“Good times with Lord Nityānanda” were almost as good as when Lord Caitanya started the saṅkīrtana movement in Navadvīpa. I say almost as good because not everyone accepted Lord Nityānanda’s pastimes as genuine, as evident from curses thrown their way by Vṛndāvana Dāsa Ṭhākura in Caitanya Bhāgavata.
I don’t think it should be surprising. Lord Caitanya was very sensitive to people’s perceptions of Him. When He realized not everyone was accepting His authority He took sannyāsa. When He took sannyāsa He made sure His behavior was spotless and no one, absolutely no one could find blemishes in His character and behavior. Lord Nityānanda, otoh, couldn’t care less what people thought of Him, He’d simply melt their hearts with love of God. It worked, but there are always holdouts who might accept phenomena like saṅkīrtana as a new normal but they won’t stop grumbling about this “progress” and seek every reason to criticize it. Lord Nityānanda gave them plenty. All they had to do was to outlast the Lord and then start picking on less than absolutely perfect followers. I’m not saying this is what happened but it sounds plausible to me.
Another speculative reason for apparent decline in saṅkīrtana in Bengal was sex. It doesn’t affect Lord Nityānanda, of course, but it affects everyone of us. Unless absolutely pure we can’t think of somebody’s marriage without at least imagining if we could try it ourselves, and that’s how it gets in.
Generally, all Lord Nityānanda’s associates were married. They were cowherd boys descended from Goloka so it didn’t affect them, it was not a problem and no one thought about it twice, it wasn’t an impediment to their saṅkīrtana. Once they all departed, however, ordinary conditioned souls were left with an impossible standard to maintain and a natural desire to be married.
Lord Nityānanda Himself, ostensibly a sannyāsī, got married and He even got TWO wives, not just one. He wasn’t bound by His sannyāsa vows and was renouncing renunciation. Some devotees in our movement tried that, too, with disastrous results. We can’t imitate the Lord, and we are not even doing it right.
In case of Lord Nityānanda the order to marry came from Lord Caitanya Himself. I don’t remember it being mentioned in Caitanya Caritāmṛta but it stated explicitly in Nityānanda Caritāmṛta by Vṛndāvana Dāsā Ṭhākura. I don’t know why this book is not as popular as his Caitanya Bhāgavata but it exists and there Mahāprabhu gives the order to Lord Nityānanda not only to preach but also to start a household life. There are two chapters dedicated to Lord Nityānanda’s marriage there, and I think it’s covered in other books, too.
Elsewhere I heard that when Lord Caitanya was told of Lord Nityānanda’s marriage people were expected to see His surprise but instead He said that as far as He is concerned, Lord Nityānanda could marry a Muslim girl and it wouldn’t affect Mahāprabhu’s opinion of Him in the slightest. It’s in line with “if you see Nityānanda going into a liquor shop you have to assume He goes there to preach” dictum.
Anyway, Lord Nityānanda married two sisters, one was the famous Jāhnava Mātā who, by all accounts, wasn’t an ordinary woman and we have no evidence to suggest the Lord ever engaged in sexual relations with her, at least she didn’t have any children. Marriage to the second sister was “accidental”. Once she was serving prasādam to the Lord and the piece of sari covering her head fell off. She immediately manifested two extra hands and pulled her sari back up, and that’s how Lord Nityānanda recognized His other eternal consort.
It’s this second wife, Vasudhā, who gave Lord Nityānanda a son, the famous Vīracandra who everyone thought was just like Lord Caitanya Himself.
Whatever we think about marriage now (or rather thought about it in the early days of our movement), it was a necessary institution for preaching to Bengali villagers back then. Somehow it wasn’t so important in Vṛndāvana but we should remember that Vṛndāvana is a small place compared to Bengal, and it was very sparsely populated back then. Whoever went there afterwards went for pure devotion, there’s a kind of entrance price to pay there, but Bengal was open for everyone and it was probably the most populated part of India at the time. People there needed to be converted, not admitted after a thorough background check. Ordinary people won’t go for sannyāsa lifestyle, it wasn’t a thing in the times of Mahāprabhu and it was even less of a thing after His disappearance.
Somehow or other householder followers of Lord Nityānanda and Advaita Ācārya held the fort there for hundreds of years. I heard there was a blessing that Advaita Ācārya’s line would hold for thirteen generations, they are on the fourteenth now but we also offer people other outlets to connect to Lord Caitanya nowadays so everyone who wanted genuine devotion has always been covered.
We can say that general level of devotion deteriorated and Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism was overrun by apa-sampradāyas but we should still remember that this marriage business started on the order of Mahāprabhu and He must have had known how it would turn out later on.
Another case was that of Śrīnivāsa Ācārya who was one the most prominent devotees of his generation. His birth was blessed by Mahāprabhu Himself and He got association of most exalted devotees while growing up. He was initiated by Gopāla Bhaṭṭa Gosvāmī and then trained by Jīva Gosvāmī. He was supposed to be a renunciate even though Bhakti Ratnākara doesn’t mention sannyāsa per se.
When Śrīnivāsa Ācāyra eventually returned to Bengal he stopped in his birthplace and met with his seniors there. At the time Śrīnivāsa was devastated after disappearance of Lord Caitanya and all of His immediate associates. He cried profusely in separation and it was at this moment that Advaita Ācārya appeared to him a dream and ordered him to get married. Later on Narahari Ṭhākura. who was an undisputed authority for Śrīnivāsa since his very birth, suggested the same thing, too.
I doubt they would have done so if Śrīnivāsa still stayed in Vṛndāvana rather then visiting his birthplace with all associated memories. One more reason that one should never ever step a foot outside of Vṛndāvana, the world will somehow get you.
Anyway, first there were orders from the seniors and then the marriage was arranged. It’s not like Śrīnivāsa woke up one day and thought that renunciation wasn’t for him anymore, as it often happens to our devotees. Perhaps household life is a natural coping mechanism in physical separation from the source of our spiritual strength. It doesn’t mean a falldown per se, but physical presence of our guru means physical and emotional engagement for our bodies. In guru’s absence it must be filled by something else because physical attachment in Kali yuga is unavoidable. We can’t go on on the holy spirit alone, to borrow from our Christian friends, it’s not possible for our bodies just as it’s not possible to sustain them without food.
A sidenote here – in Satya yuga prāṇa was attached to bones so as long as bones were there it was possible to maintain life. In Kali yuga prāṇa is dependent on soft tissues and, therefore, proper nourishment and food. I speculate here that the emotional dependency is similarly necessary, so if there’s no guru then there must be a wife.
Of course this “rule” is not absolute but it explains why devotees in constant contact and constant service to their gurus do not generally even think of marriage but as soon as they are left alone they transfer their affection to their partners. It doesn’t mean that our relationships with the guru are sexual in nature but guru does provide companionship and emotional anchor without which we are lost.
When sex gets into the picture we all get affected. Lord Nityānanda wasn’t, Śrīnivāsa wasn’t, but when the rest of us follow their footsteps we are bound to get attached. Maybe it doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things and doesn’t affect Lord Caitanya’s promise to take us back to Godhead at the end of our lives, but the external manifestation of our devotion is bound to suffer and go into “decline”.
So, the point is that it happens, and it’s still probably the best way to maintain the movement in the absence of super powerful ācāryas. It doesn’t mean any actual deficiency and it doesn’t mean Lord Caitanya’s plan is not working and we are ruining His mission. We can’t ruin His mission, we are too small and insignificant, so we better learn to see it as perfect as it is and learn to appreciate His mercy even when by some other standards it might appear as lacking.