Sushruta : Our Heritage

Sushruta statue in Haridwar

Sushruta statue in Haridwar

Sushruta, one of the earliest surgeons of the recorded history (600 B.C.), first individual to describe plastic surgery. Sushruta who lived nearly 150 years before Hippocrates vividly described the basic principles of plastic surgery in his famous ancient treatise ‘Sushruta Samhita’ 1,2 in 600 B.C. ‘Sushruta Samhita'(Sushruta’s compendium) which is one of the oldest treatise dealing with surgery in the world indicates that he was probably the first surgeon to perform plastic surgical operations.

Although many people consider Plastic Surgery as a relatively new specialty, the origin of the plastic surgery had his roots more than 4000 years old in India.

Sushruta Samhita’ is believed to be a part of Atharvaveda. ‘Sushruta Samhita’ (Sushruta’s compendium), which describes the ancient tradition of surgery in Indian medicine is considered as one of the most brilliant gems in Indian medical literature. This treatise contains detailed descriptions of teachings and practice of the great ancient surgeon Sushruta which has considerable surgical knowledge of relevance even today.

The ‘Sushruta Samhita’ contains the major surgical text of the Vedas and is considered to be the most advanced compilation of surgical practices of its time. ‘Sushruta Samhita’ encomprises not only the teaching regarding the plastic surgery but contains composite teachings of the surgery and all the allied branches including midwifery and making it a comprehensive treatise on the entire medical discipline. Sushruta believed that knowledge of both surgery and medicine are essential to constitute a good doctor who otherwise “is like a bird with only one wing.” In fact, Sushruta emphasized in his text that unless one possesses enough knowledge of relevant sister branches of learning, one cannot attain proficiency in one’s own subject of study. According to Sushruta, “Any one, who wishes to acquire a thorough knowledge of anatomy, must prepare a dead body and carefully observe and examine all its parts”. The method of study was to submerge the body in water and allow it to decompose followed by examination of the decomposing body at intervals to study structures, layer by layer, as they got exposed following decomposition. The most important point to note here is that the dissection was performed without using knife.

He taught the surgical skills to his students on various experimental modules, for instance, incision on vegetables (like watermelon, gourd, cucumber etc.), probing on worm eaten wood, preceding present day workshops by more than 2600 years.

This master literature remained preserved for many centuries exclusively in the Sanskrit language which prevented the dissemination. of the knowledge to the west and other parts of the world. Later the original text was lost and the present extant one is believed to be a revision by the Buddhist scholar Vasubandhu (circa AD 360-350). In the eighth century A.D., ‘Sushruta Samhita’ was translated into Arabic as Kitab-Shaw Shoon-a-Hindi and Kitab-i-Susrud. The translation of ‘Sushruta Samhita’ was ordered by the Caliph Mansur (A.D.753 -774). One of the most important documents in connection with ancient Indian medicine is the Bower Manuscript, a birch-bark medical treatise discovered in Kuchar (in Eastern Turkistan), dated around AD 450 and is housed in the Oxford University library.The first European translation of ‘Sushruta Samhita’ was published by Hessler in Latin and into German by Muller in the early 19th century.

The treatise’s insight, accuracy and detail of the surgical descriptions are most impressive. In the book’s 184 chapters, 1,120 conditions are listed, including injuries and illnesses relating to ageing and mental illness. The compendium of Sushruta includes many chapters on the training and practice of surgeons. The Sushruta Samhita describes over 120 surgical instruments.300 surgical procedures and classifies human surgery in 8 categories.

The Susrutasamhita is in two parts, the Purva-tantra in five sections and the Uttara-tantra. The two parts together encompass, apart from Salya and Salakya, other specialities like medicine, paediatrics, geriatrics, diseases of the ear, nose, throat and eye, toxicology, aphrodisiacs and psychiatry.

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