Knowledge of the cadaver dissection in Ancient India, which took almost 2000 years for the West to make same discoveries

Today, Ayurveda, the traditional system of Indian medicine is becoming the hottest fad around the world. From Turmeric latte which is Haldi with milk, to Moringa, or drumstick leaves, that is new wonder drug, everyone is discovering herbal remedies which have been passed through generations for centuries, in India.

Noted 19th-century British Historian James  famous for his work ‘History of the Marathas’ observed –

‘Many of the advances in the sciences that we consider today to have been made in Europe were in fact made in India, centuries ago.’

However, these Ayurvedic herbal remedies are just the tip of the iceberg. The field of medicine was so advanced in India, that ancient Indian medical practitioners composed texts on advanced surgery and the human physiology 2000 years ago!  The most prominent of text which has survived is the Sushruta Samahita composed by a Acharya Sushruta.

In ancient India, Ayurveda and medical science were divided into two major traditions,

  • the Atreya School based in Takshashila near Peshawar and
  • the Dhanvantri School based in Varanasi.

The Atreya school gave more prominence to the practice of medicine and their primary text was the Charaka Samahita while the Dhanvantri school gave greater prominence to surgery and referred to the Sushruta Samhita.

Dr Frank McDowell, Editor of the Journal  Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in his ‘The Source Book of Plastic Surgery,’ described Sushruta and his work as –

‘Through all of Sushruta’s flowery language, incantations there shines the unmistakable picture of a great surgeon. Undaunted by his failures, unimpressed by his successes, he sought the truth unceasingly and passed it on to those who followed. He attacked disease and deformity definitively, with reasoned and logical methods. When the path did not exist, he made one.’

Theory without practice is like a one-winged bird that is incapable of flight.’ says Sushrutha.

He was one of the earliest known medical teachers in the world to advocate that the dissection and study of dead bodies was a must for any successful student of surgery. The students of Sushruta began by practicing incisions and excisions on vegetables and fruits and also leather bags filled with mud or liquids of different densities. This was then followed by practice on corpses of animals and then human beings.

Dissection of cadaver by Sushrutha:

While obtaining a dead body the following points were considered. Sushrutha says

  • That all the limbs are intact
  • Death is not due to poison
  • The diseased must not have suffered from a pro-longed illness
  • The cadaver is not of a very old person

Preparing the body for dissection:

  • After removing the intestines and the fecal matter place the body in a stout cage covered with mattresses of grass, flax or similar material.
  • The cage is then immersed in a running stream where the current is not very strong where there is no interference from the public. The body Was allowed to decompose in this water for 7 days. When every part is loose, it is taken out from water and dissection starting from the skin,Every organ was examined and peeled off with a brush

of bamboo bark

  • Every internal and external part and organ were minutely observed & studied.

Preservation of the dead body:

Extreme cold water of Himalayan River were ideal. Himalayan rivers are very clean water as good as sterile; contain less number of bacteria, even though the mechanical washing action of the river water is the main factor to keep the cadaver sterile.

The extreme cold water would stop the decomposition further.

Removing the gastrointestinal tract and the adnexa clearly indicates the awareness that if these are allowed to remain in cadaver, the purification of the body is uncontrollably quick.

The knowledge about “Antras(Intestines),” “Amashayas”(Stomach) and “Pakwashaya” (Large Intestine) etc was first gained and then attention was given to the rest of the parts.

The lividity(decomposition) begins from caecum with the bacteria which spreads to rest of the body parts.

This indicates the superior knowledge our ancestors possessed.

After collecting the body the body is wrapped with Munja(Saccharum munja) and Kusha or Darbha (Desmotachya bipinnata).

The recent researches have found that these act as preservatives. The covering of the body will delay the decomposition.

Whenever needed the wrapped grass was removed and body was dissected.

The instruments were prepared from Bamboo or wood.

Findings which were spot on:

Dissection of Skin layers by Sushrutha speaks of 7 layers of skin. He says the last layer continues as the fascia covering muscles.

Skin anatomy of today which was done with aid of electronic microscopes shows 6 layers of skin and beneath that exists a fascia which covers the muscle. Which usually seen adhered to the skin.

  • During the first 7 days of the dissection all seven layers of the skin were studied.
  • Muscles were studied in the next 7 days or so and
  • by a fortnight the ligaments of the various joints separated.

Instruments used for the dissection:

With the help of these naturally occurring instruments one was able dissect, bisect and tease the muscles and tendons.

The hollow horns and bones were used for blowing away the mud particles or the dirt. Some time they were used for collecting the fluids which inturn were measured. The instruments mentioned in Sushrutha samhita are used till today.

  • “One week of decomposition in air is equivalent to two weeks in water, which in turn is equivalent to eight weeks in the ground.”

They knew the rate of decomposition too.

Sushrutha speaks of ‘Moodagarbha’fetus anomalies and list 300 bones in the body.

A new born is born with 300 bones later bones ossify and in adult human body we can find 206 bones.

  • During Buddhist era the surgery and dissection knowledge saw its downfall due to principle of Ahimsa.
  • And Islamic invaders set the texts on fire.
  • The British made sure whatever knowledge was passed on through guru-shishya parampara would not survive. misintepretations and translation blunders were done by them.

Yet, from the available texts and source we can proudly say, it was India which contributed greatly towards medical, architectural, mathematical knowledge of the world.

Dr Sindhu Prashanth