H.S. Shivaprakash
Hachette India
November 25, 2018
Final Verdict

About the Author

Born in Bangalore in 1954, poet and playwright H.S. Shivaprakash is considered one of the most influential voices in Kannada literature. A recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Sangeet NatakAkademi Award, he has also received the highest awards in Karnataka for literature and drama. His literary works have been translated into most Indian languages, as well as into English, Spanish, German, French and Italian. A scholar on the Indian bhakti traditions, he is also the author of Everyday Yogi and I Keep Vigil of Rudra. Professor Shivaprakash teaches theatre studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is also Honorary Fellow at the School of Letters, University of Iowa, USA. –This text refers to the paperback edition.

Guru: Ten Doors to Ancient Wisdom and Ancient Spirituality

Satyarth Pandita reviews Guru: Ten Doors to Ancient Wisdom (Published by Hachette India, 2018)

GURU: Ten Doors to Ancient Wisdom begins with an interesting introduction, titled ‘Before Approaching The Doors’, where the author, much like an architect, lays out the blueprint of his creation that guides the readers through the various paths or doors that will ultimately converge at a common point within the book’s pages.

In the initial paragraph, the author assumes the role of a guide, promising to lead the seeker-reader on a journey to the threshold of ten doors of spiritual wisdom. These doors offer glimpses into hidden knowledge.

The author, however, clarifies that the book draws from the fusion of Indian spiritual and Philosophical theories, with its core concepts derived from diverse ancient spiritual traditions. These concepts are organised into ten chapters, symbolising ten doors.

Importantly, there is no prescribed order to explore these doors; readers are free to delve into the chapters in any sequence they choose, as they are all interconnected and lead to the same ultimate goal.

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Door 1: GURU

Upon encountering the word ‘Guru,’ my mind harks back to a childhood essay I penned on ‘Teacher’s Day.’ In that memory, the act of writing, the page, the ink, and the words are vividly etched. One line of the essay read: “‘Gu’ means darkness. ‘Ru’ means the one who destroys. Thus, one who destroys darkness is considered to be the Guru.”

However, within this chapter, the author delves into the concept of the Guru as the first door, portraying this figure as a spiritual teacher who illuminates the inner path. The chapter serves as a meditation on the dynamic between Gurus and Shishyas (disciples). The author shares personal experiences and timeless stories, including that of Milarepa, a Tibetan yogi who transformed into an exemplary yogi under the rigorous guidance of his spiritual master, purging himself of the negative karma accumulated through black magic.

The author also weaves in verses from various poets and saint singers, all revolving around the theme of Gurus and Shishyas. While the author initially presents the Guru as a physical entity initiating disciples, there is a realisation that the Guru transcends personhood and embodies a universal principle permeating all existence. One might, however, find the absence of the idea of ‘Vishwam Guru Namah’ or ‘The whole world is my Guru’ somewhat conspicuous.

At this juncture, it’s worth introducing the tale of Avadhoot Dattatreya, a revered figure in Hinduism, who is said to have learned from 24 different sources in the world around him, which he considered his gurus. These gurus were not necessarily human teachers but rather various elements of nature, animals, and life experiences that imparted spiritual wisdom to him. Here is a list of the 24 Gurus of Avadhoot Dattatreya: Earth, Water, Air, Fire, Sky, Moon, Sun, Pigeon, Python, Ocean, Moth, Bee, Honey-gatherer, Elephant, Deer, Fish, The Dancing-girl Pingala, Raven, Child, Maiden, Serpent, An arrow-maker, Spider and Beetle.”

Within this chapter, the author tackles a crucial question: Where can a seeker encounter the right Guru, and how can they recognise them? The answer lies in the notion that the Guru appears when the disciple is spiritually prepared.

While exploring this first door, I was reminded of a verse from The Bhagavad Gita that echoes the sentiments presented in this chapter. In the verse, Lord Krishna advises Arjuna in the following words: “Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth.”

Door 2: MANTRA

In this section, the author explores the origins and essence of mantras, defining them as tools that expand the mind’s horizons. Mantras are depicted as a means of harnessing and controlling the mind, consequently influencing the soul. The author supports these concepts with a tapestry of parables, stories, and personal anecdotes that underscore the significance of mantras. The importance of obtaining the right mantra from a mantra guru, someone who has attained mastery through rigorous, long-term practice, is emphasised in the chapter.

While many ancient texts and spiritual leaders prescribe specific methods for chanting mantras to activate their effects through the resonance of sound, the author offers a contrasting viewpoint. He suggests that the most effective mantra practice is one where there is no practice at all. He cites a lesson from one of his gurus, who revealed the secret of how the mantra works: ‘A sincere cry from the heart begins to resonate all through the cosmos.’

This section evokes a parallel to an episode from the series Upanishad Ganga. The episode recounts the story of a young Brahmachari seeking a mantra that would grant him life’s joys. He undergoes years of penance and service to the fire god under the guidance of an Acharya. Eventually, the Acharya whispers the word ‘OM’ to him as the coveted mantra. However, the Brahmachari is disheartened when he hears ordinary people using ‘OM’ in daily conversations, feeling that the mantra isn’t as exclusive as he believed, and therefore confronts his teacher.

The Acharya reassures him that ‘OM’ is indeed a secret mantra. The Brahmachari is then tasked with gauging a certain stone’s worth in the marketplace by trying to sell it but refraining from actually selling it. As the Brahmachari engages with buyers, a jeweller recognises the stone’s exceptional value, while others underestimate it. The Acharya likens this to the ‘OM’ mantra. Just as only an expert can recognise the unique stone’s value, ‘OM’ remains an enigmatic gem, appreciated fully only by those who grasp its profound mysteries, regardless of its common usage.

Door 3: DEVATA

In this section, the author explores the profound connection between mantras and devatas, emphasising that a devata cannot exist without a corresponding mantra. The author delves into the diverse perspectives on the image of God across various religions, highlighting how in the Indian spiritual approaches, instead of God creating man as in the Judeo-Christian framework, the seeker attributes the human form to his gods.

This notion brings to mind a fragment from the Greek philosopher Xenophanes, who observed how different cultures envision their gods in human-like forms, reflecting their own characteristics.

“The Ethiops say that their gods are flat-nosed and black,

 While the Thracians say that theirs have blue eyes and red hair.

 Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw,  And could sculpt like men, then the horses would draw their God.

 Like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape

 Bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.”

Talking about the various forms of Gods, the author comments: “God is abstract, impersonal, and formless. Devtas, however, can manifest through three forms: mantra, yantra, and mandala.” He adds,

“Unlike the Judeo-Christian God, which refers to God as male, the Indian devata can be male, female or androgynous, although the ultimate godhead in the Indian traditions is genderless. Depending on the mantra, the devata can also be a combination of a human and an animal.”

Door 4: KAYA

Once the seeker has had the blessings of his Guru and the mantras to guide him, the seeker’s journey toward spiritual enlightenment leads them to the consideration of the body, or ‘kaya.’ The author explores how various religious sects perceive the body as a potential source of bondage, presenting their diverse perspectives on how to tame and control it.

One illustration of this perspective is found in the Shvetambara and Digambara Jain monks, who demonstrate remarkable courage by eventually renouncing life in pursuit of spiritual liberation. These monks view the body as a potential obstacle on their spiritual path.

On the other hand, the author introduces the concept of Vamachara, or “left-handed tantra,” which holds that the body can serve as an instrument to awaken the Divine within. This approach advocates the use of the five ‘Ms’: madya (wine), mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (parched grain), and maithun (sexual intercourse). These pleasurable objects, shunned by other ascetics, are considered tools for spiritual awakening within the Vamachara tradition.

Conversely, the author discusses Dakshinachara, or “right-handed tantra,” which seeks to spiritualize the body without employing the elements used in the Vamachara tantra. This approach represents an alternative path for those who aim to transcend the limitations of the body while adhering to different practices.

Door 5: PRANA

For the author, Prana, or the breath, is the bridge between body and mind that needs to be tamed as it has an undeniable control over the two.

This door provides a glimpse into the art of breath control and breath awareness and also the techniques such as pranayama and its various forms like Suryabedha, Chandrabedha, Kapalabhati, Bhrastrika, Sitali, and Sitkari as a means to control breathing.

At the same time, it also cautions the reader-seeker at the same time providing a reference from Hatha Yoga Pradipika that pranayama practice is as risky as playing with a tiger and that it needs to be practised under the supervision of a qualified expert.

Door 6: MANA

This door provides a glimpse into the concept and ideas of the mind or ‘mana’ and the ways to control it for achieving spiritual liberation. The author provides the Indian spiritual concept of the mind as well as delves into the art of meditation and its diverse forms as a means to control the mind.

In one of the most interesting paragraphs of this chapter, the author pens down the comparison of the mind to an animal according to the Indian spiritual literature in which the mind is often compared to a monkey, jumping from tree to tree or thought to thought. This is explained further in another paragraph: “The popular Indian monkey-god, Hanuman, is a symbol of how the monkey-mind can become a yogi and a powerful god after having disciplined himself through yoga and devotion.”

Door 7: KAMA

Kama, in a broad sense, refers to desires, but here, the author has chosen to delve into the most powerful yearning of sexual desire. In this shortest chapter, he talks about different sects by laying out stories of how they either try to refrain from sexual activities, considering it as a hindrance in the path of spiritual growth or use it as a tool to channel their energy.

He sums up this section in the following lines: “Sex is not a door that necessarily shuts us to a spiritual life; it can also be a legitimate door that leads us in. In one way or another, the sexual urge has to be acknowledged and accepted before it can be transformed or transcended.”


By means of Karma and Kayaka, which refer to the actions and labour performed for livelihood, respectively, the author focuses on their importance in the path of spiritual growth This chapter finds the most number of verses from across the country in which the poets speak for all artisans and labouring saint-poets for whom manual labour, apart from being a means of livelihood, is also a way of life leading to ultimate freedom.


Similar to the previous section, which explored actions and labour as pathways to spiritual enlightenment, this door now turns its attention to ‘Pratibha,’ often referred to as ‘the creative light within.’ Pratibha encompasses a wide range of artistic expressions including music, dance, and poetry.

This emphasis on artistic endeavours is beautifully encapsulated in a couplet composed by Bhattanayaka: “The joy that the goddess of poetry gives to the recipient due to her love for him is greater than the joy that the yogis talk about.”


Anuttara serves as the ultimate and final gateway, where all preceding doors converge. It represents the unparalleled state of spiritual attainment. Described by the author as the “door of doors,” it is where all possibilities both open and close. This is the aspiration of every spiritual seeker, a lasting state that one may enter into either once or repeatedly.

In the author’s own words, concluding this profound journey: “Anuttara is the most difficult one to talk about. There is no set of demonstrable exercises or techniques that can take us there. It is a purely subjective state of unadulterated joy, tranquillity, and fulfilment that can arise spontaneously, through the grace of a true guru or Universal Consciousness.”

H.S. Shivaprakash’s “GURU: Ten Doors to Ancient Wisdom” is an enlightening exploration of spiritual concepts drawn from diverse traditions.

Through engaging storytelling and deep insights, he guides readers through ten interconnected doors, inviting them to discover ancient wisdom at their own pace. The book delves into fundamental questions, which are featured on the back cover, such as: Why do I need a guru? Why is meditation important? What role does sexuality play on the spiritual path? These queries are thoughtfully addressed within the pages of the book, providing valuable answers for seekers and readers alike.

However, it’s worth noting that the book offers only a limited number of novel insights based on the author’s personal experiences. The book skillfully employs engaging storytelling and deep insights to guide readers through ten interconnected doors, allowing them to explore ancient wisdom at their own pace. Readers should be aware that the book’s promised content may not fully align with their expectations and that they may find that the book falls short of delivering all the specific wisdom they might expect. 

Another notable aspect is that while the book touches upon various themes, it tends to focus in-depth on only a few of them, leaving others relatively unexplored. Nevertheless, “GURU: Ten Doors to Ancient Wisdom” does delve into fundamental spiritual questions featured on the back cover, such as the significance of having a guru, the importance of meditation, and the role of sexuality on the spiritual path. These inquiries are thoughtfully addressed within the book’s pages, offering valuable insights for seekers and readers alike.

Favourite Quote from GURU

Baba, as I called him, emphasized for me the essence of all things, which was Ishq. The paradigm of guru-disciple love, he said, was to be found in the stories of Laila and Majnu, Shiva and Parvati, Radha and Krishna. He reminded me time and again that the guru is not a person but a principle pervading everything: it speaks and shines through a million voices and forms if you have the ears to hear and the eyes to see.

Have you read this enlightening book that opens the door to ancient spirituality? What do you think of it? Drop a comment below and let us know!

Satyarth Pandita

Satyarth Pandita

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