Our word for atheists, pāsaṇḍī, would be interesting to dissect according to Sanskrit rules if I knew them but even a cursory look at variations of pas.. reveals quite a lot. There are some unrelated meanings like for words beginning with pasy.. and pasar.. for seeing and forgetfulness accordingly, and a couple of variations to talk about shopkeepers and words to describe dead stones, but the overwhelming number of time words beginning with pas… can be grouped under three meanings – animals, atheists, and those in bondage. I’d estimate over 400 occurrences in our books alone.
What do they have in common? Leaving atheists aside for the moment, bound and animals are synonyms because paśu.., paśo.., paśava.. etc describe not just animals but domesticated ones, ie bound to their owners. By contrast, the word that is usually translated as deer, mṛga, literally means an animal that wanders in the forests, and go for cows means animals that simply wander – when cowherds allow them. Then the time comes and they have to go home because they are not free, they have owners, and so they become pāsu.
Incidentally, I see English go and Sanksrit go as the same word, except the way it’s used in English it has got the sense of purpose while in Sanskrit it relates to general movement itself. Cows go everywhere, senses go everywhere. Those who control movement of the sense become go-svāmīs, He who controls the cows becomes Gopāla and He who enjoys the senses (and loves the cows) is known as Govinda.
That is actually a profound understanding – Kṛṣṇa is the enjoyer of OUR senses, too. We are not Govinda, He is, and so when we partake in sense enjoyment ourselves we deny Him His rights and act as if He doesn’t exist, we become pāśaṇḍī atheists ourselves.
I guess it’s difficult to imagine how Kṛṣṇa would ever enjoy OUR senses, we don’t expect Him to partake in the same degraded pleasures as we do but one explanation could be that senses are subtle material energy, they are not hands and eyes and noses per se, and once we separate senses from their gross tools of materialistic enjoyment they can be perfectly engaged in pleasing Kṛṣṇa.
Come to think of it, it must progress in steps. First we engage our gross sensory organs in worshiping appropriate manifestations of the Lord – decorating the deity or chanting or listening to the words of our guru. Then, as senses become purified, we can engage them in service on the subtle plane – in meditation or in service to the mental image of the Lord, and when we are finally taken back to the spiritual world we get to use our real senses made of purely spiritual energy. I don’t know, this explanation could work because Kṛṣṇa does manifest Himself in forms that we are able to serve with our material bodies.
I still can’t figure out how He would enjoy our senses ALL the time if that’s what they are meant to do. It would require either an extraordinary arrangement where we are engaged in deity service every moment of our lives (by karma many of us aren’t even fit to have a deity) or it means some extraordinary vision where we’d see Kṛṣṇa actually enjoying our sensory work when everyone around us doesn’t suspect a thing. That’s probably how paramahaṁsas see it and we can’t imitate this perception.
This last option makes more sense because the first one implies that Kṛṣṇa is not an absolute enjoyer, that He is Govinda in Vraja but not down here and so it’s up to us and the circumstances to restore Him to His rightful position. The vision where one actually sees Kṛṣṇa in every atom of the creation and not just as the Supersoul but as actual Govinda is explained in Brahma Saṁhitā (BS 5.35):
He is an undifferentiated entity as there is no distinction between potency and the possessor thereof. In His work of creation of millions of worlds, His potency remains inseparable. All the universes exist in Him and He is present in His fullness in every one of the atoms that are scattered throughout the universe, at one and the same time. Such is the primeval Lord whom I adore.
Somehow our translation doesn’t mention Govinda but the line govindam ādi-puruṣaṁ tam ahaṁ bhajāmi is still there to make sure this omnipresence is not ascribed to any other form of Godhead. Three verses after that there’s also the famous “whom the pure devotees see in their heart of hearts with the eye of devotion tinged with the salve of love” line that combines both Kṛṣṇa’s actual presence and the vision of it experienced by devotees.
But I digress. Domesticated animals are bound by their owners, some require ropes, some don’t, some probably need cages but I doubt they had actual zoos in Vedic times, and if they had, they’d refer to caged animals as the same pāśu as the cows. Pāśu describes the act of binding and Lord Śiva even has the appropriate weapon for this purpose pāśupatāstra.
Lord Śiva is also known as pāśupati, the protector of animallike men. Is it a coincidence that variations of the same pāsa.. also mean atheists? I don’t think so. Atheists are certainly bound due to their atheistic mentality. They have no freedom from the material nature whatsoever. In fact, we should probably go the other way – atheism is the result of bondage, not the cause of it. People are not free to see or not see the Lord, they are forced into ignorance of His existence and there’s nothing they can do about it.
Māyā completely covers and enslaves them and they stay fully under her control. They can’t see the Lord in this condition and so they naturally become atheistic. This is what happens to animals, too, and not just domesticated ones but animals in general – they are completely in māyā and can only perceive the imagery that she feeds them.
Animallike men mentioned above (SB 10.76.4) are defined so not because they are actually restrained by ropes but by their behavior and their ignorance of the Supreme. Animals don’t have religion, humans do, that’s what separates us from them, as we’ve been told countless times, and that’s what separates humans from atheists, too.
In that sense animals and trees are actual atheists, some animal like men are atheist as well, like primitive tribes in Papua New Guinea, but the vocal ones promoting atheism as the philosophy of life technically aren’t – they are aware of God, they just don’t like submitting themselves to Him. They have this perverted relationship with Him, but a relationship nevertheless. That’s not atheism, it’s animosity.
I’m not speaking in their defense – people like them are called pāsaṇḍīs in our literature all the time, their conscious animosity does not disqualify them from being called atheists. It’s just that the term itself has multiple meanings depending on context.
The only question about their atheism is whether their animosity is reciprocated by the Lord or whether their lives are governed solely by māyā. We know that they get punished for their offenses but we could see it as Lord’s personal interference to teach them a lesson. If the Lord takes absolutely no interest and they do not get punished for their offenses it’s even worse, then they are actually just like animals. When God doesn’t smite them for their defiance they celebrate it instead but for us it means they have lost all hope and are bound for animal like life without any chance of revival of their consciousness any time soon.
One more thing – it shouldn’t be offensive to atheists when we call them animals, people reject the comparison because they think animal sense enjoyment is inferior to ours but from Kṛṣṇa consciousness POV the difference lies not in quality of their food (some dogs eat better than some humans) but in disappearance of God from their lives. Atheists wouldn’t mind that as long as we don’t mean they get to eat dog food, and we certainly don’t mean that. They’ll probably get to eat pig food, ie feces, in their next life, considering how many pigs they slaughter for their enjoyment.