Asteya – Earn It, Respect It
By Paul Dallaghan
There’s a thread that runs through all these values and practices (of yoga and life) that could be summed up in one word – integrity. It is a clear line. You can feel it run inside of you, you can see it pass through your thought process. It informs the breath and the posture. The complete practice of external yoga – yama, niyama, asana, pranayama (and pratyahara) – is a cultivation of this inner principle or “line”, which the Buddha called the middle path, which we see as virtue, integrity. Its cultivation and maturing develops a greater awareness through a clearer consciousness. The questions of “is it right or wrong?” or “should I or shouldn’t I?”, gradually disappear as the answer is clear within. The “line” is strong.
One with such integrity (the yogi) literally embodies this “asteya” and as a result receives benefits from all sides wherever they go. Asteya has been included as a Yama in many yogic texts, foremost among them the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Though no definition is given an outcome upon its establishment is offered;
Asteyapratishthayamsarvaratnopasthanam (PYS II.37)
When the yogi has established (in him/herself) the principle of non-theft, all treasures attend upon him/her.
Taking a thing not given by its owner or to which one is not entitled, is “steya” or stealing. To forsake such a thing and not to have even a desire to possess it is Asteya, according to Swami HariharanandaAranya.
One of the challenges, even tragedies, of humanity, is the inborn capacity to cause harm, be dishonest, steal, be greedy, jealous. “A-steya” is a negation of something that is obviously a built-in tendency or capacity to partake in, in this case “steya” or stealing. You could call it inappropriate possession as it covers subtle to gross things, ideas to material objects. Your own conditioned tendencies, which are impurities, are in the way. The purpose of all these values and practices of yoga is to act as a remover of impurities (see PYS II.28) thereby changing the context of our heart so these negative elements or capacities are weak to non-existent with virtue or integrity strong in their place.
Again it comes back to practice and how you work on yourself. Inner development does not come over night nor is it cheap. It is a true value and can only be earned. In that sense it is completely in line with the meaning of asteya, that both possessions and merits come to us rightfully, earned and handled with respect. For you to overcome the tendency to take what is “not mine” is real practice, to be established in it is to be living it, rich in integrity with all the “treasure” in the world, that inner virtue. This is Patanjali’s meaning.
Asteya has been called non-stealing, non-covetousness, even non-desirousness. The meaning is that it should cover all action, word and even thought. Purify your action and intention. This means you should direct your thought away from even the wish that what belongs to another person should be yours. According to the Darshopanishad, asteya consists in complete indifference towards the property belonging to another, whether it is straw, money or gold. Even if a jewel or treasure is found it is not to be taken because it belongs to somebody else. SwamiHariharanandaAranya advises that not to take a thing which is not one’s own and the effort to give up even the desire for such things is the practice of non-covetousness/non-desirousness.
Asteya definitely stands on the two firm legs of ahimsa and satya. Whatever comes into your possession should not involve any force, harm, dishonesty or manipulation. Simply put, Earn It. This is one of the questions to ask yourself, “how have I come by this, has it been got by just means, have I earned it, put in the effort?”
Very common in our language is “This is mine”. Such a confusion exists in our minds, much of it driven by greed and jealousy. There is a wonderful phrase in Sanskrit that says “Idamnamam”, “this is not mine”, and is included in all types of offerings, ceremonies and rituals, a sense of giving back what you have taken, correcting the mental confusion over what is mine. In reality we are given temporary use of all these possessions we call mine. The point is to be aware of this, make an offering back to nature, back to the giver, still benefitting by the possession but clear in the desire and coveting of things.
Whether we call things mine or not, we really just have temporary possession over them. So included in asteya is the value of respect. When you rent a car do you treat it differently than you would your own car? Or a book from the library and so on. Similarly with the possessions we have earned in life. Respect the property. One day it must be returned anyway. Such respect requires care and awareness which overrides greed and jealousy.It will also be passed on to the next generation so pass on a clean slate. The passing on of an inheritance to the next generation built on steya just perpetuates the problem. All things must be returned to nature and the creative force eventually. As such, what comes in your possession can be both shared and used to help others. If it is covered in selfishness then the gift or ability is really abused. This brings it back to both the intention and action being refined along the lines of true asteya.
Always in such a topic a few practical questions arise – “what do I do then if I find a possession? I get that it is not mine but do I just walk away or do something about it?” The intention can drive this. Your level of indifference will also help decide. You may see a sparkly jewel in the earth and have no desire to possess it. At another time you may see it as nature’s bounty and to make productive use of it will help society, feed your family and so on. Or it may be obvious that what is laying there is somebody else’s (albeit temporary:) and so, depending on the circumstance, may be left there, as they will come back, or you use intelligence and bring it to an appropriate authority or make an announcement. “But what if I find just plain cash?” Well lucky you. Here it is harder to see the line but still you can see it is not “yours”. So give it back to the greater good, donate it, offer it to some collection box or an entire staff’s tip.
Following from the point above where we possess things in this world, whether material goods or knowledge, and then we make use of them, what then is considered “fair use and fair charge”? Again apply ahimsa and satya. Did you use unreasonable force, were you dishonest, did you manipulate? This includes trying to get more from it than is appropriate which implies excessive force and even manipulation, such as pushy sales to market making. Know you cannot please all the people all the time as someone is always complaining but they themselves might be pushing the asteya by trying to squeeze a better deal in their favor. And then some of it is just the mechanics of economics and systems. Charging something fair is determined by market forces, like the sale price of my house which can go up or down. Paying taxes is needed but clever accounting knows how to manage the burden in the wisest way.
What can you do to deal with this tendency to “steya”?
Vitarka-badhaneprati-paksa-bhavanam (PYS II.33)
If there are negative thoughts against yamas and niyamas, one should contemplate on the opposite, positive thought. This is pratipakshabhavanam.
Patanjali gives the greatest solution. If bothered by the thought down to the actual doing of it, apply the opposite. Change your thinking, catch your action. Understand the consequences by looking down the line. Due to the level of impurity within this still might not be clear so practice is utmost.
Really, the means must justify the end. You can’t build a church on stolen money. It all comes back to what is your intention followed by your action along the same “line” I mentioned at the start of this essay. Ultimately, asteya benefits society and humankind. When looked at in detail you can see it is a very personal teaching and the growth is personal. Each person has the choice to cultivate it in your life or not. And as Patanjali points out (PYS II.37), in so doing such indifference radiates from you, people see you as completely trustworthy, and you find all that is necessary, all good things, come to you, all good qualities and virtues become part of your character.
It comes down to you. It can only be earned through awareness and wisdom. Each day you are given an opportunity with this. How do you respond? Take it on now.