Rejecting the horrific specter of stunned, terrified, blackened and bleeding and suffering survivors, hands and arms aloft with patches of roasted skin flapping in the wind, and that swarmed towards the estuaries of the Ota River which had already filled with bloated corpses,1 this week in 1974 India “successfully” detonated the Smiling Buddha. The Smiling Buddha, with its ear-shattering roar, blinding flash, and immense column of dirt and smoke and vaporized bodies reaching skywards, was a fission bomb similar to the one just described and used on Hiroshima during World War II.
A group of scientists, led by Dr. Raja Rmanna from the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, had gathered early that morning in the Great Indian Desert to witness the “Peaceful Nuclear Explosive,” as it was formally called. Years earlier, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi started developing the twelve-kiloton nuclear bomb. With the Smiling Buddha, India became the sixth nation outside of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to generate nuclear weapons and a possible nuclear war. Dr. Ramanna telephoned PM Gandhi telling her, “Madam, Buddha has finally smiled.”
India announced it would not be building any more nuclear weapons but instead, it would be harnessing its nuclear potential for energy purposes. However, and due to the Bush administration’s fearful reaction to Iran’s peaceful intentions towards nuclear enrichment for civilian uses, India was encouraged to change its position. In 1998, it conducted five further tests. India has declared a moratorium on all future testing and maintains a rigorous “no first use” regarding nuclear weapons. Still, its nuclear arsenal is estimated at 200 nuclear warheads and it has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Buddha, an ancient Indian Religious philosopher and founder of Buddhism, means “enlightened one.” It also entails the “Buddha nature” that exists eternally in a state of perfect harmony and is from time to time incarnated in human form. Buddha, who was dissatisfied with his comfortable but hollow life, was deeply transformed by three signs that personified the world’s suffering and poor. He set out on a quest to understand and overcome the afflictions of existence and to pursue a life of simplicity. Eventually, he made the Great Renunciation, surrendering riches and power and rejecting a caste system.
Buddha encouraged humankind to seek liberation from life’s inevitable suffering by revering the processes of nature, by living a virtuous life, and by aspiring to be one with “all of life” and the universe. This kind of enlightened awareness and compassionate understanding begins by acknowledging that life is suffering caused by ignorance and desire. Suffering ends when desire is overcome through right behavior. Right behavior consists of moderation and right understanding, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness, and right contemplation.
It was reported that many Indians were overjoyed and proud of their government’s achievement, that is, the violent explosion of The Smiling Buddha. Since China and Russia already had nuclear weaponry, the U.S. blessed the India’s new weapons technology, calling on India to act responsibly in considering its export.2 Meanwhile, Pakistan declared that “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.” Pakistan too, then, developed nuclear warheads, as did several other nations. Again, nuclear proliferation has often set the world on edge.
Nuclear weapons technologies are not peaceful or enlightened. They do not reflect right living or right contemplation. Neither are they harmonious solutions to international security problems, like Kashmir. They are a false solution, a myth in quest of a crises, a holocaust-like event that can produce immense suffering and the death and destruction of “all of life.” A desire for security and prestige always has a steep price, one that the poor pay double for. Atomic weaponry is a sign of ignorance, weakness, fear, and distrust. Unlike Buddhism, it tries to make national “selfishness” permanent.
Some in India believed their nation should have taken the lead to eliminate all nuclear bombs rather than enter a costly and expensive arms race. But following China’s nuclear test, some wrongly contemplated that “no responsible Indian leader could rule out the option of following suit.”3 Like other nuclear powers, a handful of individuals with little experience in international affairs pushed India and its people to justify the existence of manufacturing and maintaining a nuclear arsenal. Its nuclear power for civilian use has been extremely slow. Only 2% of India’s power is supplied by nuclear reactors.4
A State’s decision to go nuclear is a monumental, indeed a “de-revolutionary” and de-enlightened path. It is always a leap in the dark with potentially massive consequences on every level of politics and policy, including profound effects In the areas of military strategy, diplomacy, economics, domestic institutions, and ethical normative self-image.5 India’s rich heritage and beautiful lands are now scarred with hundreds of nuclear weapons test sites, missile deployment and air bases, nuclear weapons research and production facilities, uranium mining areas, and nuclear waste dump sites.
Buddha believed experience consisted of five aspects of existence. One is rupa, or material existence. In none of them can an immutable, transcendent self be found. All physical phenomena are dependent on contingent causes, all are transitory. However, there is a lasting truth that is not fleeting: love is meritorious when it is selfless and unrewarded-a free gift of the enlightened to all fellow humans. Almost every nation can see Buddha’s universal truth, but few practice it. Yet it is this aspiration, and not messianic, apocalyptic technologies, that has prevented mass extermination.
Desiring nuclear weaponry or escalating nuclear energies merely causes more mental, emotional, and physical suffering. (Recall Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima, etc.. nuclear power plants.) Buddhism and other great enlightened religions and monotheistic faiths have initially always challenged narrow nationalism or self-preservation at any cost. But on that fateful day in what was left of Hiroshima, hoping to be reunited with their families, patients burned beyond recognition advertised their presence finger-painting their names in blood on the lobby walls.6 And in 1974, there was no smiling Buddha.
Dallas Darling is the author of Politics 501: An A-Z Reading on Conscientious Political Thought and Action, Some Nations Above God: 52 Weekly Reflections On Modern-Day Imperialism, Militarism, And Consumerism in the Context of John‘s Apocalyptic Vision, and The Other Side Of Christianity: Reflections on Faith, Politics, Spirituality, History, and Peace. He is a correspondent for World News.
(1) Smith, Michael K. Portraits Of Empire: Unmasking Imperial Illusions from the “American Century” to the “War on Terror.” Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2003., p. 14, 15.
(2) Cirincione, Joseph. Bomb Scare: The History And Future Of Nuclear Weapons. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007., p. 37.
(3) Ibid., p. 67.
(4) Carlisle, Rodney. Encyclopedia Of The Atomic Age. New York, New York: Facts on File, 2001., p. 144.
(5) Mueller, John. Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism From Hiroshima To Al-Qaeda. New York, New York, Oxford University Press, 2010., p. 110, 111.
(6) Smith, Michael K. Portraits Of Empire: Unmasking Imperial Illusions from the “American Century” to the “War on Terror.”, p. 15