It would seem on the surface that the meaning of Asteya, non-stealing is obvious. We have all been taught not to steal, but our understanding of theft is usual a very surface one. Let us look at some of the deeper meanings of non-stealing and how it relates to the other Yamas.
What Does It Mean To Steal?
Naturally, non-stealing means not to take any physical objects that do not belong to you, yet what does this actually mean? For example, what exactly does it mean to steal from a store? We would probably all agree that consciously slipping something into your pocket or bag, or putting an article of clothes on, and leaving the store without paying for it is stealing. But, what if you are at the check out and you see the cashier forgets to charge you for an item? If you do not tell the cashier, is there any difference between walking out without paying for this item and taking the item off the shelf and not paying for it?
It feels like there is a difference between the two situations. If you really think about it, when you take the item off the shelf and put it in your bag, you have committed an act of stealing and if you are caught, you know you will be punished. When the cashier misses the item and puts it in your bag, you know that the cashier is responsible and even if someone catches the theft as you leave the store, you still will not be held responsible and you will not be punished.
You can not steal either because you are afraid of the consequences or you can not steal because you know it is wrong. If you know it is wrong you would tell the cashier of their mistake, if you only do not steal because you are afraid of the consequences than you would probably walk out with the item without saying anything.
You might argue that fear may still play a role in telling the cashier of their mistake, as you may still be stopped on the way out. So, we can take this one step further. If, when arriving home you realize that you were not charged for something, will you go back to the store and tell them of the mistake and pay of the item you were not charged? If you answered yes than your actions are not based on fear but instead they are based on a true belief that stealing is wrong.
This is the same idea as we discussed in the Purusa article when we talked about the difference between making decisions with your physical mind and spiritual mind. In that article, we gave the example of not eating meat because you have been taught it is wrong versus not eating meat because you can feel the animals suffering and could not eat meat feeling this pain. The same is true of stealing - you can not steal because you have learned this is wrong, you can rationalize it with your physical mind. Or, you can not steal because you feel the disturbance in the universe, the disharmony, you create by stealing.
Asteya and the other Yamas
Asteya though means much more than just stealing objects and it is tightly linked to all the other Yamas. Let us begin with a look at Brahmacharya. We will go with the less strict interpretation of the Brahmacharya and mean it to have control of your sexual energies instead of the more strict meaning of total abstinence.
There is no question that having a relationship with someone who is married, or even in a committed relationship, is stealing that person from the person who they have a relationship with. This really does not need any explanation.
Yet, it is also stealing when you are in a committed relationship, especially marriage, and you have an affair, even if that affair is with someone who is single. How is it stealing? Would your partner continue to give their affections to you if they knew you were in a relationship with someone else? If the answer is no, which it almost certainly would be, than you are taking affections from your partner that they would not be giving to you if they knew the truth about your affair. Thus you are taking something through deception, something that if you were not deceiving your partner, they would not give them to you.
If a con man deceives you into buying a fake lottery ticket or some other scam that takes your money through deception, you would all agree that is stealing. But taking someone’s affections using deception seems different, but it is not. They both are stealing. You can see that Satya, truthfulness, and Asteya come together and help find a deeper meaning for Brahmacharya. When you have an affair and hide it from your partner, you are not being truthful, and in this situation, when you are not being truthful, you are getting affections from your partner that they would not give you if they knew you were deceiving them. Ahimsa, non-violence, obviously also plays a role, as deceiving your spouse hurts them and is a form of violence against them.
Is single casual sex – sex were you are single and you have sex with someone who is also single outside of a committed relationship, OK? Again, the answer depends on whether you are being truthful. If you are promising someone a relationship just to have sex with them when you have no intention to have a relationship with them, or using any other form of deception, than you are stealing that person’s affections.
You could argue that casual sex is not wrong if both people are honest and both people understand that they are just having casual sex. Making a spiritual and physical connection to another person is an essential part of our lives, and if we cannot be in a relationship we may want to just be with someone.
I will not argue the morality of single casual sex, but I will say that it has one very obvious danger. It is very difficult to have sex with someone where you spiritually and physically connect and not develop an attachment to that person and do not want a relationship with them. In this case, telling yourself that you can just have casual sex with someone may result in you being dishonest with yourself. Also, it is often difficult to have casual sex that is anything more than a physical connection, and this often leads to you feeling even more alone, more empty and worse than before. This could be considered a form of violence to yourself.
As you can see, you can begin to connect all of the Yamas together. In our consideration of casual sex we began with asking if it would result in asteya, stealing affections from the other person. This lead us to Satya – are we being honest with the other person? This lead us to asking if we are being honest with ourselves, which lead us to Ahimsa, non-violence to ourselves. We could also explore this from the point of view of Aparigraha, non-hoarding. Are we seeking out something that we really do not need, trying to get as much physical affection as possible? Do we need this because it is only through sex that we feel attractive? Are we using sex to hoard this person’s affections? And so, we can analyze the situation from all of the Yamas. This is their power.
Asteya still goes much further. When doing Asana, the postures in Yoga, are you trying to “steal” the pose? Are you forcing your body beyond what it is capable of doing, stretching too far, holding a pose too long? If you do this, you are stealing from your body the positive affects of the Asana and could replace these positive affects with injury, which would be a violation of Ahimsa, non-violence.
When you eat junk food, or any food that is not good for you, than you are stealing your health from your own body. When you do not exercise you are also stealing health from your body. In both of these cases, you are also committing violence against yourself.
When you yell at someone, or say negative words to someone, you can steal from them their self concept and their peace of mind. Even if the person who you are yelling at is strong, your negative energy will still affect them and create a disturbance within them, and so you are stealing their harmony and contentment. Once again, we see Asteya and Ahimsa are tied together.
You might find it an interesting exercise to give this article to several friends and than sit down with them and have a discussion about this. What does everyone think about the ideas presented here? What other actions that we commonly do can be considered stealing? I promise you, it will be a lively and interesting conversation.
Is Stealing Ever Allowed?
Does Asteya mean that you must watch everything you do and say to make certain that you never steal anything? No, as always, there must be balance, i.e. the principle of the three Gunas must apply. But is there a situation where stealing is allowed?
If you are homeless and there is no one who will help you to feed yourself and your family, and the only way to survive is to steal, than the violence you would be doing to yourself and your family by not getting food outweigh the theft. But, the law would probably not see it this way. And, if you steal in a violent way, such as robbing a store with a gun, than clearly you are wrong. If you go into a garden and take just enough food for yourself and your family without harming anyone and leaving enough food for the farmer, than this might be considered as being OK.
We could argue this situation for sometime, but the philosophy of Yoga has an answer to this situation. One of the primary responsibilities we all have is to provide ourselves with the basic necessities of life. Thus, if we follow that principle, we should never find ourselves in a situation where we need to steal.
This of course brings us to the idea of charity. It is good if you help someone who is hungry by giving them food, but it is far better to both feed them and help them find a way to better their life so they can support themselves. Wars, famines, natural disasters and poverty all lead to situations where people do not have enough to survive through no fault of their own. Through your actions you can make it possible that someone never has to make choices in their life between breaking the basic moral codes and survival.
This idea is of course part of all religions. It can be found in the old testament:
Leviticus 9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.”
Leviticus 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.
The idea of Aparigraha, non-hoarding is also obviously to be found in this passage from the Old Testament.
Thus, Asteya is also about you doing what is needed to make certain that others are not in situations where survival depends on violating any of the Yamas. There is no difference between extreme poverty that leads a woman into prostitution and violating Brahmacharya and famine caused by war that lead people to stealing and lying to survive. But, it is within the power of all of us to help these people so that they are not forced to violate the moral codes.
This is a different type of responsibility than most of us are familiar with. Usually, we are taught that we are to preach morality to others and our responsibility is to teach others the right way to live. Here our responsibility is to help others to improve their lives so that immorality is not necessary. This is one of the reasons I like Heifer International so much, because they give people the means to sustain themselves without help.
Asteya and Aparigraha
A discussion of Asteya would not be complete with discussing the connection between Aparigraha and Asteya. In the article on Aparigraha I said that not hoarding means to only take what you need and nothing more. If the world contained a limitless supply of resources, than you could take as much as you want. Of course, the world does not have limitless resources, and if we take more than we need, than we leave others without. Therefore, when we hoard and take more than we need, we are stealing from others by depriving them of their share of the resources. Once again, we see the connections between all of the Niyamas.
The idea of Asteya, especially when combined with the other Yamas, has very deep meanings. The more you think about it, the more you begin to see the subtle ways that you can steal. Eventually, you can feel that an action will create disharmony and often that disharmony has its roots in not following Asteya.