Why is viññāṇa translated as "consciousness"?

I was perusing the contents of “The Selfless Mind” by Peter Harvey and noticed a section on how a more appropriate translation of viññāṇa is “discernment”.

Later, I checked a few different Sanskrit dictionaries and vijñāna is pretty generally translated as “knowledge” or “science” whereas it is cetanā that is translated as “consciousness”.

Why is viññāṇa translated as “consciousness”, then?

Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

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Cetana is intention, which is thought, which is included in sankhara khandha (mental formations aggregate). Refer to SN 22.56.

And what are choices?
Katame ca, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā?
There are these six classes of intention:
Chayime, bhikkhave, cetanākāyā—
intention regarding sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and thoughts.
rūpasañcetanā, saddasañcetanā, gandhasañcetanā, rasasañcetanā, phoṭṭhabbasañcetanā, dhammasañcetanā.
These are called choices.
Ime vuccanti, bhikkhave, saṅkhārā.

SN 22.56

The translation seems not that important. For example, words in English such as “awareness”, “consciousness”, “knowing”, etc, can have various unagreed upon meanings. For example:

In philosophy, different authors draw different distinctions between consciousness and sentience. According to Antonio Damasio, sentience is a minimalistic way of defining consciousness, which otherwise commonly and collectively describes sentience plus further features of the mind and consciousness, such as creativity, intelligence, sapience, self-awareness, and intentionality (the ability to have thoughts about something). These further features of consciousness may not be necessary for sentience, which is the capacity to feel sensations and emotions.

Sentience - Wikipedia

Consciousness, at its simplest, is sentience and awareness of internal and external existence.[1] However, the lack of definitions has led to millennia of analyses, explanations and debates by philosophers, theologians, linguisticians, and scientists. Opinions differ about what exactly needs to be studied or even considered consciousness. In some explanations, it is synonymous with the mind, and at other times, an aspect of mind. In the past, it was one’s “inner life”, the world of introspection, of private thought, imagination and volition.[2] Today, it often includes any kind of cognition, experience, feeling or perception. It may be awareness, awareness of awareness, or self-awareness either continuously changing or not.[3][4] The disparate range of research, notions and speculations raises a curiosity about whether the right questions are being asked.[5]

Examples of the range of descriptions, definitions or explanations are: simple wakefulness, one’s sense of selfhood or soul explored by “looking within”; being a metaphorical “stream” of contents, or being a mental state, mental event or mental process of the brain

Consciousness - Wikipedia

What seems important is the meaning based on the Sutta explanation, for which the following is the stock explanation of viññāṇa in the EBTs:

Eye consciousness arises dependent on the eye and sights. The meeting of the three is contact. Contact is a condition for feeling. What you feel, you perceive. What you perceive, you think about. What you think about, you proliferate. What you proliferate about is the source from which a person is beset by concepts of identity that emerge from the proliferation of perceptions.

Ear consciousness arises dependent on the ear and sounds. …

Nose consciousness arises dependent on the nose and smells. …

Tongue consciousness arises dependent on the tongue and tastes. …

Body consciousness arises dependent on the body and touches. …

Mind consciousness arises dependent on the mind and thoughts. The meeting of the three is contact. Contact is a condition for feeling. What you feel, you perceive. What you perceive, you think about. What you think about, you proliferate. What you proliferate about is the source from which a person is beset by concepts of identity that emerge from the proliferation of perceptions.

MN 18

Therefore, in the EBTs, viññāṇa refers to the ability of experiencing of sense objects via sense organs.

Obvious this does not mean “discernment”, which can mean:

discernment

noun

  1. the ability to judge well.

“an astonishing lack of discernment”

discernment

noun

dis·​cern·​ment di-ˈsərn-mənt

1: the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure : skill in discerning

2: an act of perceiving or discerning something

While I have not studied the pre-Buddhist Vedic texts, often the more primitive a doctrine, the more exaggerated the imagined sophistication. For example, in the Book of Genesis in the Bible, which seems to copy Vedic thought about nama-rupa (naming-form), God is very satisfied with HimSelf of being able to name “earth”, “water”, “sky”, etc, from the basic void. Therefore, in these more primitive genres of ideology, it seems “viññāṇa” as “discernment” was overrated from a Buddhist viewpoint.

But when the Buddha arose, there were much more subtle & difficult things to “discern”, which the Buddha equated with “wisdom”. Therefore, for a primitive caveman who thinks he is a very special for his capacity to “name-forms”, the basic viññāṇa seems like “discernment” to him. But for a Buddha, the basic perceptual processes of “name-forms”, for example, are just primitive. The Buddha was seeking far more sophisticated understanding. So it is likely or possible that the “viññāṇa” the primitive Brahmins believed was “discernment”, for the Buddha was merely basic sense experience and unrelated to anything profound. Therefore, the Buddha may have adopted the term “viññāṇa” from the existing language but the Buddha relegated it to something very basic and unworthy of special exaltation. :slightly_smiling_face:

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