If Kṛṣṇa and Lord Caitanya fooled some people, Lord Nityānanda fooled nearly everyone. By fooled I mean “hid His identity”, and if we think about what it means in real life, how devotees must have felt about it, we might appreciate our position and also realize the difficulty of the task ahead of us.
The word “fool” does not fully describe what happened to the devotees who saw Lord Nityānanda. One day He just showed up, no one knew who He was, no one knew His background, no one knew His varṇa or āśrama, He was an avadhūta, a guy who doesn’t follow any rules, and no one knew why. Was it a sign of His spiritual advancement or a sign of anarchism? Was He a medieval punk or was He a medieval monk? Everyone was free to think whatever they wanted.
Lord Caitanya, of course, put everyone straight about Him but the confusion persisted. There are quite passionate complaints in our books about people who didn’t accept Lord Nityānanda’s divinity, there are even threats to kick them, which is very unusual for our literature.
We can’t fathom why would anyone had a problem with Lord Nityānanda but we are the lucky ones – we have all our philosophy, all our secrets laid out for everyone to read. Back then no one knew anything. Kṛṣṇa was accepted as God and that was it. Gopīs? Rasas? No one knew anything about it except for a few confidential servants like Svarūpa Dāmodara Gosvāmī and Rāmānanda Raya.
People were discovering these things as Lord Caitanya’s līlā rolled on. Many learned about it only after Six Gosvāmīs wrote their books, and the same was true for Lord Caitanya and Nityānanda themselves. Lord Caitanya’s authority was unquestionable, Lord Nityānanda’s – not so much.
Lord Caitanya inaugurated the saṅkīrtana movement and displayed many pastimes that left no doubt of His divinity among the devotees. Even that was a process – at first everyone saw Him as an ordinary Sanskrit scholar, young and proud of Himself and His abilities. The realization of His divine powers was also accompanied by wonderful revelations. Lord Caitanya had “earned” His position.
Then came Lord Nityānanda, no one was expecting Him, and suddenly the devotees were supposed to accept Him as Lord Balarāma Himself. Speaking of which – Lord Caitanya already had an older brother who was supposed to be an incarnation of Balarāma – Viśvarūpa.
Like Lord Balarāma, Viśvarūpa didn’t stick around for important parts, like the battle of Kurukśetra. He was also a brother. If Lord Caitanya was Kṛṣṇa, Viśvarūpa must have been Balarāma. Technically, opinions vary. Śrīla Prabhupāda wrote that He was an incarnation of Saṅkarṣana (CC Adi 13.74) but he also wrote in the same purport that Śrī Viśvarūpa “remained mixed within Śrī Nityānanda Prabhu”. Go figure.
It is generally accepted that Lord Balarāma went for the pilgrimage when everyone was fighting a war because, unlike Kṛṣṇa, He didn’t want to take sides as He had deep connections within both camps. Lord Nityānanda, OTOH, took to saṅkīrtana with all His heart and never said “No, it’s not for me, I’ll sit this one out”. He is the patron saint of saṅkīrtana, after all.
How did He get into this position? With Lord Caitanya the progress was obvious, at least as it’s described in His biographies. Everyone saw it, everyone saw His unexplainable affinity for the names of Lord Harī, everyone saw His initiation, everyone saw what chanting of the Holy Names did to Him.
Lord Nityānanda, OTOH, came as an accomplished devotee already. As I said, He just showed up and was put on a pedestal. I hope everyone accepted it but there apparently were people who didn’t quite trust Him. I mean Advaita Ācārya wouldn’t tease Him if there was no grounds to it whatsoever.
Imagine a stranger appears in your village. He’s not a young boy who might have been gifted from his birth and now it was time to reap the fruits of that gift. He wasn’t an old man who might have earned his reputation and respect. He was a thirty year old dude who didn’t have a job, wife, or children, didn’t belong to any recognized sannyāsa order either. He was impossible to classify and I’m pretty sure some thought He was just an impostor who got more attention than he deserved. And he wore an earring only in one ear. I’m sure there were plenty of good, conservative folks who grumbled about that, too.
He also didn’t look divine at all. Sure, He had a body almost as exquisite and beautiful as Lord Caitanya’s but it was still a body. He had to eat and sleep and go to the toilet like everybody else. He got sweaty and had to take showers like everybody else, and when He was struck by a piece of broken pot He bled like everyone else, too.
On what grounds would anyone suspect He was God Himself? None whatsoever, only the word of Lord Caitanya, and even that wasn’t very clear. Lord Caitanya, as far as I am aware, spoke of Lord Nityānanda as the greatest devotee whose mercy is absolutely necessary for any spiritual progress but He never said Lord Nityānanda was God Himself, or if He said it no one caught it on camera and posted it on Twitter.
And then Lord Nityānanda got married. What kind of sannyāsī is that? In ISKCON it’s considered a falldown. Of course we accept Lord Nityānanda as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, just one step after Kṛṣṇa, so He can do whatever He wants and His actions would define dharma, not the other way around, but for people of that age it should have posed a few questions. His married life didn’t look divine either – He had seven children who died at a very early age, though I don’t remember the source.
His preaching was very powerful, however. He really did it, like no one else could before Him. Lord Caitanya, of course, would always remain unsurpassed but Lord Nityānanda was the first devotee who succeeded in spreading the saṅkīrtana mission all by Himself, and He did it as a devotee, not as God. He made thousands of disciples and established dozens of self-sustaining preaching communities. Up until Gauḍīyā Maṭha half of Gauḍīyā vaiṣṇavas were descendants of those converted by Lord Nityānanda (another half were followers of Advaita Ācārya). I mean without Him there would probably be no Gauḍīyā vaiṣṇavism as such, not in Bengal anyway.
We all need shelter of His lotus feet, there’s no spiritual life outside it. We can’t approach Lord Caitanya without His mercy and without His guidance. We can’t serve Lord Caitanya without His mercy and His guidance. We wouldn’t have a guru without His mercy, too. We awe Him everything for whatever progress we make.
As I said, for us it’s easy, we were just told that He was God from the very start, but we should also prepare to go through the same confusion that could have afflicted the minds of those who actually knew Him. Unless being told very specifically – how would we know who to treat as God? We sometimes even doubt our gurus because they look too humane. Well, Lord Nityānanda got married and no one knew He was God, and still they had to surrender to His lotus feet, which otherwise looked like any other feet attached to anybody else, just better.
We think “If I get the mercy of Lord Nityānanda I would immediately know it, because He is God.” That is not guaranteed, we might be very disappointed because actual Lord Nityānanda doesn’t look like God at all. His agents – our gurus, do not look like God at all. I’m afraid in the end we have to consciously surrender to ordinary looking people simply on faith. I’m afraid neither Kṛṣṇa nor Lord Nityānanda would manifest their true spiritual form BEFORE we surrender to what looks pretty mundane.
Of course we would have no problems at all if we looked at the world through the eyes of our guru and Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books, but the alternative, the eyes of our material bodies backed up by material memories, would always try to seduce us and they would always find something inadequate in the objects of our worship.
We have to fight that urge, purge the mere thought of the possibility that atheists might be right and our “gods” are just products of our imagination. Through material eyes it would certainly look that way, and so that’s what we should try to avoid.