In Indian religions and society, an acharya (IAST: ācārya; Sanskrit: आचार्य; Tamil: அசாரி ācāri; Pali: acariya) is a guide or instructor in religious matters; founder, or leader of a sect; or one who sits of gadi; or a highly learned man or a title affixed to the names of learned men. The designation has different meanings in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and secular contexts.
Acharya is also used to address a teacher or a scholar in any discipline, e.g.: Bhaskaracharya, the mathematician. It is also a common suffix in brahmin (Vishwakarma) names, e.g.: Krishnamacharya, Bhattacharya. In South India, this suffix is sometimes shortened to Achar, e.g.: TKV Desikachar. Acharya is also used as surname. In the social order of some parts of India, acharyas are considered as the highest amongst the brahmin community, often described as the "shrestha brahman" i.e. best in brahmins. In Madhwa brahmins Acharya means a priestly person.
The term "Acharya" is most often said to include the root "char" or "charya" (conduct). Thus it literally connotes "one who teaches by conduct (example)," i.e. an exemplar.
In Hinduism, an acharya (आचार्य) is a formal title of a teacher or guru. In rare cases, the title may denote someone considered to be a mahāpuruśa (महापुरुश, divine personality) who is believed to have descended as an avatāra (अवतार, incarnation) to teach and establish bhakti in the world and write on the siddhānta (सिद्धांत, doctrine) of devotion to Bhagwan (भगवान्, lord, God, blessed one, see also iśvara).
Examples of acharyas in the Hindu tradition are:
- Adi Sankaracharya
- Caitanya Mahaprabhu
- Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
- Acharya Shree Koshalendraprasadji Maharaj – (Swaminarayan Sampraday – NarNarayan Dev Gadi)
- Acharya Shree Rakeshprasadji Maharaj (Swaminarayan Sampradaya – LaxmiNarayan Dev Gadi)
In Jainism, an acharya is a monk who is one of the Pañca-Parameṣṭhi and thus worthy of worship. An acharya is the highest leader of a Jain order. He is the final authority in his monastic order and has the authority to ordain new monks and nuns. He is also authorized to consecrate new idols, although this authority is sometimes delegated to scholars designated by him.
Some famous Jain acharyas in approximate chronological order, are:
- Sudharma Swami
- Acharya Bhadrabahu (undivided Jain community, Chandragupta Maurya was his disciple) (325 BCE)
- Sthulabhadra (Svetambara)
- Kundakunda (Digambara, 2nd century CE)
- Jaysen Acharya (Digambara) - wrote tika on Samaysaar - i.e. commentary on Samaysaar Shastra
- Amrutchandra Acharya (Digambara) - wrote a commentary called Atmakhyati on the Samaysaar Shastra.
- Samantabhadra (Digambara, 3rd–4th century CE)
- Siddhasena Divakara (claimed by both, 5th century CE)
- Haribhadra (Svetambara), 700–750 CE)
- Virasena (Digambara), 790–825 CE)
- Jinasena (Digambara), preceptor of the Rashtrakuta Dynasty, (800–880 CE).
- Nemichandra (Digambara)
- Acharya Hemachandra (Svetambara), preceptor of Kumarapala, (1089–1172 CE)
- Jagadguru Hiravijaya (Svetambara), who was invited by Akbar, the Mughal emperor
- Rajendrasuri (Svetambara, 1827–1906)
- Shantisagar (Digambara, 1872–1955)
- Aryanandi (Digambara, 20th Century)
Modern Jain acharyas include Digambara Acharya Vidyasagar and Vidyanand and Svetambara Padma Sagar Suri, Subodhsagar Suri, Yashodev Suri, and Jayantsain Suri. In the Svetambar Terapanthi subsect are Acharya Bhikshu, Acharya Tulsi and Acharya Mahapragya and in the Sthanakvasi subsect Acharya Sushil Kumar have been the leading acharyas.
An acharya, like any other Jain monk, is expected to wander except for the Chaturmas. Bhaṭṭārakas, who head institutions, are technically junior monks, and thus permitted to stay in the same place.
In Buddhism, the Pali variant acariya, lit. "teacher", is one of the two teachers of a novice monk, the other being the upādhyāya. In Mahayana traditions the epithet acharya was more widely used as an honorific indicating great scholastic renown; it was somewhat more general than the similar epithet paṇḍita. The Tibetan term loppön is used to translate acharya.
In Japanese esoteric Buddhism, the term is used for initiates: the Japanese Shingon sects employ the acharya title with its qualified priests who have completed training at Mount Koya, while for the Tendai sect it refers to training at Mount Hiei.