By Swami Harshananda
Asteya literally means ‘non-stealing’.
The scriptures have time and again stressed the importance of strict ethical life as a pre-condition to spiritual enlightenment. A strict ethical life is essential even for social harmony and peace. Among the few cardinal ethical principles delineated in these works, ‘asteya’ or ‘non-stealing’ is also the one.
Though ‘steya’ means ‘stealing’ and hence ‘asteya’ means ‘non-stealing,’ its connotation goes much beyond this restricted sense. All actions of appropriation of others’ things, not sanctioned by the scriptures, should be brought under this head.
Rules regarding ahimsā (non-injury), asteya and so on, may be relaxed under certain extraordinary conditions sanctioned by the scriptures. Thus, stealing of food is permitted when a person is dying of hunger during famine and is unable to procure food in any other way. But for persons who have totally dedicated themselves for spiritual enlightenment, no exemptions are allowed. For them, it is a ‘mahāvrata’ or ‘great vow.’
- Yogasutras 2.30
- Brhadāranyaka Upanisad 5.2.2
- Yogasutras 2.31
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore