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No, I'm not talking about the eye parasite called Loa loa (a filarial nematode), which is also called eyeworm.  I'm talking about an image that gets stuck in your brain the same way an earworm (also called brainworm, sticky music, or stuck song syndrome) gets stuck in your head.  We've talked about earworms a lot on Language Log (see "Selected readings" below for a few examples), but I don't think we've ever mentioned eyeworms before.

No, come to think of it, I did use the word "eyeworm" once before (here), but that was in reference to the ubiquitous subtitles of Chinese films, even those intended for Chinese audiences, which — upon first glance — may strike one as unnecessary excrescences crawling around in the viewer's field of vision, except for the reasons I listed in the cited post, which lead Chinese audiences to prefer or even need them to understand the films they are watching.

The eyeworm infection I'm alluding to in this post is more like the earworms with which we are so familiar.  Namely, it is an image from a film that you can't erase from your short term memory.  You might not mind having it in your long term memory, but you don't want it intruding in your daily life for weeks on end.  You'd rather that it just go away for a while, quite a while, and stop afflicting you hour after hour..

The scene that has been haunting me recently is one from the movie "Oppenheimer", in which the scientist recites some lines from the Bhagavad Gita.  What is in my mind's eye is a page of what is supposedly Sanskrit displayed on the screen that I strained to read to see whether it matched what he was saying and what he was supposed to have said in connection with the atomic explosion.  Alas, the image was only there for a couple of seconds or so, making it impossible for me to read.  But now it's stuck in my brain — though transitory and not clearly enough for me to read the individual aksharas (akṣara अक्षर) letters.

…upon seeing the Trinity detonation, Oppenheimer reportedly recalled the line, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

The line is from Chapter 11, Verse 32 of the Gita, in which Lord Krishna reveals his divine form to Arjuna (the Vishwaroopa Darshan). Witnessing the terrifying sight of the Lord's cosmic form, Arjuna is overwhelmed with awe and fear.

A more accurate translation of the verse, according to Hijiya, is closer to "Now I am time, the great destroyer of worlds." This was in fact a reference to the aspect of time, where Krishna, in order to persuade Arjuna to carry out his duty, says that time is the ultimate destroyer, and one way or another, the ones Arjuna does not wish to fight will die.


Probing further:

Verse 11.32 of the Gita says: kālo’asmi, lokakśayakṛt pravṛddhaḥ lokān samāhartum iha pravṛttaḥ. The conventional translation of “kālaḥ” is “time”, and via this interpretation, here is the literal prose translation: “I am time, the cause of world-destruction, mighty; come here to annihilate the worlds.”

Oppenheimer had read and studied the translation of Gita by Arthur W Ryder, in which we find:

Death, am I, and my present task

Those who have not read the entire Gita would surely be stumped or misled by this quote in the film. Is this what the divine Krishna says, or is it a mistranslation? Or was Oppenheimer’s understanding of the Gita skewed? Moreover, does this line misrepresent the Gita?


There's no doubt that Oppenheimer was familiar with the Bhagavad Gita and that he was deeply influenced by it, but as is always the case with ancient texts, one must strive valiantly not to stray from their original purport and purpose.  As I am close to wrapping up a decades long project of the translation, annotation, and explication of the I ching with my brother Denis, the Bhagavad Gita eyeworm I'm suffering from now makes me feel this more keenly than ever.

Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 11, Verse 32

श्रीभगवानुवाच |
कालोऽस्मि लोकक्षयकृत्प्रवृद्धो
लोकान्समाहर्तुमिह प्रवृत्त: |
ऋतेऽपि त्वां न भविष्यन्ति सर्वे
येऽवस्थिता: प्रत्यनीकेषु योधा: || 32||

śhrī-bhagavān uvācha
kālo ’smi loka-kṣhaya-kṛit pravṛiddho
lokān samāhartum iha pravṛittaḥ
ṛite ’pi tvāṁ na bhaviṣhyanti sarve
ye ’vasthitāḥ pratyanīkeṣhu yodhāḥ

śhrī-bhagavān uvāchathe Supreme Lord said; kālaḥtime; asmiI am; loka-kṣhaya-kṛitthe source of destruction of the worlds; pravṛiddhaḥmighty; lokānthe worlds; samāhartumannihilation; ihathis world; pravṛittaḥparticipation; ṛitewithout; apieven; tvāmyou; na bhaviṣhyantishall cease to exist; sarveall; yewho; avasthitāḥarrayed; prati-anīkeṣhuin the opposing army; yodhāḥthe warriors

shri-bhagavan uvacha
kalo ’smi loka-kshaya-krit pravriddho
lokan samahartum iha pravrittah
rite ’pi tvam na bhavishyanti sarve
ye ’vasthitah pratyanikeshu yodhah


BG 11.32: The Supreme Lord said: I am mighty Time, the source of destruction that comes forth to annihilate the worlds. Even without your participation, the warriors arrayed in the opposing army shall cease to exist.


In response to Arjun’s question regarding who he is, Shree Krishna reveals his nature as all-powerful Time, the destroyer of the universe. The word kāla is derived from kalayati, which is synonymous with gaṇayati, meaning “to take count of.” All events in nature get buried in time. When Oppenheimer, who was a part of the first atom bomb project, witnessed the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he quoted this verse of Shree Krishna in the following manner: “Time…I am the destroyer of all the worlds.” Time counts and controls the lifespan of all beings. It will determine when the great personalities like Bheeshma, Dronacharya, and Karn will meet their end. It will destroy the enemy army arrayed on the battlefield even without Arjun’s participating in the fight, because the Lord wants it to happen as a part of his grand scheme for the world. If the warriors are already as good as dead, then why should Arjun fight? Shree Krishna explains this in the next verse.


The only salve and solace I can seek is that provided by muse and mistress, fair philology in her Sinological manifestation.


Selected readings


  1. Thomas Hutcheson said,

    August 8, 2023 @ 1:13 pm

    Nice Boethius reference

  2. Denis Mair said,

    August 8, 2023 @ 3:00 pm

    I like the way you tie eyeworms and earworms to persistence in short-term memory. It's intriguing that your persistent mental image is slightly eidetic yet indistinct. I think this brings out an interesting feature of remembered images. They may not be fully eidetic, and in fact they may be preserved as thumbnail images, like bare-bones sketches.
    This reminds me of something from FICCIONES by Jorge Luis Borges. He wrote about a man who woke up remembering a dream image of a flock of birds. It was a small flock, so the number of birds should have been countable. But somehow the remembered image was indeterminate: he could not count the number of birds. He realized that this image posed a riddle: if the small number of birds in the image was countable, then the brain handles quantity in a mechanistic way. If the image really did preserve an indeterminate quantity in visual form, then the mind's eye is not quantitative and mechanistic, and it may allow room for embedded infinities.
    So the indistinctness of your remembered image may be like unrecognizable texts that are glimpsed in dreams. Perhaps they reflect an inherent indeterminacy in the brain's functioning, or perhaps they reflect one's belief that a book of arcane knowledge (天書) exists.
    Perhaps you remember that indistinct image of a page because it is a placeholder for the idea of an arcane book.

  3. Fred Smith said,

    August 8, 2023 @ 4:57 pm

    Certain sticklers for literal translations have misconstrued that the Gītā means. In fact, Ryder is right. Kāla does mean "death" in this context. The direct association of time with death was made unambiguously as early as the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, somewhere between the 7th and 4th centuries BCE (it's of no use to argue the dating here). The well-known name of Śiva, Mahākāla, meaning the Great (mahā) Time (kāla) Lord was equally unambiguous, as Śiva was the lord who presided over entropy, dissolution, death. Mahākāla is the Lord of Death. This is common knowledge. There is all sorts of ordure I have been receiving from others who have received the same messages you have. LEt's put them to rest. May these views enter the land of Mahākāla.

  4. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    August 8, 2023 @ 11:07 pm

    The site referred to here as the "source" might be convenient, but the transliteration of the Sanskrit text is idiosyncratic. It should not be presented as something acceptable. No explanation or justification is given for the second (simplified?) transliteration. The critical edition adopts tvā (a form transmitted in the majority of old commentaries) against tvāṃ (Śārada MSS, Bengali MSS, two comentaries). So why go against it?

  5. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 4:12 am

    [OT] I have made no comment on earworms previously other than to observe that as I listen to at most a few hours of music a year, they are unlikely to infect me. However, showering this morning proved me wrong. Totally unbidden came to my mind (or my imagined ear) a song which I must have last heard 70 years ago : "Wind the bo-o-ob-bin, wind the bob-o-ob-in, break the thread and clap three times". Which in turn led me to recall another song from the same period in my life : "Come ma little darlin' and tak a walk wid me, down in de va-al-ley where all de lillies grow. Dere are sweet pinks and roses, strawberries on de vine: rise up and chose de one dat's suitable to your min'". I recall both melodies with what I think is 100% accuracy.

  6. gwingz said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 7:19 am

    I'm very excited to learn that you are working on an I Ching, having attempted to read a few different translations before but not found one that I could get a handle on. Looking forward to reading it!

  7. Pamela said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 9:10 am

    Stupendous multimedia post. I am very interested in the comments on time=death, since the Mahākāla cult was so important at the Qing court (and wonderfully researched by Sam Grupper). I wonder if an equation between time death is quite right–as contrasted to one being subsumed within the other. The personae worshipped in the cult (which was actually the transmission of consciousness from them to the Qing emperors) were all conquerors, but they were fundamentally identified as čakravartin. Wheel turning is time is death, but conquering is also death which moves time forward. I wonder if time is not the ultimate idea and death is subsumed within it. In any event, the equation with counting/quantification is fascinating. Religious thinking does seem to equate counting (of anything) with the finite, the chronological, the millennial, the eschatological, and absence of quantification with timelessness, cycles, infinity.

  8. turang said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 11:25 am

    It is commonplace that kAla is associated with death. In Kannada, it serves as a euphemism to temper the pain of death that the word sAvu (of Dravidian origin) brings. In Mahabharata itself, in Adiparva (1.2.222 in the critical edition) there is a verse that goes

    यच्च सर्वक्षयं कृत्वा तावुभौ रामकॆशवौ ।
    नातिचक्रमतुः कालं प्राप्तं सर्वहरं समम् ॥

    yacca sarvakṣayaṃ kṛtvā tāvubhau rāmakeśavau |
    nāticakramatuḥ kālaṃ prāptaṃ sarvaharaṃ samam ||

  9. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 2:33 pm


    Brilliant lucubrations on time as subsuming death, and all else.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 2:36 pm

    From an anonymous colleague:

    I actually met Robert Oppenheimer, when I was a Jr or Sr in high school. Sat on the floor and listened to him talk with a bunch of undergrads. I remember him as rather quiet and a bit sad, and with the most unforgettable eyes! I always seem to recognize pictures of him instantly, because of those deeply haunting eyes.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 2:38 pm

    @an anonymous colleague

    The actor they picked for the role was perfect for catching the haunting / haunted look of those eyes! He seemed to be always on the verge of tears. That's another eyeworm takeaway from the film!

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