Have you ever stolen something? Like when you were a kid, maybe you stole a candy bar on a dare from a friend. Or maybe you were the one doing the daring! I remember in high school, I convinced my friend who worked in the school office to steal a pack of attendance slips for me—you know those slips you gave your teacher to excuse your absences. (Or maybe you don’t know. I skipped a lot of school between 7th and 12th grade so I got real good at the attendance tracking system.) Now, while most of us probably don’t consider ourselves thieves, I think we can all admit that at some point, we’ve taken something that didn’t belong to us. Maybe you occasionally bring home office supplies from work. Or accidentally keep things—books, clothes—that you borrowed from a friend.
We might justify these things as harmless (maybe even a little funny sometimes), but what about—and watch out, I’m taking a serious turn here—the environmental crisis? It seems to be a pretty clear example of past and current generations stealing from future generations. And what about business practices that allow CEO’s to become wildly rich while their employees are on food stamps? What about the shirt you’re wearing? Was the person who made it fairly compensated? Or the food you ate for lunch? Where did that come from?
Do you see where I’m going here? We live and participate in vast, global systems where the full reality of supply chains are hard to understand. We walk into a store and buy something. We pay for it. So we’re clearly not stealing right? But are we paying a fair price? And, even if we are, is the profit being fairly distributed? Late stage capitalism and the American Dream have taught us that if someone’s getting rich, they’re not stealing. They’re doing something right. They’re successful. We’ve all been taught that stealing looks like a masked man breaking windows and taking cash from somebody’s underwear drawer. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not downplaying the very real emotional trauma of having your home burglarized, what I’m saying is that stealing is a much more complicated issue than the image of the masked bogeyman allows for. And when we hold tight to the idea that only “bad guys” steal, we allow ourselves to avoid some important spiritual exploration.
In a conversation on race in the book Radical Dharma, Buddhist teacher Reverend angel Kyodo williams said something that I think speaks to the kind of theft that happens in our systems and therefore in our daily lives… She said:
I have this theory that racism is required in order to keep capitalism in place. There is the form of capitalism that we have—and I’m not mad at trade and exchange and barter and all of that—but cancerous capitalism, hyper-capitalism, parasitic capitalism requires racism in order to keep it in place. It requires a division of peoples so that we can have the people that consume, the people that are producing what is consumed, and, frankly, the people that are consumed.”
Where do we find ourselves in this system? Is our consumerism consuming other people’s lives? Are we taking so much that others have nothing?
In his commentary on Yoga Sutra 2.37, Pandit Rajmani wrote:
The thought of stealing arises from greed. Greed is an extension of our desires. When desires invade [the part of our mind responsible for discernment] we become consumed by fulfilling them at any cost. Because our [mind] is compromised, we neither see nor care to see the difference between right and wrong. Ethics and morality no longer matter—we are determined to get what we want. To accomplish this, we may involve ourselves directly in achieving what is not ours, employ others to get it for us, or give our tacit consent. To some extent, this has been accepted as standard business practice. Only when it disrupts the social order are we forced to see what we are doing—pretending that a destructive vice is actually a virtue.
Stealing is related to greed. It’s related to how we’ve been conditioned to constantly desire more. More, more, more. We live in a throw-away society. Almost everything is disposable. And we’re trained that our happiness is dependent on having the next new thing. And then the next new thing after that. And on and on. The American Dream, which effects people far beyond the borders of America, preaches excess in all things. And what’s more, it preaches that we have a personal right to excess in all things.
The yama of asteya tells us not to steal, yes, but like every aspect of yoga, the yama-s are a call to transformation. Asteya is more than the abstention of stealing. It’s a shift in our internal understanding of what constitutes as enough. Working to establish ourselves in asteya means unraveling the ways we’ve been trained to see everything through the lens of scarcity. As Donna Farhi wrote: “It becomes difficult to appreciate that we have hot running water when all we can think about is whether our towels are color-coordinated.” Asteya invites us into the worldview of abundance.
Yoga Sutra 2.37 asteya-pratisthāyām sarva-ratna-upasthānam says: When one is established in non-stealing, all gems manifest.
In other words, when we choose to focus our attention on abundance, and our sense of enough comes from within, our vision is filled with all that we have. Instead of seeing lack, we see bounty. To be established in asteya is to be established in gratitude. The yama of asteya invites us to understand that life is a gift—a gift so spectacular, so miraculous, that it could never be bought. Life is a gift and our only response is offering.
In the 3rd chapter of the Bhagavad Gita we’re told that humanity and yajña were created together. Do you remember the sanksrit word yajña? It means sacrifice or worship. I’ve seen it translated as ‘the obligation of selfless service.’ My teacher explained it as the duty we owe God and the universe. It’s a recognition of something greater than ourselves. It’s worship as an act of gratitude. In the Bhagavad Gita (3.11-12), Krishna tells Arjuna: “Foster the gods with yajña as they foster you; by nourishing each other, you will attain the supreme good. Fostered by yajña, the gods will bestow on you the joys you cherish. Those who enjoy the gift of the gods without giving to them in return are verily thieves.”
This scripture is naming the value of reciprocity and the gift economy. Life is a gift and our only response is offering. The yama of asteya calls us to cultivate a way of being in the world that’s so full of gratitude and abundance that the idea of stealing—or taking excess of any kind—isn’t even imaginable. What if, instead of moving through the world focused on what we can get, we constantly asked ourselves what we can give?
As Hafiz, the great sufi master wrote:
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,
With a love like that,
It lights the
To be established in asteya is not about coercing ourselves not to steal. It’s about understanding the absolute gift of life and freely sharing all that we have. To be established in asteya means that we don’t take what isn’t freely given—whether it’s material, physical, energetic, intellectual, or spiritual. Asteya is the opposite of appropriation.
As we move toward Asteya—toward establishing ourselves in non-stealing—let us turn our attention toward stewardship and simplicity. As Nischala Joy Devi wrote: “When we don the attitude of care-takers instead of owners, we enjoy things when they come and let them go with ease. It is nature’s rhythm: all things come and all things go.” As we move toward Asteya, let us view all the gems (of any kind) that come our way as gift and work to reciprocate in the spirit of generosity and love.