‘Shalya Tantra’ a book of surgical procedures prescribed by Sushruta and later re-cast as ‘Sushruta Samhita’ is an unparalleled work of the medical science of ancient India, popular as Ayurveda. The author of this Sanskrit text of amazing surgical procedures of accuracy and curative efficacy is known as Sushruta. Parts of this great work had been revised or reworked during later periods. And therefore, experts consider this samhita as the collective contribution of a chain of medical practitioners of ancient India. There is no wonder that this classic work has become an essential part of the culture of India.
What was Sushruta? A maharshi, a great sage? Where did he live? When? Where? History has no conclusive answer to these important questions. Sushruta is generally considered as the son of the sage Visvamitra. But scholars are of the opinion that this Visvamitra is not the Visvamitra of the Vedic period. Moreover there were more than two Visvamitras during the historic and pre-historic periods. The Mahabharata mentions a Sushruta, the son of Visvamitra, a contemporary of Rama (3000 B.C.?). Aryanagarjuna, the author of the philosophical treatise ‘Upayahridayam’ mentions a Sushruta as his mentor (first century A. D.). Some of the works of 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries too have mentioned this name. But Dr. M.S. Valiathan, in his voluminous work on the ‘Legacy of Sushruta’ (Orient Longmans), points out that Hoernle who pioneered studies on Ayurvedic texts in the early part of the 20th century, and to Hessler who prepared a Latin edition of the Sushruta Samhita, have given the period of Sushruta, the ancient surgeon, as around 1000 B.C. Another clue is the reference made by Panini, the great grammarian of Sanskrit, to Sushruta. Panini’s time has been unanimously fixed as 700 B.C., and this also supports the 1000 B.C hypothesis for Sushruta’s times.
Sushruta was the first to classify surgical operations. His ‘samhita’ defines and explains surgery and its tools in his great work of 120 chapters in five parts. He describes eight different operations for surgery, like cutting, opening, scratching, piercing, inserting etc, and finally stitching up. He was both a practitioner and a teacher of surgery. His contribution to the ancient cultural heritage of India invaluable.
Sushruta Tantra became Sushruta Samhita not by an over night, but taking its own time, something like a thousand years. By this time Sushruta had become very famous and his work was translated first into Arabic. Subsequently it reached Europe through Latin and English. Long before the so-called modern medicine and its surgical wing acquired its professional dimensions, Sushruta had traversed a long way ahead of the rest of the world of medical practice and training. He was known to have done surgeries of the eye, and performing amputations of the limbs and attending to the complications of childbirth. Sushruta had become a legend throughout the then world.
The greatness of the surgeon lies in the fact that the most famous text of ayurvedic practice, the Vagbhatiyam or Ashtangahridayam was nothing but an abridgement of the compositions of Charaka, the medical man, and Sushruta, the surgeon. As is known all over the world, Sushruta’s name is synonymous with India’s surgical inheritance, as correctly summarized by the ‘Legacy of Sushruta” (Orient Longmans) and in proclaiming the greatness of India’s great heritage of its culture.