Acharya (आचार्यः)

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Acharya (Samskrit : आचार्यः) is a preceptor of education. He is instrumental in imparting holistic education to the student. Unlike the teacher, professor or a lecturer etc in the present day, ancient preceptors were role models to their students. In this article we discuss various points pertaining to the teachers of the ancient days along with a comparison with the role present day teachers.

Qualifications of the Teacher

Since the teacher was held in high reverence, he was naturally expected to possess several qualifications. He was to set an example to the student and so carefully regulated his own conduct. It appears that of the learned rshis, each was the center of a school himself and thus sprang forth various divisions of the Vedas, Smrtis and other branches of learning. All of them highly respected each other, the best example being the conquering of worldly senses and evolution from Rshi Vishvamitra to become Brahmarshi Vishvamitra. They adopted truths from each other and they were the walking books. They were the universities themselves and so Chakravartis and Maharajas did not interfere with them. They had thousands of pupils yet they led a simple life fully devoted to the pursuit of knowledge. Knowledge to them was a prized possession not to be exchanged for huge amounts of gold from the Rajas and Maharajas, best exemplified by the story of the Saptarshis and Raja Vrshadarbhi who insisted on giving dana to them which they refused at all costs.

Their goal of acquiring knowledge was neither for getting credit from others nor for acquiring supernatural forces. Rshis were rather anxious in harmonizing his life with the forces of nature and was against conquering her to make his life comfortable. They rather used their indriyas to take them to supersensuous heights instead of using them to enjoy worldly pleasures. They never scrambled for power or competed with each other for fame. [1] Competitions were in the form of discussions and debates about shastras which only enriched each of them in knowledge. Their tapas, calm and deep thinking, introspective nature made them good guides to students. They had ample opportunities for observing facts with their senses, but they were more anxious to realize the underlying meaning thoroughly. Thus we see the ancients were intent on knowing the final causes of things (going to the roots) and just the phenomenal causality alone.[1]

In the following section we discuss the most common yet significant terms used in Sanatana Dharma regarding those who impart and seek knowledge. It is unfortunate that such sacred terms as the Guru are loosely used in society in the present days.

Preceptors of Vidya

आचार्यः ॥ Acharya

An Acharya is one who follows what he preaches. A brief compilation of various definitions of Acharya from different texts are given below.

Vayu Purana and Brahmanda Purana

वृद्धा ह्यलोलुपाश्चैव आत्मवन्तो ह्यदम्भकाः। सम्यग्विनीता ऋजवस्तानाचार्यान् प्रचक्षते ।। ५९.२९ ।।

vr̥ddhā hyalolupāścaiva ātmavanto hyadambhakāḥ। samyagvinītā r̥javastānācāryān pracakṣate ।। 59.29 ।।

आचिनोति च शास्त्रार्थम् आचारे स्थापयत्यपि । स्वयमाचरते यस्मात् आचार्यस्तेन चोच्यते ॥  (Vayu. Pura. 59. 29-30)[2]

ācinoti ca śāstrārtham ācāre sthāpayatyapi । svayamācarate yasmāt ācāryastena cocyate ॥  (Vayu. Pura. 59. 29-30)

The summary of the Vayu Purana and Brahmanda Purana (Brah. Pura.[3] slokas are as follows

They call these persons Acharyas - wise men devoid of greediness, who are self-possessed and devoid of arrogance, straight-forward and who are educated and self disciplined.[4][5]

An acharya is one who fully understands the conclusions of the various scriptures and practices it (Dharma). He who establishes the code of conduct and puts together (to master and practice) the various texts - such a person is called Acharya.[4][5]


उपनीय तु यः शिष्यं वेदमध्यापयेद्द्विजः । साङ्गं सरहस्यं च तमाचार्यं प्रचक्षते ॥ (Manu. Smrti 2.140)[6]

upanīya tu yaḥ śiṣyaṁ vedamadhyāpayeddvijaḥ । sāṅgaṁ sarahasyaṁ ca tamācāryaṁ pracakṣate ॥ (Manu. Smrti 2.140)

Manu describes Acharya as one who performs Upanayana samskara of his student and teaches him the Vedas along with the Upangas (the deeper meanings).[7]

उपाध्यायः ॥ Upadhyaya

Manu defines Upadhyaya as follows

एकदेशं तु वेदस्य वेदाङ्गान्यपि वा पुनः । योऽध्यापयति वृत्त्यर्थमुपाध्यायः स उच्यते ॥ २.१४१ (Manu. Smrti 2.141)[6]

ekadeśaṁ tu vedasya vedāṅgānyapi vā punaḥ । yo'dhyāpayati vr̥ttyarthamupādhyāyaḥ sa ucyate ॥ 2.141 (Manu. Smrti 2.141)

Upadhyaya is one who imparts the knowledge of Vedas and Vedangas as a profession (वृत्त्यर्थम् for a living) to the student.[7]

Shabdakalpadruma clarifies that an Upadhyaya is one teaches, or prescribes even a little part of the vedas and vedangas, he is also to be treated as a Guru as he contributes to the little or greater good of the student.[7]

गृणाति उपदिशति किञ्चिदपि यः । उपाध्याय-इत्यर्थः । यथा, मनुः । २ । १४९ ।
gr̥ṇāti upadiśati kiñcidapi yaḥ । upādhyāya-ityarthaḥ । yathā, manuḥ । 2 । 149 ।
अल्पं वा बहु वा यस्य श्रुतस्योपकरोति यः । तमपीह गुरुं विद्याच्छ्रुतोपक्रियया तया ॥ २.१४९ (Manu. Smrti 2.149)[6]
alpaṁ vā bahu vā yasya śrutasyopakaroti yaḥ । tamapīha guruṁ vidyācchrutopakriyayā tayā ॥ 2.149 (Manu. Smrti 2.149)

The usage of word Upadhyaya in Shatapatha Brahmana (10.42.36) is to mean 'instructors/coach' (to the wrestlers). So, Upadhyaya possibly could teach 64 kalas. Wrestling is one of them. In the same text the term is used in the sense of priest, a teacher, an instructor and a adhyatmik master in various places (4.29.56, 6.7.32,  10.66.27-28, 10.71.23, 10.83.20).[8]

We can relate this aspect to the present day where the term Upadhyaya refers to teachers who teach different sections of the study material. One may infer that an Upadhyaya teaches part of the study course whereas a Guru influences the student in the long term and directs him in many ways.

गुरुः ॥ Guru

Sanatana Dharma highlights the role of mother as the first Guru to any human being in various texts. For example Vishnu smrti says

त्रयः पुरुषस्यातिगुरवो भवन्ति । । ३१.१ । । माता पिता आचार्यश्च । । ३१.२ । । (Vish. Smrt. 31.1-2)[9]

trayaḥ puruṣasyātiguravo bhavanti । । 31.1 । । mātā pitā ācāryaśca । । 31.2 । । (Vish. Smrt. 31.1-2)

Three are the important gurus for any person - the mother, father and the teacher. Manu defines a Guru (गुरुः) as follows

निषेकादीनि कर्माणि यः करोति यथाविधि । सम्भावयति चान्नेन स विप्रो गुरुरुच्यते ॥ २.१४२ ॥ (Manu. Smrti 2.142)

niṣekādīni karmāṇi yaḥ karoti yathāvidhi । sambhāvayati cānnena sa vipro gururucyate ॥ 2.142 ॥ (Manu. Smrti 2.142)

That Brahmana who prescribes Garbhadana and other samskaras according to the procedures in the shastras to the parents (meaning samskaras starting from the conception of the child) and nourishes by providing food (meaning helps in raising the child) - he is called a Guru.[10] As per Medatithi and Mitaksarakara, Manu intends Guru to mean the father himself.[8]

Comparison of the Ancient and Modern Day Teachers

The primary motivation of teachers of the past was largely aligned with the duties and responsibilities laid down for their own varna (in the sense of occupation), everyone followed their own ashrama dharma.

The present day education system is largely obscured with people becoming business-minded and following other vrttis or professions. This fundamental difference in approach gave rise to various types of distortions as seen below.

S. No Gurus of the past… Teachers of the present day…
1 They had direct, continuous, personal contact with the student Grouped in the Institutionalized System, are in contact with many students, but with minimal personal interaction
2 Supported all round personality development of the student (humility, respect, patience along with knowledge of shastras etc) Are not responsible for Personality development of the student (Subject is taught, virtues are not)
3 Greatly influenced the character of the student (setting role model) Work hard to help students score marks in examinations
4 Completely taught their branch of education (Ekaavidya sukhakari) Gather knowledge suitable for application based study
5 Taught activities designed to reinforce duties and seva (सेवा | selfless service) to the society (physical and mental activities such as chores, yajnas) Engaged in mental activities (assignments and homeworks), and are driven by self goals (of students) and career options.
6 Vidya is sacred and for leading a person to Moksha Vidya is restricted to Artha (acquire worldly property) and Kama (one of the arishadvargas) devoid of moksha perspective
7 Post education samavartana imprints the jivina vidhana to be led by the student and creating good citizens (प्रजाः) (Tait. Upan. Shikshavalli) Post education convocation is for the distribution of certificates
8 Taught Vyavahara jnana Teach Vishayajnana (akshara jnana)
9 Identify and raised the child according to his capabilities. Role of parents becomes minimal once the child is sent to Gurukula. Role of parents continues even during higher education and child is influenced to take up subjects not in his capacity
10 Child receives influences that mould its character and determine its efficiency right after conception. Ex: Prahlada and Abhimanyu Prebirth period of child is not considered to influence the character of the child.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Ray, Brojasundar (1938) Aims and Ideals of Ancient Indian Culture. Calcutta: A. Roy and Co.
  2. Vayu Purana (Purvardha Adhyaya 59)
  3. Brahmanda Purana (Purvabhaga, Anushangapada, Adhyaya 32)
  4. 4.0 4.1 Tagare, G. V. (1987 First Edition) The Vayu Purana, Part 1. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass Pvt. Ltd. (Page 421)
  5. 5.0 5.1 Tagare, G. V. (1958 First Edition) The Brahmanda Purana, Part 1. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass Pvt. Ltd. (Page 316 and 317)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Manusmrti (Adhyaya 2)
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Pt. Girija Prasad Dvivedi. (1917) The Manusmriti or Manavadharmashastra. Translated into Hindi with notes, index and critical introductions. Lucknow : Newul Kishore Press. (Adhyaya 2 Pages 48 and 49)
  8. 8.0 8.1 Prof. J. S. R. Prasad in Bharatiya Vidvat Parishad (A question : Guru-Shishya)
  9. Vishnu Smrti (Adhyaya 31)
  10. Shastri, J. L. (1983 First Edition) Manusmriti with Commentary of Kulluka Bhatta. Delhi : Motilal Banasidass Pvt. Ltd. (Adhyaya 2 Page 59)