they speculate.

On the other side of the spectrum were desis like Ajay Shah, convenor of the World Hindu Council of America (VHPA) and Convenor of AHAD and HinduPACT, who said his organization is “deeply offended by the scene. “As representatives of one of the oldest and the largest American Hindu organizations, we strongly urge the producers of the film and the distributor, Universal Pictures to remove the shloka from the movie,” read a statement sent to American Kahani. “A shloka is a sacred verse from Hindu scriptures that carries profound spiritual significance to the Hindus. It is not merely a piece of background music to be used for dramatic effect in a movie; rather, it holds immense religious sanctity and is meant to be recited with utmost respect and reverence,” the statement added. “By using the shloka from the Bhagavad Gita without the appropriate religious context, the producers of ‘Oppenheimer’ are trivializing and commodifying a central aspect of Hindu spirituality,” it continued. “This not only shows a lack of understanding of the cultural and religious sensitivities of the Hindu community but also amounts to cultural appropriation, which is deeply disrespectful and offensive.”

Shah told American Kahani that “Hollywood must resist the urge to use Hindu scriptures as props in their movies.” He mentioned Stanley Kubrick’s 199 film “Eyes Wide Shut,” which “used a shloka from the Bhagavad Gita during an orgy scene.” It was removed “from most locations after our protest,” Shah said. Hoping that “Hollywood producers are more enlightened, more aware of religious and cultural sensitivities and more attuned to the global audience they serve,” Shah lamented that they “remain as tone-deaf as they were twenty-five years ago, and perhaps as prejudicial towards Hindus as the colonialists who ruled India for a thousand years.”

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Author and commentator Sahana Singh of Ithaca, New York tweeted that she was “underwhelmed” by the film.  She “cringed in the scene where Oppenheimer’s naked girlfriend sat on him after sex and asked him to read out a Sanskrit shloka from a book on his shelf.” She thought “a better scene could possibly have been him [Oppenheimer] sitting with Arthur Ryder, his Sanskrit tutor and marveling at the shlokas, which is how it probably happened.” However, she lauded “the main thrust” of the film “to show the way in which the U.S. government victimized the brilliant scientist who had misgivings about the use of the bomb was well-shown.”

Lavanya Vemsani,  a professor of history specializing in Indian history and religions at Shawnee State University, Portsmouth, Ohio, also has a different take on the scene. “Using Bhagavad Gita verse during a sex scene in the movie is in bad taste,” she wrote. But Hindus aren’t offended she noted, as “we have seen worse.” However, such depiction is problematic as “it creates even more stereotypes on a minority group which is wrestling with too many misrepresentations already. Missed opportunity”

Meanwhile, in India, the sex scene hasn’t been removed but has been slightly altered. Pugh is topless as she converses with Murphy’s character in a hotel room. But in the sequence that plays in Indian and Middle Eastern movie theaters, her body is covered with a computer-generated black dress.

Other reported changes in India include Pugh’s back reportedly being censored. A “smoking kills” badge is also displayed onscreen when a character is seen smoking a cigarette.

The film is rated U/A, which recommends parental guidance for viewers aged under 12. Despite the uproar in some sections, it has proved popular with Indian audiences, becoming the biggest box office opening day for a Hollywood film in India this year, The Guardian reported. 

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  • I recommend that the author reflects carefully before making sweeping generalizations about the Sanatana Dharma and community. It’s unlikely that her writing would be well-received if she wrote similar drivel about other less peaceful religions’ books had they been displayed on the big screen in such vile fashion. It’s important to be respectful and not distort minority cultures or sacred texts like the Bhagavad Gita. It’s important to be considerate of others and their lived experiences. Using a handful of quotes from 4-5 people who were not offended does not accurately represent the views of the majority of Hindu Americans, despite what the article title may suggest.

    • Exactly. She’s cherry picked the most vocal people on Twitter as ‘proof’. Us deeply offensive. I find it even more egregious that most of these voices are out screaming about abrahamic rights but can’t give indigenous traditions the same rights. What a bunch of hypocrites

  • We are offended. We just don’t burn down theatres to show our disapproval. Abrahamics generally have CHRONIC disregard for indegenous traditions. While you guys will bend over backwards to condemn offences to abrahamics, we’re expected to turn the other cheek and not be offended. Don’t presume to speak on our behalf, as a Hindu, I AM offended. As an American, diasporic Hindu I am offended.
    There was NO NEED for a sex scene and it was done deliberately.

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