I came across the concept of "atonement" when reading one of Srila Prabhupada's Bhagavatam translations. These days, unless you are cautious and check the edition you are reading, you can't be sure if you are reading Prabhupada's words or those of an attention-deficit disordered disciple who compulsively edits his divine grace's translations and purports, to "improve" on Srila Prabhupada's transcendental ecstasies.
Well, i prefer to read the books "as they were," when Prabhupada dictated them late at nite sitting alone in his room. I prefer his language and his emotions to a neophyte's. And most of the changes are so minor they are irrelevant. What justifies altering your spiritual master's life work? Changing Prabhupada's syntax for no better reason than your own ego's satisfaction is hardly justifiable. You can be sure that if Prabhupada were physically here, these editors would be too meek to change even a comma.
The word atonement caught my eye in one of Prabhupada's translations, as we hear the term commonly used in Judeo-Christian culture and religion. It always irks me that the best words in the English language have been co-opted by western religions, thus giving them a spin that renders these words judgmental, aggressive or sectarian to my ears. So i researched the etymology of "atonement" to find its origins and various meanings.
Atonement is influenced by the Latin, adunamentum, meaning unity or reconciliation, especially between man and God. An even earlier root is onement, from an obsolete verb, one, to unite. So the concept of atonement is based on uniting with the divine by reviving one's original consciousness. At-One-Ment.
In popular usage, atonement has come to mean: to make amends for a wrong or injury; to repay or compensate for a wrongdoing or a mistake. It is closely linked to the word, expiate ("to expiate one's sins"), which in turn is connected with the word, appease, meaning to pacify or satisfy. Peace is thus directly related to piety.
Here is where Srila Prabhupada's devotional genius shines a light on the concept of atonement. He writes in SB 6.1.11, that "even though one may superficially seem pious, he will undoubtedly be prone to act impiously." (Sound familiar?) "Therefore real atonement is enlightenment in perfect knowledge, Vedanta, the Absolute Truth."
Another synonym of atonement is the verb, to propitiate. Propitiation is the act of placating and overcoming distrust, to win over and regain someone's favor by doing something that pleases them. To make them favorable to us. So atonement is not an abstract, impersonal activity, but one that is very much connected to reciprocation in a Relationship.
Atonement is an understanding and bonding between persons. That person with whom we most need to understand and bond with is Vasudeva, the knower of Vedanta, the source of everything, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. If we make ourselves favorable to him, our long history of suffering will cease.
Interesting confirmation of this is that the antonym or opposite of atonement is separation. The opposite of making amends and becoming enlightened with perfect knowledge of Vasudeva is to experience the angst of existential separation: maya, illusion, ignorance, the false ego, fear, death. The root of our sense of separation is our damaged relationship with God.
Which brings me to the most concise and compelling definition of atonement i found. It is in the Wiktionary, a new online dictionary related to the Wikipedia. There, atonement is defined as "a repair done for the sake of a damaged relationship."
So there it is: real atonement is to act in such a way as to repair our damaged (bahir mukta, misdirected) relationship with Bhagavan Sri Krishna. The process of atonement is hearing (sravanam) and chanting (kirtanam) about him, developing perfect knowledge of him (smaranam), culminating in taste (rati), spiritual emotions (bhava) and pure love (prema bhakti, complete Krishna consciousness).
Atonement is not Group Think. It is not a competition, a corporate career or ecclesiasticism, church practice.
What is called atonement in mundane circles --pious acts, rituals, austerities, vows and decrees-- is not substantial enough to move the soul out of its sleeping condition. These things only cheat the soul by keeping it attached to matter. According to Srila Prabhupada, real atonement is soul work -- the activity of the soul proper. Detachment from matter.
When the soul practices real atonement, he or she learns to act in full harmony and in perfect knowledge of God. He becomes a yogi of the highest order, a swan who swims in the peaceful lake of At-One-Ment. Diving beneath the surface of popular concerns, the soul learns to play in the tangled stems of the lotus of Sri Krishna's feet. This was the message and the example that Srila Prabhupada taught. Don't accept anything less. Om tat sat.