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  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 . The birds nest can be clearly seen on the top of the character’s head.
Note on Sanskrit transcription and choice of script
 pronounce [ˈʃəŋkʰaˈʧarjə], or shunkhacharyuh for English speakers
2 thoughts on “Śaṅkhācārya’s name and story”
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.
I’m not representative of any university nor academy. I’m an independent. But thanks, I feel honoured by the suggestion.