In ancient India, education, the panacea for all maladies and problems of life, was imparted more by personal contact than by lectures and discourses. The student learnt more by observing the teacher’s life than by hearing his teachings. Hence the teacher had to ‘be’ that, which he wanted to ‘make’ of his student. First ‘be’ and then ‘make.’ It is this philosophy of education that is reflected in this word ‘ācārya.’ It is only he who successfully gathers (ācinoti) the essentials of dharma and wisdom from all sources and practises them (ācarati) in his own life, that deserves the appellation ‘ācārya.’ In a more technical sense, the ācārya is one who performs the upanayana ceremony of the novice and imparts the Vedas to him, along with the accessories known as the Vedāṅgas.
Great stress was laid on the quali-fications which the ācārya had to possess. Birth in a family known for its erudition and piety was always recognised as highly desirable. Deep erudition in the branch of the Veda he was required to teach was expected as a matter of course. A pure and sinless life, serenity and composure, active interest in imparting knowledge were the other qualifications looked for in the ācārya.
The word is also frequently used as an honorific 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 ‘ācāryāṇī’ whereas a woman preceptor is designated ‘ācāryā.’ From this we can infer the existence of women preceptors also.