Who is an Ācārya?

The premise

A very close associate of mine recently referred to the Nyāsa Viṃśati. They had discussed it in one of their classes during a yoga course. This Nyāsa Viṃśati, it was mentioned, among other things, described the qualities of an ideal ācārya. When my associate shared this with me, I was curious. What is this Nyāsa Viṃśati? Who is an ācārya? Are there other terms for the singular English word ‘teacher’ in our tradition? Let’s look at some basics.

Śrī Vedānta Deśika’s Nyāsa Viṃśati

In the Śrī Vaiṣṇava tradition, after the incomparable Śrī Rāmānujācārya, Śrī Vedānta Deśika or Svāmi Deśikan (c. 1269 C.E.– c. 1370 C.E.) occupies an important position in the ācārya paraṃparā. With 29 stotras, 5 kāvyas (including the popular Yādavābhyudayam and much celebrated Pādukāsahasram), 1 nāṭaka, 32 rahasya granthas, 11 vedānta granthas, 10 vyākhyāna granthas, 4 anuṣṭhāna granthas, 24 granthas on the divyaprabandham, and 13 miscellaneous granthas, Śrī Vedānta Deśika has influenced the Śrī Vaiṣṇava tradition enormously through his literary contributions. (1) (Śrī Vedānta Deśika’s contributions are enumerated differently elsewhere. For example, in (2)) Unfortunately, of his aforementioned works numbering over a hundred, 11 are non-extant. (1)

Every single literary contribution of Śrī Vedānta Deśika is a masterpiece saturated with bhakti. Of his stotras, Nyāsa Viṃśati is interesting for his exposition in 22 ślokas which include the description of the qualities of an ācārya and his śiṣya, explanation of prapatti, and the upāya for mokṣa. (3) The first śloka deals with the qualities of an ācārya.

Let us look at the first śloka:

Svāmi Deśikan refers to the 14 qualities that an ācārya must possess in order to help his śiṣyas (reach Paramapada) successfully. These qualities are enumerated thus (3):

  1. Sat-sampradāyE-siddha – Firmly established in the sampradāya (as handed down by the ācārya paraṃparā)
  2. Sthira-dhiya – of firm mind (uninfluenced by deceit during debates)
  3. Anagha – free from blemishes and sin
  4. Śrotriya – conversant with veda, vedānta, and the Śrī Bhāṣyam (or the respective granthas of the parampara)
  5. Brahma-niṣṭha – blemishless bhakti in Śrīnivāsa (or Brahman of the upaniṣads)
  6. Sattvastha – sattva dominant
  7. Satya-vāca – truthful
  8. Samaya-niyatayā sādhu-vṛttyā samEta – adept in the timely performance of anuṣṭhānas
  9. Dambha-asūyādhi-mukta – free of jealousy, egotism, and other inauspicious qualities
  10. Jita-viṣayi-gaṇa – victor over his senses (indrajit)
  11. Dīrgha-bandhu – an all-time friend for lifting his dependents to paramapada (or mokṣa)
  12. Dayāḻu – compassionate
  13. SkhālityE śāsitāra – corrects his erring students
  14. Svaparahitaparam –determines good for himself and his student

Nowhere does Svāmi Deśikan in the mūla (i.e. original) of the śloka mention that this is meant only for a Śrī Vaiṣṇava ācārya. It may be inferred that, despite Svāmi Deśikan’s inclusion of this śloka in a Śrī Vaiṣṇava grantha, it could be applicable to ācāryas of other traditions due to the recommended general qualities.

Let us refer to some other literature to know more about an ‘ācārya’.

The Amarakośa

The Amarakośa provides information for three different kinds of ‘teachers’.

To simplify (translations mine based on (4)),

  1. An upādhyāya is an adhyāpaka (The one who makes the student study the Veda)
  2. A performer of niṣeka and others is a guru (The one who does the gāyatri mantropadeśa and other samskāras)
  3. The explainer of mantra(s) is an ācārya (The one who teaches both mantras from the śāstra and their meaning)

However, this doesn’t completely clarify the definition of an ācārya.

The Manusmṛti

The second adhyāya of the Manusmṛti contains a śloka describing the role of an ācārya.

“He who having made the śiṣya wear the yajñopavīta, teaches him the Veda (and ancillary systems of knowledge) in the prescribed manner (as per the śāstras) (having properly done the saṅkalpa and in a secretive manner) is known as an ācārya (to that śiṣya)”. (Translation mine based on (5)) However, Shri Ganganatha Jha (6 pp. 113-116) adds to this that the “rahasyam” in the śloka may or may not mean what the śiṣya was taught included the Upaniṣads.

“He who teaches (a śiṣya) a part of the Veda or the six Vedāṅgas for survival is called an upādhyāya”. (Translation mine based on (5))

(Shri Jha (6 p. 116) mentions that ten upādhyāyas or “sub-teachers” are equal to one ācārya. This comparison is based on a different succeeding śloka in the Manusmṛti.)

“He who performs the samskāras of conception (of the child) and others as per the śāstras is called a guru” (Translation mine based on (5))

Shri Jha (6 pp. 116-117) adds that the guru may or may not be the father of the child.

In his notes for the fifth adhyāya, Shri Jha (6 p. 379) quotes a grantha called the “Hāralatā” and “Samskāraratnamāla”:

The Āpastamba Dharmasūtra

The Āpastamba Dharmasūtra gives a definition of an ācārya in the first khaṇḍa of the first paṭala of the first praśna thus:

The general English translation of Srimatham.com (7) is “He from whom one gathers [ācinoti] [the knowledge of] Dharma is called the ācārya [teacher].”

There are several instances of the word “guru” in the Āpastamba Dharmasūtra. There may be confusion whether it is used synonymous to “ācārya”. However, in the seventh khaṇḍa of the second paṭala of the first praśna is stated thus:

This would translate to “If [a student] has more than one teacher, the alms [collected by him] are at the disposal of him to whom he is [currently] bound.” (7)

The document from Srimatham explains right below the śloka that:

Hence, we may dare guess that, while there can only be one ācārya who performs the upanayanam, there can definitely be multiple gurus. Thus, the “guru” mentioned in the Āpastamba Dharmasūtra may not necessarily be the same as an “ācārya” mentioned earlier.

The word “upādhyāya” finds no mention in the Āpastamba Dharmasūtra.

The Yājñavalkya Smṛti

The Yājñavalkya Smṛti contains two ślokas in the Brahmacāri adhyāya defining the teachers.

Śrīśa Candra Vidyārṇava (8 p. 81) translates this thus:

Śrīśa Vidyārṇava translates Mitākṣara’s commentary as:

The immediately following śloka is:

Śrīśa Vidyārṇava’s translation of the (relevant) first pāda (quarter) of the śloka:


Considering the three manuals of Dharma, we can infer that an ācārya is one who teaches the Veda (and its secrets) after the upanayana; a guru is one who (typically) performs samskāras on the child before its birth and the teaches the Veda; and an upādhyāya teaches certains sections of the Veda for survival.

Regarding the number of these teachers, the above definitions point out that:

  1. There may be multiple gurus who have simply taught some aspect of the Veda to the seeker.
  2. There may be only one ācārya.
  3. There can definitely be many upādhyāyas.

Moreover, an ācārya of one seeker, could be a guru to another. Technically, the very same person could be an upādhyāya for professional reasons. Also, roles such as that of the upādhyāya might not be set in stone. It is possible that he may equip himself better in the Veda and get promoted to the position of a guru or an ācārya.

According to Svāmi Deśikan, knowledge and teaching of the Veda as well as following Dharma is not sufficient. Hence, he enumerates all the essential qualities in an ācārya. Svāmi Deśikan practically provides a manual for an ideal ācārya.


Śāstras define different teachers based on the role they have to play in the life of the seeker. Oftentimes, we use the word “teacher” in English or the more common word “guru” in our conversations. We must be careful regarding the same.


  1. Life History of Swami Desika . Sri Vaishnava Cyber Satsangh. [Online] [Cited: July 8, 2017.] http://srivaishnavam.com/desika_life_history.htm.
  2. sri vedanta desika sampradaya sabha. SRI VEDANTA DESIKA’S WORKS. stotras of sri vedanta desika. bombay : sri vedanta desika sampradaya sabha, 1973.
  3. Desikan, Sri Vedanta and Sathakopan, Sri Varadachari. Nyasa vimsati. sadagopan.org. [Online] [Cited: July 8, 2017.] http://www.sadagopan.org/index.php/component/djcatalog2/?format=raw&task=download&fid=371.
  4. Simha, Amara. Amarakoshamu. Hyderabad : Srijayalakshmi publications, 2016.
  5. Saraswati, darshananand. Manu Smriti. Mathura : Pustak Mandir, 1957. p. 55.
  6. Jha, Ganganatha. Manu Smriti Notes. Allahabad (?) : University of Calcutta, 1924.
  7. Ācāri, Sri Rama Rāmānuja, [ed.]. Āpastamba Dharma and Grihya sutras. https://archive.org/details/apastamba__dharma_grihya_sutras.
  8. Vidyārṇava, Śrīśa Candra, [trans.]. Yajnavalkya Smriti. Allahabad : The Panini Office, 1918. Vol. 1.