The Compendium of Sushruta (Sanskrit: सुश्रुतसंहिता or Suśrutasaṃhitā) is a world-classic of ancient medicine, comparable in age and importance to the Greek Hippocratic Corpus and the Chinese Huangdi Neijing. It is a long and substantial treatise written in the Sanskrit language. It presents a systematic, scholarly form of medicine for diagnosing and treating the many ailments that patients presented in South Asia two thousand years ago. As one of the founding treatises of Ayurveda, the indigenous medical system of India, the Compendium of Sushruta still informs indigenous medical practice in India and Ayurvedic complementary and alternative medical practice internationally.
The Compendium is perhaps most famous amongst historians of medicine for its passages describing remarkable forms of surgery. These techniques were used in South Asia and beyond: the Compendium‘s method of couching for cataract circulated in China in the seventh century and a form of facial plastic surgery described in the Compendium was witnessed by British surgeons in India in the eighteenth century and subsequently formed the historical basis of of facial reconstruction as practised even today.
The Compendium of Sushruta presents baffling linguistic, syntactic and semantic difficulties because of its complicated and flawed history of transmission and scribal corruption. Vulgate editions created in the last century used theoretically impoverished editorial practices and were based on about ten percent of the surviving manuscripts. The poor state of the text creates challenges not only for the historian of medicine but also for patients who are still treated by Ayurvedic doctors today who use The Compendium as a living medical textbook.
A stunning discovery has brought a new excitement and opportunities to the subject. In January 2007, the Nepal-German Manuscript Cataloguing Project at Hamburg University announced the discovery of a palm-leaf manuscript of The Compendium of Sushruta that is reliably datable to 878 CE.The manuscript is MS Kathmandu KL 699. Two further, closely-related manuscripts are also being studied: MS Kathmandu NAK 5-333 and MS Kathmandu NAK 1-1079. Though incomplete, its 152 palm-leaf folios in closely-written Newari script cover about two-thirds of the whole text. UNESCO has added this manuscript to the “Memory of the World” register. This manuscript is part of the Kathmandu library of Kaiser Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana (1892–1964), a former Prime Minister of Nepal. This manuscript pushes our physical evidence for the treatise back by a millennium.
Preliminary study of this thousand-year-old manuscript reveals a much earlier stage of the work’s textual development. This evidence, together with that of two related early manuscripts of the same text housed in the Nepal National Archives, places our historical understanding of this Asian medical classic on a new foundation.
The present project is undertaking detailed work reading and transcribing the new manuscripts, evaluating their relationships and translating their content. The the newly-discovered manuscripts of The Compendium of Sushruta is being put into a historical relationship with each other and with previously-known manuscripts using traditional historical and philological methods coupled with the methods of computerized cladistic analysis. The latter methods will allow fine control over the expected large volume of differential data between the manuscripts. The goal is to develop a fresh understanding of ancient South Asian medicine based on the new evidence.
We will be especially focussed on highlighting the medical and doctrinal differences between The Compendium as it existed in 878 CE and its received versions today. Project outcomes will include critical editions and translations of the Nepalese manuscripts, studies of the transmission of scientific ideas within South Asia as well as to China and South East Asia, and outreach to contemporary consumers of indigenous medicine.
You can see the project outcomes so far on the “Project Publications” page of this website and the blog posts (right hand of the screen). You can also read the evolving edition and translation (under the “Laboratory” menu).