BOSTON — When the father of the atom bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, saw the first mushroom cloud above a New Mexico desert in 1945, he quoted the Hindu epic Bhagavad-Gita: "The radiance of a thousand suns ... like the splendor of the Mighty One." And, "I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds."
In India, Dr. Oppenheimer's words are increasingly quoted by a new type of Hindu activist. For them, his use of their sacred text shows how Hindu ideas of deity are connected to modern times. Fire and fire rituals are a major element of Hinduism. The visage of creator-god Vishnu is like the brilliance of a nuclear flash, they argue.
India's own weapons program plays off Hindu myth and symbols. The name of one Indian rocket, the Agni, means "god of fire" in Sanskrit. Trishul, another missile, stands for the trident of righteousness held by Vishnu. The nuclear bomb tests in May were code- named Shakti, which means cosmic energy and is the name of the consort of Shiva the destroyer.
Yet after last month's test, experts in New Delhi and Washington are not speaking of a "Hindu bomb" - as they speak of an "Islamic bomb."
It is true that India's tests were ordered by the new ruling Hindu fundamentalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. Causes for India's bomb are complex, however, and have more to do with national pride than with Hinduism, experts feel.
Yet Hinduism is a basic element of Indian civilization - and the BJP has been packaging and selling a new interpretation of it: "Hindutva" has been very popular in a country still smarting from the psychic wounds of a British colonial past, and feeling neglected after the fall of its patron, the Soviet Union.
To BJP leaders, India is a Hindu state that has ignored the discipline and martial skill in Hinduism. They seek to replace the Gandhian ideals of Hindu nonviolence with a more muscular Hindu tradition.
"For the BJP, India had been a great empire, but one subject to invasion for thousands of years because of a lack of martial qualities," says Francine Frankel, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India in Philadelphia. "BJP has reinterpreted Hinduism to include a manly assertiveness."
BJP leaders, for example, emphasize the tradition of the Hindu warrior kings (Rajputs), who, for their righteous purpose (dharma) of protecting the innocent, wield a stick or weapon of power.
Such ideas are quite familiar to Hindus. In Sanskrit, scripture is "shastra," weapon is "shaastra." It is a "deeply embedded concept in Hindu culture that you hold scripture in one hand and a weapon in the other," says Sanskrit scholar Surendra Gamphir of the University of Pennsylvania. "In Hindu lore, the weapon must be controlled by scripture."
Yet a number of scholars feel that the BJP has distorted Hinduism by overemphasizing its military dimension - and hostility toward faiths like Islam.
Hinduism itself is a cornucopia of beliefs, deities, and stories. It does not have a unified or orthodox element like Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. It is without a canon, an ecclesiastical body, rules, or creeds. Its best teachers or gurus disagree with each other. Without clear doctrinal boundaries, it can incorporate entire traditions.
Buddhism, for example, is compatible with Hinduism. In fact, the Indian nuclear test in 1974 was consciously done on the Buddha's birth-death-and-enlightenment day. India's test last month was done on the anniversary, according to the Hindi calendar, of the first test. In 1974, scientists used the code phrase "Buddha has smiled" to tell then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that the device worked.
Hinduism emphasizes a cyclical notion of life in a never-ending wheel of birth and death. Fundamentalist Hindu thinkers in recent years have pointed out that Hindu warriors can fight without feelings of guilt because the souls of those killed will be reincarnated.
The appropriation of Hindu warrior myths has much to do with a history of emasculation of Indian males, scholars say. Hindutva as an expression of Hindu values is an attempt to fight back. British colonizers, for example, treated Indian men, with their loincloths and reverence for cows, as somewhat womanly. "The British thought the manly warriors were the Muslims," says James Clad of Georgetown University in Washington. "Gandhi also gives Hindus a bad name as far as conventional masculinity goes."
A leading Hindu politician, Balasheb Thackeray of the Shiv Sena party, said in a press conference after the nuclear tests, "We are not eunuchs any longer."
But perhaps one of the greatest appropriations of Hindu values came in the mid-1980s, when Hindu leaders started a campaign to focus the sprawling Hindu faith into a politically effective program. State TV began in 1987 to broadcast a series of Indian epics.
Critics of the popular programs argued that the TV versions of holy tales and legends, like the story of the virtuous god-king Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, were bad for the religion.
The epic tales themselves are highly subjective and were traditionally performed and told by village elders, grandmothers, and schoolteachers. TV replaced this function. "The BJP co-opted and hijacked Hindu values," write University of Chicago scholars Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph.
By 1992, a collective "Hindu consciousness" was established by the BJP. Militantly anti-Muslim, it resulted in the destruction of a mosque in Ayodhya by Hindus, which set off riots and killings for months. BJP has since tempered its Hindu message and program.
But Stephen Cohen, a scholar at the University of Illinois in Champaign, says that, in part, the nuclear test by India last month is a kind of "international Ayodhya." "For BJP, it's a defining moment," he says, "meaning that things will never be the same again."
Fundamentalist Hindus have pointed out that Hindu warriors can fight without feelings of guilt because the souls of those killed will be reincarnated.