Śaṅkhācārya’s name and story


One of the previous lives of the Buddha शाक्यमुनि Śākyamuni, was a life of a ऋषि ṛṣi – a wise man – according to the Treatise of the great virtue of wisdom, the महाप्रज्ञापारमिताशास्त्र Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra written by Nāgārjuna, a famous Mahāyāna author and – theologian if I could say – at least thinker. The story attached to this ṛṣi is somehow heart-warming, but what interests me is the man’s name.


शङ्खाचार्य Śaṅkhācārya [1] was meditating and practicing आनापान ānāpāna, an active control of breath. Since he was holding his breath, his body didn’t give the appearance of a living animal, so a bird mistook him for a piece of wood or a tree, and placed her eggs in the knot of his headdress which was tied on in the shape of a shell. As Śaṅkhācārya didn’t want to disturb nor scare the birds, when he realised he was carrying the eggs, he told himself: 「If I move, the mother will not come back, and if the mother doesn’t return, the eggs will be spoiled」 . Then he decided to stay in his position and return to his contemplation until the moment the birds were able to fly away by themselves.

The ṛṣi’s name Śaṅkhācārya is a compound of two words in Sanskrit. While the second part आचार्य ācārya means ‘teacher’ or ‘spiritual master’ and has no specific equivalent in Indo-European languages that I personally know, the first one is शङ्ख śaṅkha and means ‘shell’, in reference to the shell-shaped knot on the ṛṣi’s headdress. The actual phonetic pronunciation is [‘ʃəŋkʰə] and could be spelled shankha. As we know that the [ʃ] sound in Sanskrit and [k] sound in some European languages such as Greek or Latin, are two different executions of the same original sound, especially in the beginning of a word, we can assume that the Greek word κόγχος [‘koŋkʰos] and the Latin word concha [‘koŋkʰa]– both meaning ‘shell’ as well – are not only cognates, but the same lexeme that evolved separately. English language got its conch directly from Latin. Conch Master would then be a legitimate name for this Buddha’s previous life.

On the Silk Road, near Tumshuq, next to the Tarim Basin, Paul Pelliot discovered in 1906, sculptures from a monastery among which the following elements refer to Śaṅkhācārya. These artefacts can be seen in the Musée national des Arts asiatiques, the Guimet museum in Paris [2]. The birds nest can be clearly seen on the top of the character’s head.

Note on Sanskrit transcription and choice of script

[1] pronounce [ˈʃəŋkʰaˈʧarjə], or shunkhacharyuh for English speakers

[2] https://www.guimet.fr/blog/une-oeuvre-illustration-de-lune-des-vies-anterieures-du-bouddha/

2 thoughts on “Śaṅkhācārya’s name and story

  1. Have you ever considered creating an e-book or guest authoring on other sites? I have a blog centered on the same topics you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information. I know my subscribers would value your work. If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to send me an e mail.


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