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Non-Stealing (Asteya): A Key Component of Yoga's Code of Morality

Posted May 22 2008 7:00am 6 Comments
by Dada Vedaprajinananda

(this another article in our Yama-Niyama series)

Many years back when I was just beginning the practice of yoga, someone came to me and asked how he could begin yoga. As I was not a teacher at that time, I recommended a popular book with yoga postures. My friend looked at me and in all seriousness said, “Where can I steal it.”

Well, you can’t begin your practice of yoga with an act of theft as good conduct is the base for all yoga practice. It is impossible to attain harmony with others and inner peace if you ignore the fundamental principles of morality. In yoga, as in many other traditions, non-stealing is an important element of proper living. Let’s take a look at Asteya (non-stealing) as seen by yoga.

Not to take possession of goods that belong to others is called Asteya in Sanskrit. We all know that if someone goes into a shop, takes something and leaves without paying, then it is stealing. But how about the case where someone goes into a shop and has the idea of stealing something but refrains from doing so when he sees a guard looking at him? My guru, Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, in his book A Guide to Human Conduct, says that not only should we refrain from actual theft, but that we should also from the mental form of stealing.

Taking or plotting to take something that belongs to someone else is one kind of theft, but there is another kind of indirect stealing which we should also not do. If you deprive someone of something that is due to them then that is also a theft. You did not take anything from them, but you didn’t give them something that they were supposed to get.

For example, if you ride on the bus without paying, you have deprived the transportation agency that runs the bus the fare that they were supposed to get. If you do not pay the proper amount of taxes then you have deprived the government of an amount that they were owed. Actions like this are also against the concept of Asteya, or non-stealing and should not be done.

Finally, if you mentally plan to deprive someone of what is due to them you are again violating Asteya even though you may not physically carry out your plan.

According to Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, the easiest way of practicing Asteya is through auto-suggestion. If you remember the items of the code of conduct, such as non-stealing, right from childhood then you will be able to remind yourself what is correct and what is not correct all through your life, even in the face of the temptation to get "get rich quick" with direct or indirect theft.

So, of course you can’t begin yoga by stealing a yoga book, and you can’t attain inner peace if you do actions that are harmful to society.

Comments (6)
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Interesting perspectives put forth in this post my friend. I'll share thoughts on two.

I'll take your example one further. A yoga teacher who does not retire at an appropriate hour and therefore does not get enough rest thus deprives his morning students of what they are due in terms of learning. So I would agree we need to think broadly about the idea of non-stealing and not let it be as simplified as taking a material possession.

However I would disagree that a person unfamiliar with yoga can not start a yoga practice by stealing a book. It absolutely can be so. In fact if said person were already rooted in Yamas and Niyamas what would their need be for yoga at all. It is the unclean, greedy, coveting, thief, liar, malcontent, who must begin yoga and they must begin right where they are for there is no other starting point available to such a person.

A yoga that only changes the peaceful, that only transforms the honest, that only effects austere, may not be a yoga at all. Otherwise what hope is there for mindful evolution?

I agree, no one is perfect. And if someone were already solid in yama and niyama then they would not have to do much else. But I wanted to stress the point that yoga is grounded in morality and if someone tries to practice asanas, pranayama, meditation, etc, and neglects morality, then the purpose will be defeated.
Good ideas put forth in the entry and the comments. I am interested in Dada's post because so often there is a major disconnect between the guiding principles of yoga and the physical practice of it, as evinced in studios. I'm sure that the person going to yoga classes can get a lot out of it, but where is he or she likely to learn about some of the major tenets around behavior and practice--not just on the mat but in one's daily life? In many of the yoga classes I've taken, there is very little of this.

We've broken yoga and it's up to us to repair it.

When a teacher is an asana teacher it is not appropriate to also call themselves a yoga teacher unless they are teaching more than asana. There's not a thing wrong with JUST teaching asana - calling it yoga however is less than accurate.

Asana was initially renounced and shunned by yogis for it was perceived as being aggrandizing to the ego. And we've proven that to be so. Now it is up to us, as teachers, to ask something of students and for that asking to reflect the yamas and niyamas.

But it is not a moral or morality issue as morality lends itself to the concepts of "right" and "wrong" (and is often defined in such a way) and there's no place in yoga for right and wrong.

Gordon, I'm interested in your comments, but I'm also failing to see how traditional yoga did NOT prescribe a moral code, if there were specific ideas around how a yogi or anyone, really, should conduct themselves. Is a code of conduct different from a moral code? The idea of right conduct implies wrong conduct, too, and I assume that generally gets into the whole issue of morality. Also, what would teachers be asking of students--are you referring to conduct or to something else? Thanks for the great discussion.

Conduct and morality are not synonyms.

If the reference to Moral Code is to Yama and Niyama it is not a Right and Wrong but rather a map for the reduction of suffering.

Ahimsa is a perfect example. There are those who say that Ahimsa makes it "wrong" to eat products from animals. That is a moral judgement, a right and wrong. Eating meat is wrong. Eating vegetables is right.

However that is not the embodiment of ahimsa, for some people actually must eat meat in order to sustain their lives in a healthy way. Ahimsa is available to us whether we eat meat or not.

What would teachers be asking of their students? They would ask them how they could expect to wipe up the ends of their lives when they could not wipe up their spill on the sink. They would ask them to leave things better than when they found them. They would ask them to wield mindfulness in action. They would ask them to fulfill and assume the responsibilities in their lives which have come from their choices...It is not telling them how to conduct it is asking that they mindfully choose the conduct rather than allowing samskara to be their guide down a rote path.

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