Reframing that "Oppenheimer" sex scene as a Hindu woman who delved into my religion's sacred truths

The earliest Hindus saw sex as a soul of their religion and culture, and Christopher Nolan pays tribute in his way

Published August 7, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Florence Pugh and Cillian Murphy in "Oppenheimer" (Universal Pictures)
Florence Pugh and Cillian Murphy in "Oppenheimer" (Universal Pictures)

Two weeks ago, on a Sunday, I literally ran out of my six-hour Patient Care Technician shift to watch "Oppenheimer," Christopher Nolan's biopic starring Cilian Murphy as the Manhattan Project scientist, J. Robert Oppenheimer. In ninth grade, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Benjamin Bederson, who was a bomb switch operator for the Manhattan project, so the inner high school history nerd in me was ready to be enthralled by the movie of the summer. 

However, the iconic and controversial "Gita" sex scene where grad student Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) descends on Oppenheimer had me literally running out of the room faster than I ran out of my job to watch it in the first place. In this scene, the two sleep together for the first time following a communist party gathering. Midway through intercourse, Jean picks up a bound copy of the Hindu scripture "Bhagavad Gita" from Oppenheimer's bookshelf, and asks him to read from it – where we get the foreboding quote, "Now I become death, the destroyer of worlds" – before proceeding with the act as he continues to read. Although the film has received rave reviews, this scene has garnered immense criticism from Hindu nationalist group, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for its insertion of religious scripture into sexual intercourse.  

Disclaimer: I started squirming in my seat during the scene and spent a good 10 minutes afterwards in the bathroom stall, calming myself down. Then I bought a blue Icee and ran back in to watch the rest.

The scene, although uncomfortable, was mind-opening. All of a sudden my present started to articulate my past forward as I was transported out of the movie theater and into my eighth grade health classroom. Today's topic: the forms of sex. All three forms – as my teacher called it.  As someone who didn't even know that sex existed until that moment, I immediately started twisting in my chair and had to leave the room as the teacher's descriptions got more and more detailed. My mind could not handle the fact that two people could crave touching each other's private parts out of choice or out of adoration. But several of my classmates were unfazed. And several of them laughed at my reaction for weeks.

At that point, I knew I had to change. I had to take initiative to learn what my parents had always avoided discussing with me. So, I started reading "Game of Thrones" and its fanfiction to educate myself.  And lots of it. By the time I had finished high school and college, I had read so much of it that I thought I had numbed my mind to sexual thought and literary depiction. But that "Oppenheimer" Gita sex scene told me differently.  

When I saw it on screen, I still could not handle it. 

Across the whiteboard he had written in all caps these words: KAMA SUTRA.

Growing up in a conservative Indian American household in the midwestern United States, I never heard from my parents discussions about certain bodily actions seen as "obscene" or taboo and why society perceived them in that way. I'd never seen them even kiss each other in front of my sister and me. I never had a person who could talk candidly with me about embarrassing or scary changes in my body and make them no longer seem so mysterious and foreign. After that revelatory eighth grade sexual health education class, there were questions that I was dying to ask but knew it was not OK to ask my mom or dad. To them, there was no comedy nor beauty in discussing sex and sexuality, especially when they were starting from scratch with someone like me, who was on the brink of puberty but still had many gaps in her knowledge. I wondered why my parents always shied away from this topic – even when it is something so deeply human and important.  

"You don't have to know these things. The more you know about it, the more you will want to jump in earlier," my mom would say. "I don't know why they teach these things to kids so early in this country."

Two years later, in 10th grade world history class, I was a raging "Game of Thrones" fan who had read almost every Sansa/Tyrion fanfic on the internet (including the rated M for mature ones). We were learning about ancient India, and my favorite teacher of all time told us something that shocked me more than the Oppenheimer scene: that early Indian civilization was a pioneer in and center of sexual desire.  

Across the whiteboard he had written in all caps these words: KAMA SUTRA

"Do you know what this is," he yelled across the room to the whole class. "Anyone? How about you, Sibani?"

I was the only Indian American student in my high school class. I honestly and vigorously shook my head. I worshiped this man on many levels, but I sincerely did not know the answer to his question. I was also embarrassed that I didn't know about this supposedly very important text from my own culture. 

"This is a book . . . about sex," he continued. "All the different positions and the ways to enjoy them. And it originated in INDIA."

I felt my face flush.  My parents had ensured that I watch re-enacted versions of the Indian epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana on our tiny TV screen in my small Iowan midwestern town. My late grandmother had ensured that I learned how to speak my native language TamiI, and my parents pushed me to retain that. They put me through Carnatic singing lessons over the phone to help me better connect with my heritage and culture. Yet, they had conveniently chosen not to mention this uncomfortable but fascinating truth about the book of sex originating in India.  

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That day, I went home and scoured the internet. And what my genius of a world history teacher had told me was beyond true. It turned out that I did not have to even turn to the internet, but rather had to dig back into my own memories of visiting temples across South India during my summers and sometimes seeing their walls adorned with near-naked female idols. When visiting, I remember being a bit surprised that these sculptures were not taken down by the conservative Indian communities that surrounded them. However, history reveals that the communities that initially surrounded the sculptures may have been ones where sex and spirituality were united, not untied.  

For example, the seven-foot-tall Sathyamurthi Perumal Temple in my motherland of Tamil Nadu, India features detailed and sacred architecture depicting intercourse. In fact, these structures are protected by the Archeological Survey of India. This is not a standalone example. The juxtaposition of sexuality and sanctity can be seen in Hindu temples ranging from the Sun Temple in Gujarat to the Jain temples of Rajasthan to the Virupaksha temple in Karnataka – all located in India. 

Sex was a characteristic of early Hindu civilizations in a way that was arguably more explicit than any scene in "Oppenheimer."

Early India's fascination with sex is not limited to architecture but also spills over into literature beyond the "Kama Sutra." While the major Hindu epics "Mahabharata" and "Ramayana" are certainly not as pornographic as "Game of Thrones," these ancient religious epics are far from devoid of the depictions of sexual pleasure.  The pages contain stories of great sages committed to abstinence, who could resist everything but the temptations of sex. Draupadi, a pivotal character in "Mahabharata" and powerful example of polyandry, simultaneously keeps and sleeps with five husbands. Hindu scripture is not devoid of sexual exposure. In fact, the "Gita "that Oppenheimer invests his mind in is derived from a scene in the "Mahabharata."

When my mom sent me an article on the Hindu nationalists' criticism of the questionable sex scene in "Oppenheimer," I immediately defended the Western approach to sex.  

"The difference between the Western world and the Indian one is that the Western one can own up to human temptations and sins, versus in India, we like to hide from what makes us human anyway. Just remember that India – not USA – was the earliest erotic place in the world where a so-called 'book' originated. Read beyond headlines," I wrote in response. 

However, I now realize that my scathing response – while it is not fully false – lacks sensitivity.  The "Gita" is a sacred text.  While it does encourage sex for procreation, it discourages sex for pleasure. I do not agree with that principle in the "Gita" (isn't sex called making love for a reason?), but I do think Nolan crossed the line a bit. Just a bit. But only a bit. 

Even if the scene made me very uncomfortable, walking through Hindu temples trying to recite prayers and seeing naked copulation sculptures has also made me very uncomfortable. So, when the Hindu nationalist BJP calls the scene a "disturbing attack on Hinduism" that "wages a war on the Hindu community," that is not at all accurate either. The earliest Hindus saw sex as a soul of their religion and culture. Maybe that is not how things are today, but as a Hindu woman myself, history and religion calls upon me to pursue the truth. The truth is that sex was a characteristic of early Hindu civilizations in a way that was arguably more explicit than any scene in "Oppenheimer." The truth is that my parents and several of my Indian American friends' parents unfortunately often avoid this reality. The truth is that Nolan saw the raw sexual stuff of life as text to be read, art to be created and conversation to be generated. If anything, this scene pays tribute to the reality that several sacred Hindu spaces – even if this excludes the "Bhagavad Gita" itself – do indeed sing of the sexual. 

To all Hindus in this world – including the BJP –  let's not be angry and offended. We've not earned the right to be given the past. Instead, let's invite a responsible dialogue about what history can teach us about our own religion. And then, we can talk about how we would like for that religion to be accurately represented.

By Sibani Ram

Sibani Ram is a recent graduate of Duke University, originally from Iowa City, Iowa.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bhagavad Gita Commentary Hindu India Kama Sutra Mahabharata Oppenheimer Ramayana Religion Sex