‘Acharya’ is related to the word ‘chara’, meaning to walk, to go. ‘Charitra’ means walking along a path. In Tamil, we sometimes say, ‘Avaa rombaa acharam’ – meaning they follow traditional practices strictly. An acharya is one who walks a noble path, follows an established order and sets an example through an orderly moral conduct. He exemplifies various common elements of Hindu dharma, such as ahimsa and truthfulness. There are however different traditions or sampradayas. An ‘acharya’ is therefore also one who lives according to the sastras of particular sampradaya. He inquires into and instructs others in the meaning of sastras. He sets an example and he preaches. This is what we mean by precept and practice.
One who lives a disciplined life according the acharas – customs and practices governed by the sastras and sampradaya to which he belongs – is an acharya. But, to be an acharya, an acharya must also have a disciple so that the sampradaya is passed on. To be able to teach profound concepts also means the acharya himself should be a scholar and for that purpose instructed by his own teacher in a systematic way.
‘Guru’ means ‘weighty’ or ‘big. Words like ‘Mahan’, ‘Periyava’, and, of course, ‘MahaPeriyava’ (used in connection with Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi of Kanchi Mutt), they all communicate a sense of greatness about the person. Being a guru is primarily about inward greatness: a guru need not teach or give upadesa – one could just be a ‘mauna guru’, like the original guru of all, Adiguru Dakshinamurti.
An acharya represents a system. His qualities are outwardly discernible as a teacher and a role model. A guru is primarily about being great. He or she need not have studied sastras, or, be part of an order, but, nevertheless, be in touch with the ultimate Power, or, be a yogi who keeps his mind under control. While a guru may have no disciples at all, people who recognise the force of his inner light and greatness may seek his grace or wisdom.
People go to a guru primarily to receive his blessings because of his greatness and not necessarily for being taught, but, this often results in a relationship where illumination is sought. This brings us is to another meaning of the word ‘guru’. ‘Gu’ means darkness. In Tamil there is a word, ‘kummi iruttu’: the words ‘ku’ and ‘gu’ mean exactly just that – ‘utter darkness’. ‘Ru’ denotes that which banishes (something). ‘Guru’ thus means one who banishes darkness. Darkness is ajnana, or, ignorance. We say ‘tamaso ma jyotir gamaya’ – lead us from darkness to light, or, from ajnana to jnana. A guru is one who sheds light, or jynana, in particular about one’s self.
A guru may be a scholar and impart a mantra or give diksha. Equally, he need not have studied sastras at all, but, by virtue of being ‘great’ and through his grace shed light on various things and dispel darkness. Unlike an acharya who instructs a disciple systematically and over a period of time, the interaction with a guru may be a momentary one, with no oral communication at all but just a ‘kataksha’ or side glance. Even such a brief anugraha can be like an electric switch being turned on, with the resultant light burning forever. It is something many have experienced with their chosen gurus. You live that moment all your life.
Adi Sankara is universally regarded both as a great acharya, if not the greatest, and a jagatguru. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s scholarly first Prime Minister – a self proclaimed rationalist and a non believer – says in ‘Discovery of India’:
“Adi Sankara strove hard to synthesize the diverse currents that were troubling the mind of India of his day and to build a unity of outlook out of that diversity. In a brief life of 32 years, he did the work of many long lives and left such an impression of his powerful mind and rich personality on India that it is very evident today. He was a curious mixture of a philosopher and a scholar ….. and, a practical reformer and an able organizer”
“He functioned on the intellectual, philosophical and religious planes and tried to bring about a greater unity of thought all over the country. He functioned also on the popular plane, destroying many a dogma and opening the door of his philosophic sanctuary to everyone.”
“He typified the triumph of undying, everlasting soul-force and became the world teacher, Jagatguru, for all time.”
An key legacy of Adi Sankara is the mutts he set up, including in South India the ‘Moolanmaya Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam’ and the ‘Dakshinamnaya Sringeri Sri Sarada Peetam’. The current Sankaracharyas of these mutts therefore represent unbroken lineage from Adi Sankara. For their devotees, they are the Jagatgurus and Acharyas, i.e., guru of all and an acharya in the tradition of Adi Sankara.
An important annual event in this long tradition of acharyas and gurus is Guru Poornima, the full moon day in the month of Ashadha, or Tamil Aani. The Acharyas perform a most elaborate guru puja called vyasa puja. This was the day, when Vyasa - author of the Mahabharata and codifier of the four vedas - was born. Although called vyasa puja, it is puja for all the gurus from time immemorial to present days. (Please see a separate article by the author on Vyasa Puja).T
Incidentally, Guru Purnima is also celebrated by Buddhists as this was the day when Buddha gave his first sermon in Sarnath. He got his enlightenment in Bodh Gaya but his first sermon was in Sarnath, on the outskirts of Varanasi. Jains also celebrate it, as it was on this day Mahavira made Gautam his first disciple. Both Buddha and Mahavira thus became Gurus themselves on this day.
This year, Vyasa puja (or Guru purnima) falls on the 15th July, 2011. While one has to be blessed to participate in an authentic vyasa puja in a place like the Kanchi mutt, those of us who can not do so should at least remember our Acharyas and Gurus on that day and in our own way perform pujas and pray to them.
सदाशिवसमारम्भां शङ्कराचार्यमध्यमाम् ।
अस्मदाचार्य पर्यन्तां वन्दे गुरुपरम्पराम् ॥
Obeissance unto the Guru Parampara, beginning from Lord Sadashiva upto the present Acharya with Sri Shankaracharya in middle.
Hara Hara Sankara, Jaya Jaya Sankara
Hara Hara Sankara, Jaya Jaya Sankara