Asteya, the Practice of Non-Stealing

Vedas, Sruti

Theiving. Artist: S.Rajam*

by Jayaram V

Asteya is one of the most important restraints or vows found in Hinduism and Jainism. The Yogasutras (2.30) identifies it as one of the five restraints which a yogi must practice in conjunction with the eight limbs of yoga. The purpose of asteya is to restrain our desire and craving for worldly possessions and enjoyment. It is a transformative practice to cultivate detachment, equanimity and renunciation and escape from the sinful consequences of greed, lust, envy, etc.

Asteya means non-stealing. “A” means not, and steya means stealing, robbery or taking what is private, secret or guarded. Thus, asteya etymologically means not stealing or non-stealing. However, in the Hindu and Jain code of conduct, asteya means taking from others what does not rightfully belong to one. In other words, no force of violence is required.

Asteya is simply intentional theft. Misappropriation of other’s property and actions such as cheating, lying and deceiving to make profit or gain also count as transgressions of asteya only. Stealing in this context means not only the physical act of stealing but the very thought, desire or intention of it. According to Hariharananda an ancient commentator of Yogasutras, even if one finds a treasure or a jewel by chance, one should not take it because it may belong to someone else.

The Yogasutras (2.37) state that when a yogi is fully established in asteya, all jewels comes to him. It means that when one is free of desires and has no intention to take anything from anyone, he begins to attract all the riches and the best of the people. Good things begin to manifest around him, as people know him to be desireless, guileless and trustworthy and approach him with gifts and veneration to seek his blessings and advice.

In this age of widespread corruption, immorality and decadence, it is important to understand the importance of asteya in public as well as personal life. Sarvārthasiddhi (7-27), the oldest commentary by Āchārya Pujyapada of Tattvārthasūtra, a famous Jain text by Ācārya Umaswami, explains five transgressions by which one may break the vow of asteya.

Prompting a person to steal, or prompting him through another or approving of the theft. Receiving stolen goods from a person, whose action has neither been prompted nor approved by the recipient. Receiving or buying goods by unlawful and unjust means or buying precious things very cheaply in a disordered state. Cheating others by using false weights and measures for an unjust gain or an intentional loss to others Deceiving others with artificial gold, synthetic diamonds and so on.

Thus, it can be seen that the purpose of asteya is to inculcate moral and truthful conduct with regard to ownership and possession of things. It cannot truthfully be practiced unless a person completely overcomes desires and attachments and remains contended with what is truly his lot and what he has lawfully gained. Any action which arises from lust, anger, pride greed and delusion, with personal gain or profit as the main motive, counts as a violation of asteya.

Further, even acts such as writing false reports and stories to mislead others or making false promises or hiding truth about one’s true intentions to win an election or business deal or make a false impression also count as stealing only in the context of asteya. We may also consider other violations such as the speeches which our leaders give during elections, making false promises, and the inaccurate or grossly exaggerated claims we see in commercial advertisements. Raping someone or stealing someone’s virtue or chastity against the person’s wishes with the use of force, deception or trickery is also a serious breach of this important vow.

It is common knowledge that stealing (steya) is a bad karma. Every religion acknowledges it as sinful and proposes punishments from mild to severe depending upon the severity. Stealing not only hurts the person against whom it is committed, it also hurts the person who engages in it as it hinders his chances of spiritual advancement, besides having serious implications for his next birth where he may be forced by circumstances to repay everything he has stolen from others in one form or another.

Asteya cannot be practiced in isolation but only in conjunction with other vows or restraints namely non-injury, truthfulness and non-coveting. For example, stealing causes hurt and harm to others and violates the vow of non-injury. Since it is a form of deception and conceit, it violates the practice of truthfulness. Since it results from greed and craving, it interferes with the practice of non-coveting.

Manu recommends capital punishment for some acts of theft (2.34). The king has a duty to restore the property stolen by thieves to its rightful owners. However, he has a right to the property which is stolen and recovered, if the owner is not found. Because of his role as the guardian of people and the land, he has a right to half of all the treasures and metals found in the ground. Manu further states (1.116) that even acquiring the knowledge of the Vedas without permission from the one who recites it is stealing only. Relatives who steal the properties of a woman who is without a husband and children also are fit for punishment (2.29).

Suggestions for Further Reading

* The image used in this article is partially reproduced from an artwork by S.Rajam, Himalayan Academy Museum of Spiritual Arts.

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