The realization of the Yoga of Knowledge is when one feels that one lives in the wideness of something silent, featureless and universal (called the Self) and all else is seen as only forms and names; the Self is real, nothing else.
— Sri Aurobindo
Fundamentals of Yoga
Namarupa is often used in explaining Yogic philosophy and practice. The phrase all else is seen as only forms and names in Sri Aurobindo’s quote above refers to this concept of namarupa.
Namarupa is the Sanskrit phrase for name or description (nama) and form or shape (rupa). This whole perceived universe is name and form, namarupa. All that we see, feel, are conscious of, and experience, is namarupa. Namarupa is not merely the name and form cognized by the physical senses but the whole complex of nomenclature, quality, shape, movement, force, character and personality: these are the elements or aspects of description. That which is described in any or all of these terms is namarupa. In some contexts, you will also find namarupa combined with guna, which means qualities or attributes. But for all practical purposes, namarupa includes guna.
This namarupa is neither real nor unreal: it merely appears out of the vast potentiality of Prakriti, the cosmic matrix, and subsides into it, even as waves rise out of the sea and subside in it. The psychological consciousness in which we live is wholly absorbed in this matrix or prakriti and is identified with it.
The true understanding comes when we are able to perceive the universe as an object (or myriad objects) reflected in our consciousness. The universe as an object (or objects) is real only as long as it is reflected in consciousness: once the consciousness is withdrawn, it ceases to be real. Thus this manifest universe is known to be unreal in the sense that it has no intrinsic existence — it does not exist on its own but has only a reflected or inferred existence. This is one of the fundamental concepts of Yoga.
The namarupa or the external construct that we know to be our ‘real’ world is like a complex composite of a million simultaneously moving and living pictures: a fantastic cosmic cinema in four dimensions of space and time, and it is this “cinema” that so wholly absorbs the consciousness in us, even as a motion picture can wholly absorb a viewer’s attention for hours.
Behind this whole complex play, the only reality, according to Yoga, is Consciousness, for consciousness alone exists independent of all objects reflected in it, including the universe itself. In other words, if we are to follow Yogic reasoning, consciousness can and does exist independent of the universe while the universe cannot and does not exist independent of consciousness. Thus, the content of consciousness does not determine the existence of consciousness, consciousness abides in itself, and this self-abiding consciousness is the substratum on which the whole manifest universe, this cosmic prakriti, rests. It is the background or the screen on which the whole play of prakriti is projected and reflected.
But how does all this come about? How does consciousness become so absorbed in the cinema that it forgets itself so totally?
The key to this mystery is the stupendous power of identification. Every one of us knows this power intimately; and we also know how utterly helpless we are in the grip of this power. This power of identification is what convinces us that we are the body and mind when the intelligence or buddhi in us knows well that we are neither the body nor the mind. In the Vedanta, this power is known as Maya. Maya is inscrutable, unfathomable, formidable and utterly unknowable. And this is so because this force of Maya is not externally imposed upon the consciousness but arises from the consciousness itself; Maya is Divine in its origin. Yet, however powerful and wonderful be this Maya, it is finally a veil in our own self-consciousness and can be dissolved as one progresses in self-enquiry, contemplation and meditation. Through ever deepening self-enquiry, atma vichara, and silencing of the mind through meditation, one begins to discern the truth behind the play of prakriti and its myriad namarupa.
As self-enquiry and inner silence grow, one begins to see with growing clarity that our consciousness is really unmoving and unchanging and it is prakriti that is ever in motion; in the language of Yoga, consciousness is sthiti and prakriti is gati . Because consciousness is sthiti, unchanging and unmoving, we are aware of the perpetual changes and transformations of prakriti. If consciousness too were to be moving, we would never know movement and change.
Therefore it is said in the Yoga that we possess two statuses of being, two aspects of ourselves (there is also a third, but that does not yet concern us): One is the self identified with prakriti, with namarupa; and the other is the self identified with consciousness, independent of prakriti and its namarupa projections. The former is known as apara or the “lower” self absorbed in the Maya of namarupa; and the latter is known as the para or the “higher” self; this is the Purusha consciousness of Yoga, the calm and detached witness of the play of prakriti. Purusha, this witnessing consciousness, and prakriti, the cosmic play, are the two initial categorizations of all Yogic experience. To know and identify oneself as Purusha and not prakriti is regarded as the first fundamental liberation of Yoga. There is no exact English translation of ‘Purusha’ as used in the Yoga: the closest English word would be Self. Purusha, in Yoga, denotes the witnessing self, the pure consciousness behind all phenomena, the noumenal self of Kantian philosophy.
There is a compelling story in the Upanishads of a pair of birds perched on two different branches of a tree: the bird on the lower branch represents the self absorbed in prakriti, riding its waves and playing with its dualities, knowing itself only in the passing; and the bird on the higher branch represents the self settled in the Purusha consciousness, calm and conscious, wise and free, gently beckoning the bird of the lower branch to come up to its heights. And when the bird of the lower branch does come up to the higher bough, it sees only itself, but transformed into the likeness of the other bird. This is indeed the purport of the Gita’s statement, Raise thyself by thyself. The two selves that we are, are only statuses or aspects, and not real entities. In reality, there are no two or three selves at all: there is only the Self, known to Yogis as the One without a second, ekam evadvitiyam.
So, what is to be done, asks the aspirant playing in the lower branches of life, to climb to that higher bough and become one with Purusha — how do I climb? And this is the deep mystery of our self-finding: that, really, there is nothing to be done; one simply has to quieten the surface mental consciousness and deepen into what may be called the silence of Yoga — an inner state free of thought, free of the last ripples of mental activity. As one deepens into this silence of Yoga, one begins to intuit and understand the deeper nature of reality. This is the beginning of the ascent of consciousness.