Dr. Thimappa Hegde
In Episode 17 Nitesh Batra speaks to Dr. Thimappa Hegde. Dr. Thimappa Hegde is a distinguished neurosurgeon, and is presently working as the Director of Narayana Institute of Neurosciences, Bangalore. A Vedantic Scholar, Dr. Hedge speaks about wide variety of topics including connection between science and spirituality, communication and parenting to his inspirations in life. This conversation was recorded back in October 2019 and is very relevant to the uncertain times we are living in.
Show Transcription >>
Nitesh Batra: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Mindful Initiative podcast. Today we are very honored to have amongst us Dr. Thimappa Hegde, who is a renowned neurosurgeon in Bengaluru. He’s the Founder and Director of the Narayan Institute of Neurosciences in Bengaluru. Dr Hegde, after completing his MBBS, did his Neurosurgery Residency at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, which is NIMHANS, in Bangalore. Further, he pursued his fellowship in the US, Holland and Japan. He was at NIMHANS until 2003 after which he decided to work with Narayan Hrudayalaya. That’s where he is right now.
Dr. Hegde: Because neurosciences, whatever it is, is an aspect of science and science studies. The objective world and spirituality has no business with the objective world or any object. It deals with You. Now, You means the one who is listening. Again, to answer these principal questions about meaning of life, meaning of death, leading a fuller life, and all scriptures come back to mindfulness. Any scripture in the world comes back to the richness of this moment.
Nitesh Batra: Welcome, Dr Hegde.
Dr. Hegde: Thank you. Thank you, Nitesh.
Nitesh Batra: So, during these podcasts, one of the first things that we do is try to understand something about the upbringing of the person that we are in interviewing. So, if you can tell us a little bit about your upbringing, where you’re from and how did you get into thinking about doing medicine?
Dr. Hegde: My father a doctor and at that time I virtually had no choice. So being a doctor, sometimes I was called as a doctor itself. So I virtually thought I had no other choice but to be a doctor. But I didn’t know how I would ever get into a medical school. But I assumed it would happen in due course.
Nitesh Batra: And that’s how you just decided to pursue that journey. Did you grow up in Bangalore?
Dr. Hegde: Yes. It was in Bangalore. I grew up in Bangalore. I was in a Catholic school- St. Joseph’s Boys’ School. And then I continued into St Joseph’s College for my PUC. And it was a matter of few circumstances because I never considered myself to be, you know……,i considered my self to be average or less than average. A certain transition happened a little later in the years where something propelled me to work to survive and got the necessary grades to get into a medical school.
Dr. Hegde: My home was very close to NIMHANS and I could see the whole building coming up at that time. And while in medical school it was a sort of dream that if I will ever be there one day? And like many things in life, you know how things happen. It did happen. One day I had admission into the Neurosurgery Program. And getting into a good program like this, it, you know, it’s a matter of time when you complete the program and thereafter get absorbed into the faculty. So when you are in a position, you have no time to think. Years pass. And that’s how many years into neurosurgery at NIMHANS.
Nitesh Batra: Interesting. I was reading a quote from Wayne Dyer– I don’t know if you’ve heard of him. He says, your intention becomes your reality.
Dr. Hegde: That’s true. That’s true. Whatever’s your deep intention, becomes a reality. And I fully agree with that.
Nitesh Batra: So you touched a little bit about the Catholic faith and one of the other things I try and understand and I would like to know more about in your upbringing, what role did spirituality play?
Dr. Hegde: While in schooI itself, I came across– I was very fortunate to come across a very highly enthusiastic Catholic priest- Father Ronnie Prabhu and his life was a message for me. His life– when the word enthusiasm itself, he portrayed– the word Entheo means — “En” means “within”, “theo” means God and he radiated goodness. He radiated, godliness. Human being, but godly. And very fortunately for him, circumstances brought me very close to him. One central message that he always had is how blessed we are, how lucky we are. And that was his message, to say that, you know, when we are so fortunate, can we make the most of every opportunity, every moment of our life?
Nitesh Batra: And that’s– was that the only thing that you were exposed to in your childhood or did any Vedantic philosophies…
Dr. Hegde: Not at all. While it was school, it was predominantly Catholic and all my role models were the founders of the Society of Jesus. It was Saint Ignatius of Loyola. And again, through Father Ronnie Prabhu. And his message was that if you have to really serve, you have to be as trained as possible, as skilled as possible. As I said, becoming a doctor was not an option. it was…I thought,I had to be one. But then I got into neurosurgery and neurosurgery gave me a tremendous opportunity to examine life. Because that’s where you see, in a government hospital that it was, where you see a lot of poor people, a lot of human suffering, death and the dying. So, death and the dying became something very close to my life. Because you encounter death so often, especially because of road traffic accidents or because of brain tumors, which are fairly serious. And then, we begin to contrast life in the background of death. And that sort of led me into various spiritual, into what is this meaning of life? What are the meaning of life in the contrast of death?
Nitesh Batra: You are a vedantic scholar and I forgot to mention that in our introduction and you conduct many workshops, many trainings related to Vedanta. And I believe that’s where your journey of finding the Self started, when you started looking at the kind of problems our…the society we are living in. Because, I don’t know in your childhood, how your childhood was. But in my childhood, I wasn’t really exposed to too many difficulties in life and it was a comfortable life where we overlooked some of these problems. And later on, as you mentioned, when you start seeing some issues in life, these problems start questioning what we are doing. So your journey of Self as it has continued, what does it mean to you that, what are you looking for? What is your exploration about?
Dr. Hegde: The main questions come from answering families of patients who are going through suffering, patients who are going through death and the dying. So somewhere, it is to be able to find answers for them and through them too, for myself. That is how somewhere my spiritual journey began. And to many extent, it is the, you know, a lot of parallel with the life of Gautama Buddha. Guatama Buddha saw suffering only. He saw an old person, a sick person in a dead body. And the question occurred, is there any meaning when you, when you encounter this in daily life? Now he was able to discover it for himself. Fortunately I had somebody who was able to explain these Buddhist Sutras and these Buddhist Sutras were my first exposure to Mindfulness. And of course, I had never had a living teacher, but much of my readings was by a chance exposure to Osho.
Dr. Hegde: And I find that nobody better than Osho could explain the various Buddhist Sutras, trying to understand Zen, trying to understand Mindfulness. Trying to understand death, dying and the meaning of suffering. So, somewhere the books of Osho gave me a lot of message for a long time in my life. Vedanta came very much later, much later when I was in Narayana Hrudayalaya. I chanced…… Nayarayana Hrudalaya opened a unit in Chinmaya Mission Hospital. And there, the Swamiji requested me to speak on a Gita Conference. I had absolutely no idea of the Gita or the Upanishads and if I was to be speaking about the Bhagavad Gita, I thought I should learn something about it. Now that kindled me and then on, I discovered that you know, among all this books that are available, something which is simple but is direct, was the Bhagavad Gita. And that’s how my journey into Vedanta began. Again, to answer these principal questions about meaning of life, meaning of death, leading a fuller life and all scriptures, come back to Mindfulness. Any scripture in the world comes back to the richness of this moment.
Nitesh Batra: So you’ve answered my next question, already. But I’ll ask it in a much deeper way. So, I have really enjoyed listening and reading to Osho. I think he was one of the most enlightened beings and he had his issues in whatever way that was. But in terms of his understanding of life, I think he was the most enlightened one, at least in our lifetimes. Now, from his perspective and his explanations of the Sutras that you have studied, when he explained Mindfulness to you, what did it mean to you? The way he explained it? Because his commentary– I have not been exposed to his commentary, but I would like to understand from you, what did it mean to you, the way you understood it?
Dr. Hegde: The Buddhist Sutras come alive through his discourses. So there is one Buddhist Sutra from the Heart Sutra, the Hryudayam Sutra. It is actually a very popular mantra. It goes like this, “Gatey, Gatey, Paragatey, Parasaam Gatey, Bodhi Swaha”. I have heard these, the same thing ..I’ve been to a program where The Dalai Lama spoke on the same mantra also. I sat in Delhi, very close to him and I heard him repeat in Sanskrit, “Tad Yatha, Gatey Gatey, Paaraa Gatey”. But the way Osho has brought out this whole mantra….Osho has a tremendous amount of admiration for Gautama Buddha. He compares Gautama Buddha as the ultimate, the most enlightened, the most scientific, the most godly, and the most godless. Because he never spoke about God. But yet, he led more people to God than anybody else.
Dr. Hegde: And from Buddha came on Zen. And Zen is……there is no scholarship, there is no books, there is nothing. It is pure mindfulness. It is just this moment and you know, to live in this moment in its entirety. And to me, his works both for understanding the Buddhist Sutras and for what Zen is. And what does it mean to me is….you know, more and more, can I live my life more and more fully? Beginning with when you wake up in the morning. And these came subsequently with various Hindu works also. According to an Indian tradition, when you place your foot on the ground, when you wake up, the ground is Goddess Lakshmi. And there is a beautiful mantra which says, “Samudra-Vasane Devi Parvata-Stana-Mannddale,Vishnu-Patni Namas-Tubhyam Paada-Sparsham Kshamasva Me”—– “Please excuse me, I am placing my feet on you”.
Dr. Hegde: Just imagine, beginning the day with the feeling that I am resting on Goddess Lakshmi. Many Indian traditions and some of the teachers who give you certain exercises after a certain phase is—-they say at this moment, wherever you are, are you aware of the ground beneath your feet? Now that’s when you become grounded. That’s when you become mindful. The paradox about mindfulness is, the mind is the biggest barrier for mindfulness. And sitting with you, but my mind can take me to thoughts far away and miss this moment and the proximity that I’m sitting on the chair in front of the microphone, in front of you. Because my mind goes into the next question or whatever I have to answer. So if you would continue in this moment….so you need many situations in your daily life to remind you, come back to this moment, be here, be now.
Nitesh Batra: And I think that’s what the intention does as well, on a daily basis. If we can start with our intention. So shifting gears a little bit, moving towards the convergence of neuroscience and spirituality. Over the last –about 30-40 years, there has been lot of progress– leaps and bounds- in the field of neuroscience and neuroscience is trying to scientifically prove what Spirituality has done hundreds and thousands of years ago. Where do you see that in India? Where do you see that going? Where is it right now as compared to the other parts of the world? And are we getting to a point where we’ll see a convergence or where we’ll see some parts at least align a little bit?
Dr. Hegde: With neurosciences and spirituality?
Nitesh Batra: Spirituality. Yes.
Dr. Hegde: Neuroscience is one aspect of science and it deals with the brain maybe to some extent about the mind. And fortunately, I’ve been able to balance these two different domains. One is to be able to work as a neurosurgeon, which gives me some idea about the brain and the brain functioning to a certain extent. Not really psychology. Because psychology is another domain which is not part of my work, but part of my interest that has taken me into the world of psychology. And over the years, my good fortune of various teachers have taken me into the depths of the world of spirituality. One thing is very, very clear. That the world of spirituality deals with oneself and it deals with the subject. It deals with You. And when I say You, I mean it is someone other than this body and mind. When you deal with science, the science deals with the object and science with all its advancements can get better and better into the objective world.
Dr. Hegde: But science has no access to the one who’s looking through the instrument of science. Now, the instrument of science could be a microscope or a telescope. Now, through the instrument of science, I can study an object much better than without these tools. And science is only a tool. But the same tool cannot look back into the person who’s looking through the instrument of science. And that is where I always find a problem and people try to compare neurosciences and spirituality. Because neurosciences, whatever it is, is an aspect of science and science studies, the objective world. And spirituality has no business with the objective world or any object. It deals with You. Now, You means, the one who is listening. Not your ears, not your brain, but someone who’s behind the brain who’s listening. And that is why personally for me, it has been a great advantage. The advantage is….you know, whenever people listen to spirituality from a neuroscientist, they assume that I have a lot of advantage from a scientific angle. But I know these are two different parts altogether.
Nitesh Batra: So recently, I think in about 2016, there was a paper that was published which talked about the 4th dimension. There is 3 dimension as we all know. They talked about the fourth dimension, which is our Consciousness. And there has been subsequent research that is trying to understand the real problem. You know, what are the properties and I’m not able to understand how can you find properties related to Consciousness, which is different for each individual. Is that something that you are talking about because they are separate for each person. How can you relate that to? Is that something that you’re going in that direction?
Dr. Hegde: Yes. . See, science will talk of Consciousness. But what science talks of Consciousness is a state of mind. You know, I can be more alert when I can say…maybe more higher state of Consciousness. I can be drowsy or I can be asleep or I can be in coma, which are various levels of the mind functioning or the mind alertness. Or if you want to talk about mindfulness–more mindful or less mindful. But what we’re talking about Consciousness, has nothing to do with the state of mind. By Consciousness means, the principle of awareness. You know, I can only talk of Consciousness from what the Vedanta speaks about. And what Vedanta speaks about, Vedanta has given a nice definition of Consciousness. And that the definition of Consciousness is, “That which has no limits”. Now there is one Upanishad which has nicely defined.
Dr. Hegde: Of course, it’s extremely difficult to understand. The Taittiriya Upanisahdsh– 2nd chapter begins with, ” Satyam Gyanam, Anantam Brahma” –“That which is there for all times”. Satyam means, not true or untrue. “Sat” means, That which exists, that which never becomes non-existent, that which will always be there. “Gyanam” here means Consciousness compared to the state which is inert. “Anantam”— This is the most beautiful word. The word “Ananta” means, no limits in time. There is no limits in space. There is no limits in object. Now, you have to understand that something which is all pervading in space and that which has no beginning or no end because it is beyond time. Now what we really need to understand is we can have some idea of space. We see that space is both inside me and outside me and it is everywhere.
Dr. Hegde: Space gives an idea of infinity. Now if that infinite space has the ability to be Conscious, so, that is what we talk of. Consciousness is not the state of mind, but Consciousness is something that enlivens me. Consciousness is that which is all pervading and something that is never destroyed even when the body is destroyed.
Nitesh Batra: Is that the similar concept in Buddhism of Shunyata?
Dr. Hegde: That’s right.
Nitesh Batra: So different faiths have different things.
Dr. Hegde: That’s right.
Nitesh Batra: From an understanding standpoint, it sounds very good. It’s something that we aspire in all our lives–that this is where we would like to be. But then, when we come to the ground, we have real issues that we deal with day to day basis, and you deal with them because you see patients, you see their real problems that they deal with. How can we use these spiritual things? Let’s say mindfulness for example, to help us live our life in better ways?
Nitesh Batra: What is something that a normal human being can do who doesn’t have the understanding because of one reason or the other?
Dr. Hegde: Over the years, I have learnt one thing that all these spiritual inputs are for me and for the therapist directly and very indirectly for the patient. Supposing, if I am empowered,only then I’m able to make a difference to another person. When a person is in physical pain, when a person is in psychological distress, the person is begging for relief of pain, relief from the disease, relief from the psychological and we need to address that. The person is not in any receptive state for any spiritual inputs at that time. Very rarely they may be. But you know, sometimes you get windows or you get foothold for them to enter into the world of spirituality. But for most people it’s suffering, compounded suffering and suffering.
Dr. Hegde: Sometimes by chance they come across a teacher or somebody who, you know, was able to help them. That suffering can be found meaning, only through the world of spirituality.
Nitesh Batra: So, someone who’s not a patient, for example, and if they would like to get started, if they’ve never been on this path of mindfulness or spirituality per se, and they don’t have a teacher, they don’t know where to go. Your journey started with your teachers. What is that you would recommend for them to do and how can they start this journey by themselves?
Dr. Hegde: The problem is in the world of spirituality, the need for a teacher. Because you know, if I have to learn to drive a car, I need a person who will teach me how to drive. If I need to learn a cycle, I need somebody to help me, to teach me. Even to swim, I need. Now for all these basic things, if you need a teacher, now into the world of spirituality where you’re trying to understand yourself, who is someone other than this body and mind, it requires, definitely requires a person to guide you. And without guidance it becomes difficult. So you may read with books, but the problem is sometimes you misunderstand and when a person is misunderstood, it’s more difficult. You get a false sense of knowledge and that is a problem.
Nitesh Batra: I think I’ve heard you speak about this and I think it brings to mind one of the things that I heard, which is, “Asato Ma Satgamaya, Tamaso Ma Jyotirgamaya, Mrityor Ma …..” and you talk about that the teacher takes you from dark to light and from unreal to real. But your understanding has evolved based on what your experiences has been over the years. And I think it directly goes into that question. If you can explain a little bit about why is that teacher needed to take you from that place, that abyss of where you don’t know what to do, to that place of joy and freedom?
Dr. Hegde: See, we operate every day and whenever we operate, one of the things we always say is the big decision for a surgeon is to choose the patient for the surgery. So we always say, a person must earn a surgery.
Dr. Hegde: If the person is ambivalent about surgery we’ll say, wait for some time until you feel that you are not able to manage yourself, then you come for surgery. So too, a person should earn his way into spirituality. How do you earn your way into spirituality? What you do is through reasoning, through money power through whatever power, you try to solve all the issues in your life. And then a stage comes when a person finds that, you know, I have got all the success in the world, I’ve got everything in the world, but I don’t have a sense of fulfillment. There is still something. And then you have exhausted all your resources. That’s when you are in your ripe state. Otherwise, see, that is why spirituality is actually only for the rich. When you don’t have money, when you don’t have means, there is always a hope that one day when I have enough money, when day when I have enough means, all my problems in my life will be solved.
Dr. Hegde: But those who have worked their way up into enough of money and enough of means and they find that, you know, they have not gone anywhere, they are still gone. That is when they become very receptive. And that is when …these are like the preparatory that you have earned your surgery, you have earned your ability to come into the world. And then, you have to say, now I do not know. I need you to guide me. And that is when you need to find, and today a lot of people complain that we don’t have good teachers. You don’t have good role models, good Gurus. In a way, it is true. For every good teacher, for every genuine teacher, there are about 20 times pseudo teachers who are there to, you know, earn a livelihood through you. But I can say for certainty –there are a lot more good teachers than people looking for good teachers. There are many unemployed realized teachers, but you know, you don’t have the right qualified person who is ready to give up everything for that learning.
Nitesh Batra: So yes, it is for the rich. I tend to agree. But yes, we have had spiritual gurus, people from different faiths who have not been from rich backgrounds or well to do backgrounds, I would say. But that always makes me think that is there something that we can do in our education system? You grew up in a Catholic or you went to a Catholic school and in most schools nowadays we focus on the IQ. The education which we so-call, is needed to get a job, to get into that assembly line. Is there something that we can do in our education system in India and maybe across the world as well, where we can inculcate some of these practices which maybe secular, which may not be secular, which may make a difference in each and every person’s life. Where we have a better community that we are living in, where we are not running just after money or where we’re not just looking to survive, but we are living our life for living it.
Dr. Hegde: The problem I see is in any school you have people of different religions. And whenever you introduce even a practice like Yoga, it could be misconstrued by somebody as belonging to a particular religion and there is opposition from others. So it’s extremely difficult to bring any of these so called spiritual practices because many often religious fanaticism overrides and then the whole practice becomes vitiated. So, I find more and more schools have less of a role for bringing in spiritual education and that’s where parents have to play a big role.
Dr. Hegde: Parents have to play a big role more as role models in their own spiritual practices and also how spiritual practices has transformed them to be better persons because that works better than you know, trying to tell children or anybody to do this or do that.
Nitesh Batra: Thank you. I feel that parents should spend time with their children and that’s what I’ve been learning. We have a very young daughter at home and we’re learning that the more time we spend with her and she learns more by looking at us rather than us telling her what to do.
Dr. Hegde: That’s true.
Nitesh Batra: Because they spend a lot of time in school as well– a few hours. I feel that if there is something that can be done in school, but you’re absolutely right. It’s not something that is easy? But hopefully we’ll all figur out a way for us to do that.
Nitesh Batra: So we’re getting towards the end of our time here. One of my final questions is regarding the way we listen. And I think the previous question made me think about that question is that the way we listen in mindfulness is one, we are mostly passive listeners and slowly mindfulness helps us being more active listeners. What are these stages and I think you’ve talked about it before as well. The stages of listening, how you become mindful. From being mindless.
Dr. Hegde: Whenever we listen, we can be listening to two things. I can be listening to what you are speaking or I can be listening to what is happening within my mind and therefore most of my listening is filtered by my own listening. Mindful practices therefore is utmost impassivity. Utmost impassivity which means, blank mind. You know, I come from complete openness. My mind is completely blank at this moment, I am receptive to whatever you have to say and I take the word, you know, and I receive it and I accept it. No evaluation, no judging. And then maybe over a period of time trying to digest that word as it is, without even filtering exactly what we have said. So listening is a great art. To be able to listen without using your own mind as the filter.
Nitesh Batra: Thank you. And towards the end of the interview we do these few rapid fire questions. If you’re okay with it, we will just go ahead with it.
Dr. Hegde: Sure.
Nitesh Batra: Our first question is: One place that you would like to visit or you have been to.
Dr. Hegde: Uppermost on my mind is Mount Kailash. I have been there a few years ago and that was perhaps one of the most enchanting experience and I’m looking forward for expedience of Kailash again.
Nitesh Batra: One childhood memory that brings joy to your life or joy when you think about it.
Dr. Hegde: Not so much of a childhood memory, but a little older. When I thought I had a serious illness and my life was…… And then I had a consultation by a doctor somewhere who told me it’s nothing and gave me a new, at least in my thought a new sense of…..a new lease of life.
Nitesh Batra: If you were not a teacher, if you were not a surgeon, what would your alternate profession be?
Dr. Hegde: I would like to be a student.
Nitesh Batra: Do you have a favorite musician or favorite music you like to listen to?
Dr. Hegde: I enjoy the songs of Deva Premal. Deva Premal is a German singer who would sing a lot of Indian and Buddhist mantras in an extremely melodious tune.
Nitesh Batra: I enjoy listening. And is there anyone in the past that comes to your mind that you would like to meet?
Dr. Hegde: The person who I spoke (of) Father Ronnie. I mean he would be in an impression in my life. He’s no more, he died a few years ago and I was fortunate to be with him for many years and I’ve seen him even at the moment of his death. And if I were to get a chance to meet him again…..
Nitesh Batra: That would be him.
Nitesh Batra: Alright. I think that’s a great way for us to come to the conclusion of this interview. Thank you so much Dr Hegde for being a part of our podcast, spending this evening and giving us time. Our listeners will surely find a lot of things in here for them. Thank you so much.
Dr. Hegde: Thank you. Thank you very much, Nitesh.
Nitesh Batra: Thank you everyone for listening in and tuning in for another episode of The Mindful Initiative podcast. If you like our episode, please share it with your friends and family. You can listen to us on iTunes, Google podcast, or Spotify or wherever you get your podcast. Thank you so much.