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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds

J. Robert Oppenheimer famously spoke this quote of Krishna’s in the Bhagavad Gita in reference to the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. As a result, it is probably the most famous quote from the Bhagavad Gita in the Western world.

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”

Colin Marshall recently wrote a brief retrospective on Oppenheimer, the bomb, and the quote, which is Oppenheimer’s own translation from the Sanskrit. As with any religious text, the meaning of this passage is highly disputed, and so without commentary, here are two dozen or so translations (at least 273 English translations exist) of this famous passage at Bhagavad Gita 11.32.

I have intentionally interspersed sacred and secular translators, popular and academic translators, American, British, and Indian translators, and translators with wildly differing interpretations. The only ordering applied is chronology.

The most notable dispute is whether Krishna is Death or Time (or, occasionally, the Destroyer, and in one case, Doom). By overwhelming majority, Time has won out.

Two good overviews of translations are available at sreenivasaro’s and Erenow.

CHARLES WILKINS (1785)
I am Time, the destroyer of mankind, matured, come hither to seize at once all these who stand before us. Except thyself not one of all these warriors, destined against us in these numerous ranks, shall live.

KASHINATH TRIMBAK TELANG (1882)
I am death, the destroyer of the worlds, fully developed, and I am now active about the overthrow of the worlds. Even without you, the warriors standing in the adverse hosts, shall all cease to be.

EDWIN ARNOLD (1885)
Thou seest Me as Time who kills,
Time who brings all to doom,
The Slayer Time, Ancient of Days, come hither to consume;
Excepting thee, of all these hosts of hostile chiefs arrayed,
There stands not one shall leave alive the battlefield!

W. DOUGLAS P. HILL (1928)
Doom am I, that causes worlds to perish, matured and here come forth to destroy the worlds; even apart from thee not one of the warriors drawn up in ranks opposing shall survive.

SHRI PUROHIT SWAMI (1935)
I have shown myself to thee as the Destroyer who lays waste the world and whose purpose is destruction. In spite of thy efforts, all these warriors gathered for battle shall not escape death.

SRI AUROBINDO (1938)
I am the Time-Spirit, destroyer of the world, arisen huge-statured for the destruction of the nations. Even without thee all these warriors shall be not, who are ranked in the opposing armies.

SRI SWAMI SIVANANDA (1942)
I am the mighty world-destroying Time, now engaged in destroying the worlds. Even without thee, none of the warriors arrayed in the hostile armies shall live.

SWAMI PRABHAVANANDA AND CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD (1944)
I am come as Time, the waster of the peoples,
Ready for that hour that ripens to their ruin.
All these hosts must die; strike, stay your hand—no matter.

FRANKLIN EDGERTON (1944)
I am Time (Death), cause of destruction of the worlds, matured
And set out to gather in the worlds here.
Even without thee (thy action), all shall cease to exist,
The warriors that are drawn up in the opposing ranks.

S. RADHAKRISHNAN (1948)
Time am I, world-destroying, grown mature, engaged here in subduing the world. Even without thee (thy action), all the warriors standing arrayed in the opposing armies shall cease to be.

R. C. ZAEHNER (1966)
Time am I, wreaker of the world’s destruction,
Matured,—[grimly] resolved here to swallow up the worlds.
Do what you will, all these warriors shall cease to be,
Drawn up [there] in their opposing ranks.

SRILA PRABHUPADA (1968)
Time I am, destroyer of the worlds, and I have come to engage all people. With the exception of you [the Pāṇḍavas], all the soldiers here on both sides will be slain.

KEES W. BOLLE (1979)
I am Time who destroys man’s world.
I am the time that is now ripe
To gather in the people here;
That is what I am doing.
Even without you,
All these warriors
Drawn up for battle
In opposing ranks
Will cease to exist.

J. A. B. VAN BUITENEN (1981)
I am Time grown old to destroy the world,
Embarked on the course of world annihilation:
Except for yourself none of these will survive
Of these warriors arrayed in opposite armies.

WINTHROP SARGEANT (1984)

I am Time, the mighty cause of world destruction,
Who has come forth to annihilate the worlds.
Even without any action of yours, all these warriors
Who are arrayed in the opposing ranks, shall cease to exist

BARBARA MILLER (1986)
I am time grown old,
creating world destruction,
set in motion
to annihilate the worlds;
even without you,
all these warriors
arrayed in hostile ranks
will cease to exist.

W. J. JOHNSON (1994)
I am time run on, destroyer of the universe, risen here to annihilate worlds. Regardless of you, all these warriors, stationed in opposing ranks, shall cease to exist.

EKNATH EASWARAN (2000)
I am time, the destroyer of all; I have come to consume the world. Even without your participation, all the warriors gathered here will die.

STEPHEN MITCHELL (2002)
I am death, shatterer of worlds,
annihilating all things.
With or without you, these warriors
in their facing armies will die.

BIBEK DEBROY (2005)
I am the terrible destroyer of people. I am now about to destroy these people. Even without you, all the warriors in the opposing army formations will not exist.

LAURIE PATTON (2008)
I am time that has aged,
who makes the world perish.
I have come forth
to destroy the worlds.
Even without you,
these warriors
facing off against each other
will no longer exist.

GEORG AND BRENDA FEUERSTEIN (2011)
I am time, mighty wreaker of the world’s destruction, engaged here in annihilating the worlds. Except for you, all these warriors arrayed in the opposing armies shall not be [alive after this battle].

GAVIN FLOOD AND CHARLES MARTIN (2012)
I am almighty time, the world-destroying,
and to destroy these worlds I have arisen!
Those warriors arrayed in lines opposing
your men, even without you, will have perished!

AMIT MAJMUDAR (2018)
I am Time. I make worlds die.
I have come here to annihilate worlds.
All these warriors, stationed in opposing ranks:
Even without you, they will cease to be.

NICHOLAS SUTTON (2019)
I am all-powerful time that brings destruction to the world. My activity here is to put an end to these worlds. Even without you, none of these warriors assembled here in battle array will survive.

VYASA’S SANSKRIT ORIGINAL (2nd century B.C.E.?)
कालोऽस्मि लोकक्षयकृत्प्रवृद्धो
लोकान्समाहर्तुमिह प्रवृत्तः।
ऋतेऽपि त्वां न भविष्यन्ति सर्वे
येऽवस्थिताः प्रत्यनीकेषु योधाः
kālo ’smi lokakṣayakṛt pravṛddho
lokān samāhartum iha pravṛttaḥ
ṛte ’pi tvā na bhaviṣyanti sarve
ye ’vasthitāḥ pratyanīkeṣu yodhāḥ

Books of the Moment


The George Herriman Library: Krazy & Ignatz 1916-1918

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Cane (Penguin Classics)

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Invisible Man

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Bloodchild and Other Stories

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Stuck Rubber Baby 25th Anniversary Edition

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The Known World

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Erasure: A Novel

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Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: The Four Frontispieces

I read Lanark as a very young adult and, like many others, was marked by its naked emotion, honesty, and despair. Gray’s death at the end of last year, after a long and successful career as an artist and writer, struck me hard. As a celebration of his life and work, I am posting an essay written for an anthology on Gray’s artwork which never materialized, on the sources of the frontispieces for Lanark’s four books and the uses to which Gray put them.

Revisiting Lanark at twice the age I was when I originally read it, I can step back from my heart and better see how intricately Alasdair Gray had crafted the inhuman machinery into which Duncan Thaw and Lanark fall. Coded with symbolic meaning, the four prints constitute Lanark’s most forceful allusions to modern history—and deliver Gray’s rejoinders to that history.

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David Auerbach’s Books of the Year 2019

My top pick is not surprising. Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, László Krasznahorkai’s self-declared completion to his life’s work, is a monumental portrait of catastrophe, and though published in Hungarian in 2016, it feels absolutely of the moment, a depiction of a scattering world in which everything is devalued and no one has the resources to make sense of things. I wrote about it at great length for Music & Literature, and while I avoid the present trend of deeming any and every work of writing to be essential and crucial, I do think that Krasznahorkai’s quartet of novels will endure.

Otherwise, it seemed a bit of a lean year for books compared to the riches of 2018, and some of the best books below, like the two Laura Ridings from Ugly Duckling Presse, actually date from 2018. It’s wonderful to see another book from the always-brilliant Barbara Maria Stafford, and some very strong archival work in philosophy and classics appeared. (Sara Humphreys’s book on Athenian kinship is magisterial.) Melanie Mitchell’s book on artificial intelligence is perhaps the best survey of the state of the field I have read and is strongly recommended to all.

Many powerful forces encourage us to devalue knowledge, and to devalue even the very pursuit of knowledge. In an age of fear and encroaching chaos, this pressure grows stronger. It is my article of faith that whatever meaning can be gleaned from life nonetheless resides in expanding our epistemological horizons as far as they can go, and confronting the new frontiers even if we tremble in so doing. It is the only antidote to the myopia of lived experience.

Book of the Year

Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming

Price: $16.59

41 used & new available from $12.70

Continue reading

The 100 Most Important Words (to I. A. Richards)

Amount, Argument, Art, Be, Beautiful, Belief, Cause, Certain, Chance, Change, Clear, Common, Comparison, Condition, Connection, Copy, Decision, Degree, Desire, Development, Different, Do, Education, End, Event, Example, Existence, Experience, Fact, Fear, Feeling, Fiction, Force, Form, Free, General, Get, Give, Good, Government, Happy, Have, History, Idea, Important, Interest, Knowledge, Law, Let, Level, Living, Love, Make, Material, Measure, Mind, Motion, Name, Nation, Natural, Necessary, Normal, Number, Observation, Opposite, Order, Organization, Part, Place, Pleasure, Possible, Power, Probable, Property, Purpose, Quality, Question, Rea­son, Relation, Representative, Respect, Responsible, Right, Same, Say, Science, See, Seem, Sense, Sign, Simple, Society, Sort, Special, Substance, Thing, Thought, True, Use, Way, Wise, Word, Work.

I. A. Richards, How to Read a Page (1942)

Richards began with the 850 words included in C. K. Ogden’s “Basic English” lexicon, intended to teach foreigners the maximum amount of English with the minimum amount of vocabulary. He selected those which he deemed most abstract and multifaceted, those which possessed “extreme versatility and ambiguity.” In fact, a word’s risk of being misunderstood is a significant criterion for inclusion.

This systematic ambiguity of all our most impor­tant words is a first cardinal point to note. But “am­biguity” is a sinister-looking word and it is better to say “resourcefulness.” They are the most important words for two reasons:

1. They cover the ideas we can least avoid using, those which are concerned in all that we do as thinking beings.

2. They are words we are forced to use in explain­ing other words because it is in terms of the ideas they cover that the meanings of other words must be given.

I have, in fact, left 103 words in this list—to incite the reader to the task of cutting out those he sees no point in and adding any he pleases, and to discourage the notion that there is anything sacrosanct about a hundred, or any other number.

I. A. Richards, How to Read a Page

Richards calls out a handful of words—Soul, God, Time, Space—as being equally ambiguous and important, but not functioning as tools of thought. (In the case of Time and Space, I’m not certain I agree.)

Learning to read—like learning to see how the catch on a door works—is becoming able to grasp some of the ways in which the parts of a complex sys­tem are dependent upon one another. The experience from which skill in reading derives is, of course, a vastly more complex and potent growth of universals than anything the cat can develop. Nonetheless, as with the cat, though much more so, the secret of suc­cess lies in the stabilization of universals in the soul. But the universals which good reading calls for con­cern the wide general ways in which minor universals of less scope may and may not fit together. What counts most is not familiarity with the senses of words taken separately but knowledge of their interdepend­encies.

If we can see how we read or misread “cause,” “form,” “be,” “know,” “see,” “say,” “make” . . . how we omit or fail to omit in taking their meaning, we develop our experi­ence as readers better than in any other fashion. It is with these words that the major universals which should order our reading can best be held up for less ‘exclusive attention.’ These words, as we all know, vary their sense with their company. Their variations are patterns for all other words which follow the same forms. As these patterns grow in our minds they be­ come operative in thousands of places in connection with thousands of other words and without our ever being aware what unnamed forms have become our guides in interpretation.

I. A. Richards, How to Read a Page

This is not such a bad summary of why I have maintained that artificial intelligence has such a long way to go before it can comprehend and engage in human language. Human language has been constructed in the most ad hoc, holistic way imaginable.

Computers don’t manage so terribly with concrete and technical words, but what will AI do when it can understand those words and yet fall down on Richards’s list? What would language be like without those words?

Is that where human language is going under the influence of computers and AI?

A friend has suggested “Taste,” “Health,” and “Care” as worthy additions/substitutions to the list. I think “Value” and “Real” deserve a place. Do readers have other suggestions?

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