Who Is An Acharya?

There is and always have been confusion about spiritual teachings and spiritual teachers – it is not a modern phenomenon. The sages have tried to give some clarity by providing guidelines for both teachers and seekers. However, due to the ego of unrealized beings, illusions and delusions abound and it is difficult to stay firmly in the light of the Self.

One of my friends in Russia, last week, emailed me to muse about his difficulties in finding a spiritual preceptor and I think it may be a good idea to explore some concepts about spiritual teachers.

An achara is a path that leads to liberation from the cycle of death and birth and freedom from the shackles of karma. One who can initiate another into an achara is called an acharya or spiritual preceptor. This should not be confused with an upadhyaya or instructor into spiritual knowledge which may sometimes include yogic techniques without true initiation. Many supposed acharyas are really upadhyayas and may not really realize it in the haste to help their fellow beings.

The term guru signifies one who removes darkness and ignorance and in spiritual traditions is synonymous with acharya. There has been a lot of baggage carried by the term Guru due to the excesses and fraudulent claims in recent times. However, this does not in any way diminish the role of a true Guru, just as low-priced knock-offs of rolex watches have not affected the value of the real article. An unfortunate side-effect of counterfeit currency is that every $100 bill is suspect and thoroughly checked. We have a little more confidence if the $100 bill comes from the bank and so also we should make sure of the legitimacy of spiritual teachers – examine their lineage, background, teachings and character before committing oneself.

Although the term acharya and guru are used interchangeably, there is one subtle difference in that the acharya is more focused on the passing on of a particular spiritual path while the guru may focus more on interpersonal and psychological de-conditioning of the student. The Bhagavad Gita considers that reverence for the acharya is a sign of the student’s wisdom while medieval texts encourage the student to perform Guru-Bhakti or devotion to the spiritual teacher as a means of receiving spiritual grace. The acharya is considered a trustworthy guide while the guru is worshipped as a divine being.

There are many varied students with different needs – some want an instructor, others want to be initiated into a spiritual path while yet others want to give themselves in devotion to a divine being. Sometimes a student starts out alone and eventually meets certain obstacles on his path and only then feels the need for a guide while others begin with the search for a preceptor.

There are three levels of acharya – the first is the acharya who points the way, giving guidance on the path that she has successfully navigated, the second is the acharya who awakens the student and acts as a catalyst for higher consciousness, the third is the acharya who liberates the student, taking total responsibility for the welfare of disciple. The third type of acharya is equivalent to the responsibility of a Sat-Guru. It is important to understand that an acharya may function on all three levels depending on the student. To some students, he guides, to others, he awakens and yet for a very few or maybe only one, he liberates. The factors involved are karmic in nature and depends on the students past life actions as well as present life intensity.

A spiritual seeker who feels a need to connect with a spiritual teacher should examine more closely what she is looking for – what type of preceptor he wants to help him in his journey. Then she should prepare herself by doing her own practices whatever they may be while keeping an eye out for the teacher, for it is wisely said, “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.”