The Sushruta Samhita is one of two early texts that form the cornerstone of the Indian medical tradition of Ayurveda (Ayurveda means science of life). The other treatise is called the Charaka Samhita. Samhita is Sanskrit for compendium, and Sushruta and Charaka are proper names. So thetitles translate as "Sushruta's Compendium" and "Charaka's Compendium." Likethe Charaka Samhita, the Sushruta Samhita made revisions and alterations to an earlier text on which it is based, in this case, the writingsof Divodasa Dhanvantari, the author's teacher. The author, Sushruta, is identified as the son of the Vedic sage Visvamitra. The text is long, running over 1,700 pages in English translation. The exact date of its composition is unknown, but is generally thought to be around 100 A.D.
Like the Charaka Samhita, the Sushruta Samhita refers to the eight branches of Ayurvedic medicine. Sushruta is organized similarly toCharaka, but in addition to emphasizing therapeutics, it also discusses surgery, which Charaka barely mentions. The text is divided into six sections and 184 chapters. In another major departure from Charaka,Sushruta describes the need for and way to conduct dissections on human cadavers to gain knowledge of anatomy. Students might practice on natural and artificial objects, for example, vegetables and leather bags full of water. Quartered sacrifical animals were used to study different kinds of anatomy.
Sushruta details about 650 drugs of animal, plant, and mineral origin.In addition, it describes more than 300 kinds of operations that call for 42different surgical processes and 121 different types of instruments. Other chapters in Sushruta make clear the high value put on the well-being ofchildren, and on that of expectant mothers. Sushruta's coverage of toxicology (the study of poisons) is more extensive than that in Charaka, and goes into great detail regarding symptoms, first-aid measures, and long-term treatment, as well as classification of poisons and methods of poisoning.
In keeping with the Ayurvedic philosophy of preserving life and preventing the infirmity of old age, Sushruta extols the benefits of clean living,pure thinking, good habits and regular exercise, and special diets and drug preparations. A plant called soma that is described in the early texts but hasnever been clearly identified was recommended as a treatment for rejuvenating body and mind. Sushruta explains the need of all living creatures tosleep and to dream as a function of two principles of the mind that give glimpses of previous existences or warn of future ill health. When both principles are weakened, coma results.
Sushruta explains the origins of disease as imbalances of vital humorsthat occur either individually or in combination, and that originate from within the body or outside of it, or for no known reason. It discusses the useof surgical devices such as tourniquets and setting plasters, and surgical tools and procedures. Operations are described for amputations, hemorrhoids, hernia repair, eye surgery, and Cesarean section. An operation using skin flaps, for example, to repair a nose, was also described in Sushruta. The procedure was observed in India by a British surgeon in 1793 and published inLondon the following year, thus changing the course of plastic surgery in Europe.
Charaka restricts access to medical training to the three higher orders of society, but Sushruta also admits members of the lowest of the four classes. However, such persons would be excluded from special ceremonies accorded to students of more respectable parentage. Sushruta describesthe day-to-day life of the physician in ancient India, who made the rounds ofpatients' residences and also maintained a consulting room in his own home,complete with a storeroom of drugs and equipment. Although doctors could command a good living, they might also treat learned brahmins--priests--and the poor for free. Sushruta describes the ideal qualities of a nurse, and suggests that doctors may have been required to have licenses.
The drugs described in Sushruta include 395 plant substances, 57 substances of animal origin, and 64 mineral substances, metals, and so on. Many ofthe complicated procedures for dissolving, macerating, extracting, and combusting a variety of solid, squashy, and liquid substances remain part of modern Ayurvedic pharmacological practice.
The conquest by Arabs of the Indian province of Sind (now a part of Pakistan)in the eighth century unleashed a scholarly exchange of scientific ideas. The Sushruta samhita was translated into Arabic and later into Persian.These translations, as well as those of Charaka, helped to spread thescience of Ayurveda far beyond India.