A conservative estimate  has the earliest Upaniṣads spoken at one to two centuries prior to the Pāḷi Nikāyas. This gives the accretion of the corpus of early Upaniṣadic  thought as current to the Nikāyan period, and considering the internal evidence of both groups of discourse  suggests a common knowledge of tenets central to both.
This paper is written with specific reference to the tenet of ‘name and form’ (nāmarūpa) with comparison of how it was used in the Upaniṣads to express the ontology of Ātman, and how it was used in the Paḷi Nikāyas to indicate how the individual processes personal identity.
In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, nāmarūpa is the nomenon of objective form. A sheath of the body, sense-gates and action, that when taken as given occludes the aspirant from seeing the immortal ātman:
- “At that time this (universe) was undifferentiated. It became differentiated by [name and form] (so that it is said) he had such a name, such a shape (āsau nāmāyam idaṃrūpa). …
“…tad dhedaṃ tarhy avyākṛtam āsīt | tan nāmarūpābhyām eva vyākriyate, āsau nāmāyam idaṃrūpa iti …
“He (the self) entered in here even to the tips of the nails, as a razor is (hidden) in the razor-case, or as a fire in the fire-source. Him they see not for (as seen) he is incomplete, when breathing he is called the vital force, when speaking voice, when seeing eye, when hearing the ear, when thinking the mind.
“…sa eṣa iha praviṣṭa ānakhāgrebhyaḥ yathā kṣuraḥ kṣuradhāne' vahitaḥ syād viśvam-bharo vā viśvam-bhara-kulāye | taṃ na paśyanti | akṛtsno hi saḥ prāṇann eva prāṇo nāma bhavati | vadan vāk paśyaṃś cakṣuḥ śṛṇvañ chrotraṃ manvāno manaḥ |
“These are merely the names (nāma) of his acts (karma). He who meditates on one or another of them (aspects) he does not know for he is incomplete, with one or another of these (characteristics).
“…tāny asyaitāni karmanāmāny eva | sa yo 'ta ekaikam upāste na sa veda | akṛtsno hy eṣo 'ta ekaikena bhavati |
“The self is to be meditated upon for in it all these become one. …”
“…ātmety evopāsīta | atra hy ete sarva ekaṃ bhavanti | … || BṛhUp_1,4.7 ||
At BṛhUp_1,6.1 – 3, nāmarūpa is a bracket of processes viz “…name, shape and work…” (nāma rūpaṃ karma), through which Brahman/Ātman is the unifying sustainer. Here nāmarūpa veils the immortal (amṛtam) breath (prāṇa) [amṛtam and prāṇa = ātman] by the ‘real’ (satya) mundane processes of nāmarūpa:
- “Verily, this (world) is a triad of name, shape and work.
“Trayaṃ vā idaṃ nāma rūpaṃ karma | …
“Of these as regards names (nāma), speech is the source, from it all names arise. It is their common feature for it is common to all names. It is their Brahman, for it sustains all names.
“…teṣāṃ nāmnāṃ vāg ity etad eṣām uktham | ato hi sarvāṇi nāmāny uttiṣṭhanti | etad eṣāṃ sāma | etad dhi sarvair nāmabhiḥ samam | etad eṣāṃ brahma | etad dhi sarvāṇi nāmāni bibharti || BrhUp_1,6.1 ||
“Now, of shapes (rūpa) eye is the source, from it all shapes arise. It is their common feature for it is common to all shapes. It is their Brahman, for it sustains all shapes.
“atha rūpāṇāṃ cakṣur ity etad eṣām uktham | ato hi sarvāṇi rūpāṇy uttiṣṭhanti |
etad eṣāṃ sāma | etad dhi sarvai rūpaiḥ samam | etad eṣāṃ brahma |
etad dhi sarvāṇi rūpāṇi bibharti || BrhUp_1,6.2 ||
“Now of works (karma), the body is the source for from it all works arise. It is their common feature for it is common to all works. It is their Brahman, for it sustains all works.
“atha karmaṇām ātmety etad eṣām uktham | ato hi sarvāṇi karmāṇy uttiṣṭhanti |
etad eṣāṃ sāma | etad dhi sarvaiḥ karmabhiḥ samam |
etad eṣāṃ brahma | etad dhi sarvāṇi karmāṇi bibharti | …
“These three together are one, this self; the self, though one, is this triad. This is the immortal, veiled by the real. Breath, verily, is the immortal, name and shape are the real. By them this breath is veiled.
“tad etat trayaṃ sad ekam ayam ātmā | ātmo ekaḥ sann etat trayam |
tad etad amṛtaṃ satyena channam | prāṇo vā amṛtam |
nāmarūpe satyam | tābhyām ayaṃ prāṇaś channaḥ || BrhUp_1,6.3 ||
In the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad, the triad ‘name-shape and food’ (nāma rūpam annaṃ) is created by the world Brahmā and sustained by Brahman/Ātman.
- “…eternal, all-pervading, omnipresent, exceedingly subtle, that is the Un-decaying which the wise perceive as the source of all beings. …
‘…nityaṃ vibuṃ sarva-gataṃ susūkṣmaṃ tad avyayaṃ yad būta-yoniṃ paripaśyanti dhīrāḥ | ||Muṇḍaka Up_1.1.6||
“He who is all-knowing and all-wise, whose austerity consists of knowledge, from him are born this Brahmā, name-shape and food.”
‘…yaḥ sarvajñaḥ sarva-vid yasya jñānamayaṃ tapaḥ | tasmād etad brahma nāma rūpam annaṃ ca jāyate | ||Muṇḍaka Up_1.1.9||
We also read in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad of the Brahman/Ātman through the epithet ‘space’ (ākāśa), as a sustainer of nāmarūpa:
- “Verily, what is called space is the determined of name and form. That within which they are is the Brahman, that is the immortal, that is the self.”
ākāśo vai nāma nāmarūpayor nirvahitā |
te yadantarā tad brahma tad amṛtaṃ sa ātmā | … || ChUp_8,14.1 ||
In the Upaniṣads cited above, nāmarūpa is described as a sheath bracketing the senses and actions of the individual (specifically at BṛhUp_1,6.1 – 3 as nāma rūpaṃ karma “name, form, action”) through which the ātman is the vital force (BṛhUp_1,4.7 ). Here nāma, similar to what is drawn out in the Nikāyas, represents the act of recognition at the sense-gates and their respective objects, to intentions as brought out through sensate experience.
What makes nāmarūpa in the Nikāyas distinct from its context in the Upaniṣads is a detailed framework of perceptive and cognitive experience of the corporeal:
- “And what, friend, is nāmarūpa? What is the arising of nāmarūpa? What is the cessation of nāmarūpa? What is the way leading to the cessation of nāmarūpa?
“Sensations of feeling, sense-perception, intentions, contact and attention; this, friend, is called nāma. The four great elements, and the four great elements that take-up forms; this, friend, is called rūpa. This is nāma, this is rūpa, and this is called nāmarūpa. With the arising of consciousness is the arising of nāmarūpa, with the cessation of consciousness is the cessation of nāmarūpa. And the way leading to the cessation of nāmarūpa is just this noble eightfold path, that is right view, right intention, right speech, right actions, right living, right effort, right mindfulness and right mental-composure.
Katamaṃ panāvuso nāmarūpaṃ? Katamo nāmarūpasamudayo? Katamo nāmarūpanirodho? Katamā nāmarūpanirodhagāminī paṭipadā?ti. Vedanā, saññā, cetanā, phasso, manasikāro - idaṃ vuccatāvuso nāmaṃ. Cattāri ca mahābhūtāni catunnañca mahābhūtānaṃ upādāya rūpaṃ. Idaṃ vuccatāvuso rūpaṃ. Iti idañca nāmaṃ idañca rūpaṃ - idaṃ vuccatāvuso nāmarūpaṃ. Viññāṇasamudayā nāmarūpasamudayo. Viññāṇanirodhā nāmarūpanirodho
ayameva ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo nāmarūpanirodhagāminī paṭipadā -seyyathīdaṃ: sammādiṭṭhi sammāsaṅkappo, sammāvācā, sammākammanto, sammāājīvo sammāvāyāmo sammāsati, sammāsamādhi. [MN. 9 – Sammādiṭṭhisuttaṃ (Nāmarūpavāro.)]
Where the Upaniṣads give nāmarūpa as a container through which the ātman is expressed and known, the Nikāyas tell us that this is the phenomenon through which the illusion and false reification of identity is met. In Sn. 3.12 the Tathāgata cautions that “…whatever is considered ‘this is true’ (idaṃ saccanti) in this world … is well known by the noble ones with right wisdom as it actually is ‘this is false’ (etaṃ musāti).” This is followed by verse describing just how ‘this world’ is so deceived through a false reification of nāmarūpa:
- “See this world with its gods, considering self in what is not-self. Immersed in this nāmarūpa, they imagine this as real.
“Anattani attamāniṃ, passa lokaṃ sadevakaṃ;
Niviṭṭhaṃ nāmarūpasmiṃ, idaṃ saccanti maññati.
“In whatever way they could imagine, only to change into another. Therefore such is falsehood, its ever changing nature.
“Yena yena hi maññanti, tato taṃ hoti aññathā;
Tañhi tassa musā hoti, mosadhammañhi ittaraṃ.
This verse is in such contrast to the Upaniṣad cited above at ChUp_8,14.1 that it seems a response to it. Continuing with the reading with reference to what the ‘noble ones know is true’:
- “Undeceptive is the nature of Nibbāna, that the noble ones know is true; having come into the truth, without craving are completely cooled.”
“Amosadhammaṃ nibbānaṃ, tadariyā saccato vidū;
Te ve saccābhisamayā, nicchātā parinibbutā”ti.
Like the above comparison of true and false, these verses are then bracketed with “…whatever is considered ‘this is pleasant’ (idaṃ sukhanti) in this world … is well known by the noble ones with right wisdom as it actually is ‘this is unpleasant’ (etaṃ dukkhanti).”; this given a description of what is falsely considered pleasant in the following verses:
- “Material forms, sounds, tastes, smells, bodily contacts and thoughts, all of which are pleasant, enjoyable and gratifying; are so called to that extent.
“Rūpā saddā rasā gandhā, phassā dhammā ca kevalā;
Iṭṭhā kantā manāpā ca, yāvatatthīti vuccati.
“This world with its gods consider these as pleasant; although whenever these cease to be, these are considered as unpleasant.
“Sadevakassa lokassa, ete vo sukhasammatā;
Yattha cete nirujjhanti, taṃ nesaṃ dukkhasammataṃ.
“The noble ones know as pleasurable the cessation of physical existence; this is a reversal of what the entire world knows.
“Sukhanti diṭṭhamariyehi, sakkāyassuparodhanaṃ;
Paccanīkamidaṃ hoti, sabbalokena passataṃ.”
Because nāmarūpa rises and falls with consciousness at the sense-gates, so does pleasure and displeasure. But where the ‘world’ considers these as real and are caught up in their rise and fall, the noble adherents of the Tathāgata do not and remain at peace.
The context of nāmarūpa as a bracket for cognitions is also mentioned in the Samiddhi Sutta (AN. 9.14) where Sāriputta begins a catechetical dialog with Samiddhi asking “…what is the basis for thoughts and intentions (saṅkappavitakkā) to arise in a person? … nāmarūpa is the basis, bhante.”, which is interesting when compared with the Mūlaka Sutta (AN. 10.58) where a similar instruction is given by the Tathāgata which begins with the question “What is the root of all things?” (kiṃmūlakā sabbe dhammā) … rooted in chanda (chandamūlakā)…” The pāḷi word chanda is sometimes translated into English as ‘desire’, but depending on context can also be ‘intention’ or ‘inclination’, the latter of which fits with the next question “what is the coming into existence of all things? (kiṃsambhavā sabbe dhammā) … through mental-inclination …”(manasikārasambhavā). Compare this to the next question in the Samiddhi Sutta “Where is the diversity they (nāmarūpa) go to? … the elements (dhātu)…” Pāḷi dhātu here refers to the 18 elements of the sense-gates and their objects, consciousnesses and mind elements, all of which makes as the question indicates, the diversity of nāmarūpa. This selection of pericope readings can give helpful definition of the place of nāmarūpa with reference to cognitions, but also of ‘all things’ (sabbe dhammā) as representing the diversity of nāmarūpa as well.
1 Translation of Upaniṣadic verses are from The Principle Upanishads (1953) by S. Radhakrishnan
2 Patrick Olivelle, The Early Upanishads – Oxford University Press pp. 12 – 13
3 Bṛhadāraṇyaka and Chāndogya Upaniṣads.
4 K.R. Norman (A note on Attā in the Alagaddūpama Sutta – 1981) and R.F. Gombrich (Recovering the Buddha’s Message – 1988)