By Swami Harshananda
Ācārya literally means 'preceptor’ or 'teacher'.
Education was imparted in ancient times more by personal contact than by lectures and discourses. The student learned as much by observing their teacher’s life as by hearing his teachings. Hence the teacher had to ‘be’ that, which he wanted to ‘make’ of his student. It is this philosophy of education that is reflected in this word ‘ācārya.’
Only a teacher that successfully gathers (ācinoti) the essentials of dharma and wisdom from all sources and practices them (ācarati) in his own life receives the appellation ‘ācārya.’ In a more technical sense, the ācārya is one who performs the upanayana ceremony and imparts the Vedas and Vedāṅgas to a aspirant.
Great stress was laid on the qualifications of the ācārya. These included:
- Deep erudition in the branch of the Veda that he was required to teach
- A pure and sinless life
- Serenity and composure
- Active interest in imparting knowledge and
- Birth in a family known for its erudition and piety was a plus
The word is also frequently used as an honor to men of great erudition and learning, especially if they are the initiators of new schools of thought or the revivers of old ones, like Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja, Madhva and others.
The term is also applied to an adviser or preceptor guiding sacrificial rites.
The wife of an ācārya is called as an ‘ācāryāṇī’ whereas a woman preceptor is designated ‘ācāryā.’ From this we can infer the existence of women preceptors also.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore