A Surgeon’s Hand

Reflections on Surgical Tactility in Early Ayurveda

In: Asian Medicine
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  • 1 University of CaliforniaBerkeley, CAUSA
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The Suśrutasaṃhitā, an early first-millennium Ayurvedic treatise with an emphasis on surgery, recommends a procedure for examining a corpse after first submerging it in a river. Prompted by the sensory insights of a contemporary Ayurvedic physician who simulated “hydro-dissection” on a human hand, I offer a sensory reading of representations of surgeons and surgical tactility in early South Asia. This study demonstrates that surgeons are represented in early first-millennium treatises as possessing specialized medical knowledge, performing dangerous procedures, and having greater sensory and bodily intimacy in their engagement with patients than general physicians. First, I compare passages describing physicians’ sensory engagements in diagnostic examination in the Carakasaṃhitā and Suśrutasaṃhitā. Then I examine representations of surgeons and surgical practice in the Carakasaṃhitā, a general medical compendium. Finally, I demonstrate that surgical tactility is represented in the Suśrutasaṃhitā as an interplay of sensory knowledge, technical skill, experience, and judgment, constituting the surgeon’s hand.

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