Asteya: Non-Stealing by Dr. Melissa West

by Melissa West on May 25, 2010

    This week we focus on the third yama, asteya, which translates literally as non-stealing. This yama, or ethical practice, even more than the others, seems to require a deeper exploration. On the surface most of us would agree that we do not steal. When we begin to examine our lives more deeply, it quickly becomes apparent that there are more subtle levels of stealing which take place more frequently than we would like to admit. 

    I spent a little time studying my favorite discussions of the sutras to find some more illusive examples of stealing in our relationship with others. Nicolai Bachman suggests that interrupting another during a conversation is a form of stealing. I observed this tendency during my radio interview with Mariana Caplan last week and was quite shocked at how often I interruped in order to get in my two cents worth or to steer the conversation in my direction. One could cultivate asteya simply by making a commitment not to interrupt another for a day. Another example of asteya pointed out by Nicolai Bachman is taking credit for somebody else’s ideas. It seemed that this form of stealing resonated with many of my students’ experiences in the work place. 

    Nischala Joy Devi suggests that we can practice asteya by being on time for our appointments with other people. She suggests that when we are late we are devaluing another person’s time and stealing from the agreed upon intention of that time. Michael Stone suggests that we experience a lack of asteya when one person takes up more space psychically in a relationship. We’ve all been in relationship with people with narcissistic tendencies and the person who directs all the attention towards themselves is stealing from a potentially mutual relationship. 

    I personally think that our everyday experience of asteya happens on a more cultural and systemic level. For years we have stolen the resources of our earth for our own gain. Currently we are experience an environmental crisis that is a direct result of the appropriation of the earth’s resources for our own personal advantage. Additionally as a culture we have gone into debt in order to afford lifestyles that are beyond our means. I think that the current economic crisis is a result of ignoring asteya and taking more than we need even when we can’t afford it. 

    Nischala Joy Devi translates the sutra on asteya as, Abiding in generosity and honesty, material and spiritual prosperity is bestowed. Practicing generosity does not refer solely to our financial resources. As Devi points out we may also give of our time and generosity from our hearts. Many women in our culture have so overextended themselves as caretakers that they have completely exhausted any potential generosity available to themselves or others. Cultivating asteya could be as simple as being generous towards yourself. 

    This week in class I have been reading a poem by Hafiz to exemplify asteya. 

The Sun Never Says



all this time

the sun never says to the earth

“You owe me.”


what happens with a love like that _ 

it lights the whole world. 

This week, may you practice asteya in such a way that it illuminates your inner world so much that your generosity naturally overflows to the rest of your life. Namaste, Melissa  

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