NamaRupa And The Logician’s ‘Form’


The English Translators of the Heart Sūtra did a stellar job with the word ‘Emptyness’ for Śūnyathā. But they ran into trouble when looking for an English equivalent of the Sanskrit word Namarupa [literally: ‘Name and Shape’]. But  some effective English word needed to be found that carried the intuition through.

Unlike Śūnyathā which had a ready link with the Empty Class of Logic, there was nothing similar for the word Namarupa. In fact by this time its interpretation in the Sanskrit itself had become entirely flaccid.

Then the Translators noticed the English word ‘Form’ which happened to be part of the extended vocabulary of Classical Logic. It had a nice ring to it and the meaning appeared very close to the word Namarupa. And so they went with ‘Form’, a palliative compromise. [The word first appears in Plato’s ‘Theory of Forms’ which is probably where it was noticed.]

But Namarupa is not exactly ‘Form’. And the two words are not perfect translation matches. And to see where and how they are different can make all the difference. For Namarupa has a seriously slippery feature to it: Self-Reference.

‘Form’ as commonly used in Classical Logic is: ‘Something that is marked, has taken shape’. A line, a curve, a color, a smell, a melody, a scratch. Logic comes alive, is operative, only in the abstract, only in the world of Form.

But NamaRupa does not exactly overlap with the ‘Form’ as defined by the Logician. NamaRupa like Form, is ‘Something that is marked, has taken shape’. But NamaRupa, unlike the Logician’s Form,  an ‘Objective’ presence, includes within its domain all ‘Subjective’ presence’ as well.

Feeling is NamaRupa, a mental-image is NamaRupa, internal-dialogue is NamaRupa. All that you see with your eyes closed or hear with your ears plugged are part of NamaRupa . If you can name it, mark it, express it, put a metaphorical finger on it, it is part of Nama Rupa.

All references to NamaRupa are already contained in NamaRupa as are all thoughts you have in response to it. If you slip on its self-referential feature you will confound NamaRupa with Awareness, Consciousness, Presence, World and other such heavy concepts, all of which are equally misleading.

Next time a book-read teacher goes on about how ‘Form is Emptiness and Emptiness, Form’, do the class a favor and stop him in his tracks.