Pre-buddhist or non-buddhist sources that talk about nama-rupa

@sujato @Dhammanando @anon61506839 :anjal:

Reading the parayana vagga i get the feeling that the concepts of nama-rupa and consciousness was already well developed. I would love to read any sources that talk about these concepts if there are any.


Indeed, well spotted! Nāma-rūpa is mentioned prominently in the Upanishads, including those that are pre-Buddhist. I have written on this a number of times in the past. But I encourage you to read the relevant Upanishads—especially the Brihadarannyaka and Chandogya—to get a sense of what they were talking about.

I am not aware of any really accurate and modern free translation available, but the old translations are serviceable. You can read them on the Sacred Texts archive. Let me know if you have any more specific questions.


@sujato :anjal:

I am more interested of knowing what is Nama-rupa according to Buddhism and Upanishads. Are they different?
To start with I have no idea what Nama-rupa means in Buddhism either. There were many discussions but they go around the same circle.

Indeed. The problem is that Buddhists have, by and large, forgotten the roots of the idea, and have abstracted it to a philosophical level.

But the basic notion is right there: things have a name and a form.

A “form” or rūpa is the appearance or manifestation of a thing in the world. Keep it as simple and primitive as you can. Here are some “forms”:





We are surrounded by forms all the time, but the world is confusing, and the job of the mind is to organize and make sense of it. It does that by giving forms a name. Ahh, that thing that looks like that, round and shiny and full of water: let’s call it a “cup”. That other one, big, with horns, it’s a “deer”. The floaty thing that rain comes from: “cloud”. That roundish thing on top of a person, let’s say “face”.

All the things we encounter in the world, then, have a “form” and a “name”. To be able to do this is one of the major intellectual accomplishments of humanity. It began in the garden of Eden, and it still goes on in science today, as biologists continue to classify and name all the creatures in the world.

In magical systems, knowledge of names gives you power over forms. This is why it is important to always hide your true name. If someone were to know your true name, they could end your life with a spell: for “names” and “forms” are the same thing; they are bound together intrinsically.

Of course, magical systems aren’t true, and names are just a convention. But for philosophers, for example those of the Upanishads, the names of things still had a special power, and the guardians of the true names of things—the brahmins—received their wisdom from the true source of language and wisdom, namely Brahma, the author of the Vedas.

However the Upanishadic authors realized that names and language were ultimately contingent and could not be an ultimate reality. Rather, the many names and forms we encounter in the world are an expression of a deeper underlying reality, a oneness. That oneness is the true self, the essence of divinity that is purified and unconditioned consciousness. Thus the ephemeral and diverse names and forms of the world are not the highest reality and are not the self (neti! neti!). The true self is only seen when the diverse names and forms dissolve into the “sheer mass of consciousness” that is Brahma.

The Buddha, especially in such texts as the Parayana Vagga where he is speaking directly to brahmins of the Upanishadic tradition, took these ideas even further. It is not that the names and forms of the world disappear into an infinite underlying consciousness: rather, name and form only exists in an interdependent relation with consciousness. We cannot know, we cannot be aware, without the structures of name and form. That is how consciousness works. Thus when name and form ends, consciousness ends. This is the most radical and challenging insight in the Buddha’s teaching.


Dear Banthe, In her book “Who is myself” Ayya Khema talks about an “universal consciousness”. Extract from the book: “there is a universal consciousness, and all of us are part and parcel of it. Within universal consciousness, everything that consciousness can produce exists. If we—one, two, ten, or a hundred of us—have inner peace and are able to sustain it for some length of time and so change the quality of our own lives, then that enters into universal consciousness and will always be accessible, always available. Also, what we produce in our own consciousness returns to us from universal consciousness, like an echo. We can only latch onto what we have already produced within. There is no way in which universal consciousness will give us peacefulness, if we do not have the inner experience that can be touched.”

Where did she get this concept from? is it somewhere in the suttas?

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This is straight non-dual Brahmanism, right out of the Upanishads. It’s pretty common in Buddhism! :man_shrugging:


Does this mean that it is a valid concept accepted by the Buddha?

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Of course not. That’s the whole point of dependent origination, not-self, the cessation of consciousness, the major philosophical argument that the Buddha made countless times throughout his whole life.


It seems that Ayya Khema introduces the concept of universal consciousness as a result of experiencing the infinity of consciousness attainment (that she called arupa-jhanas).
“With the experience of infinity of consciousness comes the realization that it is synonymous with universal consciousness. Once we have that understanding, in the form of actual experience, we will never want to soil universal consciousness with unwholesome thoughts, speech, or action. We are all, each one of us, part of it, and the more our own consciousness is purified, the easier it is for us to have access to the purity of universal consciousness. Within it, everything can be found. Whatever we think, say, or do is contained in it and does not disappear. This is another realization inherent in experiencing the jhanas.”

Another reason for me to believe that these four attainments were originally from the Bhramanic/Upanisad? tradition that were (re)introduced into the dhamma after the Buddha who had rejected them after his experience with his two teachers.

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Right, that is also, it seems, where the Upanishads got it from. Note that in texts like the Parayana, the formless attainments come up quite often, as they did in the case of the Buddha’s former teachers.

For the Buddha, all states of samadhi are purely psychological; there is an experience of universal consciousness, but it is just another condition experience, shaped by perception. It doesn’t correspond to any metaphysical reality.


Thank you dear Banthe. This is really useful to come to grip with why these attainments could have some practical use in my practice although they are not mandatory while the four-jhanas are of course.


What about a child? Does he have Nama-rupa?
How does Nama-rupa conditions Salayatana as per Dependent Origination?

Does this apply to living Arahant?
What sort of Nama-rupa is there for a living Arahant?


You can do an experiment to get an idea what namarupa means.
Bind your eyes and tell a friend to give some unusual object(some thing you have not seen before) on to your hands and try to figure out what it is .


But Vinnana also arise together with Nama-Rupa.
We weill never know what is Nama-Rupa without Vinnana.
I understand that bit.
Now what about Arahant question?

My guess about the living arahant is that, they indeed have namarupa and consciousness. But ignorance(avijja) and craving towards them are totally eradicated.

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@sujato :anjal:

Bhante i found this extremely interesting talk on youtube. Please take a look when you have time.

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The only non-Buddhist text from ancient India with which I am personally familiar is Jain, and Jain literature is unfortunately very unsystematic and unorganised in its representations. I don’t recall whether they regarded thought, ideation, abstraction, conceptualisation, etc., as a sensorial process (a sixth sense) or not! But they certainly had a developed theory about it and, if I’m not mistaken, it was very similar to Buddhism (for example they refuted the idea that “nama” constituted the “self”).

However it is certain that the debate on the relationship between mind and body was prevalent in ancient India just as it was about everywhere else where ever a tradition of philosophical inquiry was found at the time. So if you search you are bound to find some references to that topic here and there. But note that many of the “pre-Buddhist” traditions, including Brahmanism, did not begin documenting their views until after Buddhism, and there is evidence that the written texts in all traditions have borrowed heavily from one another (thus we find references to Buddhism in Jain texts for example, and a strong Buddhist influence on the upanishads, etc.). So it’s really difficult to discern with certainty what is pre-Buddhist and what’s not judging only by the text.

Good luck.


Namarupa (from nama, name, and rupa, form) is a term used in Hindu philosophy to refer to the phenomenal world, the world of finiteness and limited nature, as opposed to the transcen-dent reality of the BRAHMAN or god. In Hindu thought, reality begins as an unmanifest infin-ity devoid of any manifestation or “thing.” As things emerge that acquire a “name” and take a shape or “form,” the manifest world or namarupa appears. Most Hindu traditions see liberation from birth and rebirth as a release or escape from the clutches of name and form, or namarupa.