Asteya and the many ways to steal

Do you steal? If you don’t steal, what does stealing mean to you? If you do steal, is there any difference between stealing something big and valuable (like a car) versus stealing something small and seemingly inconsequential (like paperclips at work)? What is ownership and are there moral rights around ownership? What can be “owned?”

Let’s explore the idea of taking something that does not belong to you from the perspective of yoga and the yogic path. Asetya, or non-stealing is the third of five Yamas. The Yamas are the moral codes set down as part of the yogic path. The path of yoga is spelled out in the Eight Limbs of Yoga.

Asetya, or the idea that you should not steal from others is a moral cornerstone found in many major religions. For Christians it shows up as either the 7th or the 8th commandment, appropriately sandwiched between adultery and bearing false witness.

There are many cultural examples of rule making among humans for defining socially acceptable, honorable ways of living. Rules for right living often address a specific need that is tied to a social context within a historical time and place. For example many Jewish traditions around food selection and food preparation have a rich historical context for healthy living.

Asetya is not bound by time and place. It is a direct, clearly translated order that can be found in cultures the world over. Do not take something that does not belong to you. And, of course there is a flip side. Here’s a discussion around acceptable and even honorable stealing to accomplish diversity, peace and other social goals.

The idea of stealing also shares wide and nebulous boundaries with i’s closely related cousin: lying. Ask a group of people to discuss what constitutes stealing or to debate the merits of lying to help someone versus telling the honest-to-God-truth, and you’re guaranteed to generate a heated discussion! Stealing and lying fall into the foggy zone of “it depends.”

Back to Asetya! Asetya, non-stealing. Or defined further as “the abstinence, in one’s deeds or words or thoughts, from unauthorized appropriation of things of value from another human being”. From the depths of the foggy zone of “it depends,” arises a broad definition to include the idea of value. Value might be in the eye of the beholder or in the eye of the possessor. How do we decide what has value enough for the individual?

What do you find valuable? Is it your possessions? Your home? Your time? Knowledge you have gained that others may “spirit away” in a manner that makes you feel cheated, violated or stolen from? Maybe Asetya should be viewed from the other person’s perspective. Stealing might be decided as the taking of something that another person perceives as valuable. It may not be something that you perceive as valuable. The recognition of how someone else feels could be a guiding factor.

Maybe we should be “unauthorized” to appropriate things of value from another person. This idea certainly takes the “me” out of the equation. Stealing is not about “me.” Stealing is about the other person’s value system. Stealing is about taking something viewed as valuable from someone else. Otherwise, we could just ask permission . . . could I please have a cutting off your beautiful plumeria plant?

Many of the Yama’s pose important questions of morality that we can use as a starting point of inquiry.