c. 321 BC | India

Instruction Manual

Mastering the techniques of ancient Indian surgery.

A surgeon called upon to perform any kind of operation must first equip himself with such accessories as surgical appliances and instruments, alkali, fire, probe or director, horns, leeches, gourd, cotton, lint, thread, leaves, tow, honey, clarified butter, lard, milk, oil, decoctions, medicated plasters, paste, fan, cold water, hot water, and cauldrons; and moreover, he shall secure the services of devoted and strong-nerved attendants.

Then under the auspices of blissful astral combinations, and having propitiated the Brahmanas and the physicians with gifts of curd, sun-dried rice, cordials, and gems, and having made offerings to the gods and uttered a benediction, the surgeon should commence his work. The patient should be given light food before the act and made to sit with his face turned toward the east. His limbs should be carefully fastened so as to guard against their least movement during the continuance of the operation. Then the surgeon, sitting with his face toward the west and carefully avoiding the vital parts—veins, nerves, joints, bones, and arteries of the patient—should insert the knife into the affected part along the proper direction till the suppurated part would be reached, and swiftly draw it out. 

An incision that is wide, extended, well-divided, does not involve any vital part of the patient, and is well matured as regards time is the best of its kind. An incision not made as directed may give rise to extreme pain, prolonged healing, and warty growths in and about the ulcer, owing to an inadvertent cutting of the local veins or nerves.

Sprays of cold water should be dashed over the face and the eyes of the patient to relieve the pain and the sense of exhaustion incidental to the operation. The sides of the incision should be firmly pressed so as to ensure a good outflow of the accumulated pus, and the margins of the wound should be rubbed with the fingers so that they may have a level surface and be of uniform structure throughout. Then the wound should be washed with an astringent decoction, which should be wiped and made thoroughly dry with a piece of clean linen. Then a lint plug plastered over with the paste of sesamum, honey, and clarified butter, and soaked in disinfectant, should be inserted deep into the cavity of the wound. After that, a poultice should be applied over it, and the whole should be bound up with thick layers of tow, which are neither too irritating nor too cooling in their effect. And finally scraps of clean linen should be wound round them. The affected part should be subsequently fumigated with the fumes of pain-killing substances and also with those of drugs which are supposed to ward off all malignant spirits from the bedside of the patient.

The rites of protection from the influences of baneful spirits should then be performed by reciting the mantra which runs as follows: “I am about to practice the prophylactic incantation for guarding thy person against malignant influences, and may the god Brahma be graciously pleased to approve of its performance. May the spirits, which stir abroad in the night and roam about in the sky and on earth, defend thy person in recognition of thy fervent devotion to them. May the concourse of Brahma-begotten sages, the saintly and canonized kings in heaven and the sacred mounts, streams, and oceans of the earth protect thee from evil. May the gods confer blessings on thy head. The present Vedic mantra exercises an occult power in relieving ailments which are due to the malignant influences of conjured up she-devils. May thou acquire a long life through the protective energy of the prophylactic prayer now read by me.”

Then having protected the body of the patient with the recitation of the above Vedic mantra, the surgeon shall see his patient taken to his own chamber and prescribe the proper course of medicine and diet according to the exigencies of each case.

About This Text

Sushruta, from the Sushruta Samhita. The treatise is one of the three basic Ayurvedic textbooks. Among the various surgeries that it describes is one of the earliest known procedures for a facial reconstructive operation.