Pāṣaṇḍīs is our go to word for atheists. I think it’s more technical than mūḍha, fools, though sometimes they go together like in this verse where Śrīla Prabhupāda expands on various meanings of the word pāṣaṇḍī as explained by the previous ācāryas. Apparently, there are many ways one can qualify as an atheist but can it happen to devotees?
Technically, it’s not possible, because Kṛṣṇa’s devotees never lose their bhakti and Kṛṣṇa forever preserves whatever they have, plus He assures failed yogīs that they can resume their path in the next life. This, however, is a long term view, outside of scope where we can use words like “he became an atheist”. In such a long run all those pāṣaṇḍī designations are temporary and not worthy of attention.
Say one commits offenses, gets cast in hell, returns, and resumes cultivating his devotion. Fits perfectly both with what Kṛṣṇa says would happen to such a person and with our immediate desire to label him an atheist. Devotees never go to hell, of course, but there are many other ways Kṛṣṇa can dish out an appropriate punishment, which is more of a lesson than actual suffering. By devotee here I mean anyone who has ever sincerely called Kṛṣṇa’s name, which is enough to save himself from clutches of māyā forever and earn a place at Lord’s lotus feet. In the long run – we are speaking of multiple lifetimes here – hundreds of lifetimes if one rejects his guru, for example.
The verse that promises to “carry what they lack, and I preserve what they have” has a condition attached, however (BG 9.22):
But those who always worship Me with exclusive devotion, meditating on My transcendental form – to them I carry what they lack, and I preserve what they have.
One must continue worshiping the Lord with exclusive devotion to qualify for the assurance that his bhakti will be preserved, or so it appears from direct meaning. Śrīla Prabhupāda explains the kind of worship, meditation, and “exclusive devotion” needed in the purport:
One who is unable to live for a moment without Kṛṣṇa consciousness cannot but think of Kṛṣṇa twenty-four hours a day, being engaged in devotional service by hearing, chanting, remembering, offering prayers, worshiping, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, rendering other services, cultivating friendship and surrendering fully to the Lord.
There’s some leeway in not thinking of Kṛṣṇa twenty-four hours a day but “unable to live for a moment without” KC is tough. Can any of us honestly say we can’t live without Kṛṣṇa even for a moment? I’m tempted to say that I had plenty of those but, on second thought, I probably haven’t. One way or another, but ever since I first opened Śrīla Prabhupāda’s book I’ve always defined myself as Kṛṣṇa’s servant, or Lord Caitanya’s, to be precise, as historically it was this form of the Lord that I saw as my eternal master.
One could say it’s a pride talking and I am very well aware of that but denying and denigrating Lord’s mercy is a far greater offense to commit. People can call be proud and whatever but I’m not going to deny that Lord Caitanya has extended His mercy, took me under His shelter, and never left me since, even if always keeping me at a safe distance from Himself. I am not going to deny this reality for that would make me a pāṣaṇḍī myself. I’d rather be a foolishly proud devotee wannabe than a pāṣaṇḍī.
Here’s the thing that atheists don’t understand – that there’s another reality beyond what they are able to perceive themselves. They think that devotees imagine things but we don’t. Lord’s mercy is as real as anything else we see in the world around us and even more real in a sense that it’s constant and is always there while all other observed phenomena are like lose bits of colored glass constantly rotating in the kaleidoscope of life.
Atheists might come to a certain understanding how the world works and they think they figured it all out but with a little twist of fate the entire picture changes and new, previously unthought of connections are born and they need to rework their entire science again.
Look at the current financial market turmoil – in the past couple of days all stock indices crashed about 10%, which is huge, and it probably indicates start of a long term “correction” rather than a fluke. The projection so far has been that the US has finally overcome its recession and is headed for the first interest rate hike in September. Interest rates are important as basically they show how profitable the economy is – when everything is growing you ought to charge people more. Since 2008 it has been near zero while historical healthy average is about 2-4%. Current crash means that expectations of the US finally returning to normalcy need to be abandoned and with this come difficult questions about money printing and high level of debt. The answers so far hinged on “it’s all going according to plan” mantra but if it clearly isn’t then dollars and US bonds might become worthless and no one knows what will come next.
There’s plenty of ground for speculation about world economy but my point here is that science of economics suddenly has become useless and they need to create new theories about how it all works, which they will have to abandon the moment the next crisis hit.
The other day I saw a perfect definition of what atheism means but it was given as a sarcastic observation of a former Christian so it’s not quotable. The gist is simple, however – any answer to the question “Do you accept JC as your only savior” that isn’t an absolute unqualifiable “yes” is atheism. “Unqualifiable” is not a word but the meaning is clear.
By this logic we are all atheists in one way or another. We don’t particularly care about JC, of course, but any look at the world as real in its disconnect from Kṛṣṇa is atheism – we do not see God. Any time we do not see Kṛṣṇa we are atheists. Any time we instinctively enjoy our senses we are atheists because senses are meant for enjoyment by Kṛṣṇa, not by us.
The only question is the degree of our atheism and the duration of its spells, otherwise the word is meaningless for any conditioned soul because we are all atheists by our [conditioned] nature.
If we hope that as devotees we are spared of the full blown atheism and will never go back to our old life (never mind the habits for the moment) there’s still the mystery of jīva falldown. If we somehow turned our face away from Kṛṣṇa while in His company and got dropped into the material world it means there’s always a chance of going back on our nascent bhakti here, too. It’s not safe here for everyone, which is what our ācāryas have been saying all along.
I could finish this post by saying that the only answer lies in chanting the Holy Name but I think the immortal words of the original “pāṣaṇḍī”, Adi Śaṅkara, would be just as suitable:
You fools, just worship Govinda, just worship Govinda, just worship Govinda. Your grammatical knowledge and word jugglery will not save you at the time of death.
It’s the first verse of Bhaja Govindam often quoted by Śrīla Prabhupāda. Check out the full translation linked on that page, it’s worth it.