Ideals and Values/Stealing
Why do people Steal?
- Due to Need or Greed: People steal because they are in need and have no other recourse to get food, clothing etc. However, many a times, people steal because they are greedy. For example, we often ready about rich individuals arrested for shop-lifting. The culprit could have purchased the same item with his own money (as he could have afforded it) but preferred to steal it because he thought he would not get caught, and because he really did not ‘need’ the item but wanted it nevertheless!
- For the Thrill of it: Some people steal because they find it thrilling! An English proverb goes that ‘stolen waters are sweet,’ meaning that people cherish the same thing more if they get it by stealing rather than if they get it by hard work. Some people think that it is easier to just steal rather than work and earn it. Sometimes, teenagers steal things because they are ‘dared’ by their friends to do so, or because they want to impress their peers of their daredevilry. But doing this is foolish because if caught, the teenager can get into serious trouble, and then his friends whom he had wanted to impress would be nowhere around to help him. And they just do not realize that what they did for fun possibly caused a lot of harm and unhappiness to their victim of stealing, as well as to their parents who felt ashamed at the fact that their own children were involved in the unethical act.
- Due to some Psychological Problems: Some people are compulsive thieves due to a disorder called Kleptomania in which the person fees an uncontrollable urge to steal and then feels relieved when he has committed the crime. The Kleptomaniac does not steal to fulfill his need or want, nor for thrill. He steals because he just cannot help it, and feels a mental pressure to do it. Kleptomaniacs can undergo medical treatment to get rid of their illness and deserve to be treated by the society with sympathy and compassion. The opposite of stealing are honesty and truth, virtues about which we will learn more later.
Forms of stealing
In the modern society with the advancement of technology, people are finding newer and newer ways of stealing in addition to the old ways. The conventional ways of stealing were burglary, banditry, robbery, theft, smuggling, corruption, taking bribes, cheating in business transactions, swindling, over-charging interest on loans etc. The modern and newer ways include insurance fraud, identity theft, stealing of passwords and email accounts, stealing social security and Medicare funds, not paying the required amount of taxes, stashing money overseas to avoid paying taxes in one’s home-country, credit card fraud, plagiarism etc.
Consequences of Stealing:
- Karmic Consequences: The thief thinks that he is enriching himself by stealing. But our Ṛṣis warn us that somewhere down the line, the bad Karma of thievery rebounds and the thief loses that very thing that he steals or suffers in a way that takes care of his original intent of stealing. For example, if a person steals a medical supplement to become healthy, then later in this life or the next, he will either get stuck by disease, or will be forced to give money to someone else who wants to buy health supplements.
- Emotional Consequences: Stealing deprives the other person of something that truly belongs to him. In addition to the financial or material loss to the victim, he also suffers from an emotional loss. For example, if someone loses a prized medal that he won during the Olympics, not only does he lose the monetary value of the medal, but also feels upset that the symbol of recognition that he got for all of his hard work and his victory is gone.
- Violence and Bloodshed: No one wants to get robbed and people will try to defend their property. Therefore, stealing can lead to disputes, often violent ones, in which the thief and the intended victim can get hurt and even get killed.
- Loss of Societal and Governmental Resources: To prevent theft, the government is forced to spend considerable resources in policing, maintaining law courts, jails etc. In a neighborhood where theft is common, people live in fear and with a great sense of insecurity. They cannot leave their homes without locking it thoroughly, setting up their burglar alarm, hiding their valuables and so on. If only people were to stop stealing, it would save the society and the government from a lot of trouble.
- Psychological Harm on the Society: Stealing has a profound psychological impact not just on the thief, but also on the victims as well as on third parties. A person who steals once loses a bit of a sense of guilt or shame in his mind. When he goes out to steal the next time, he will not feel as guilty stealing as he had felt the first time. And once he has committed a theft multiple times, he just becomes a remorseless and a hardened criminal. Likewise, losing all of one’s possessions to burglary can have a great traumatic impact on the victim who may take several years to recover his losses. Sometimes, when people see a famous and a renowned person caught stealing, they lose faith in the laws, in government officials and even in the goodness of human beings. This reduces their own resolve to desist from evil actions like cheating others because they come to believe that everyone, even the people they trust, steal with impunity. The story below from Indian history shows one such incident, and how the great Hindu Queen Ahilyabai Holkar dealt with it.
Story: Queen Ahilyabai reforms her Dishonest Official
The noble queen Ahilyabai Holkar, a widow herself, opened a department in her government to ensure that the property and other rights of widows are protected. She also spent a lot of her kingdom’s money to provide funds for poor and destitute widows. One day, she learned that the official who was in charge of taking care of the funds of that department was stealing money that was meant for the widows.
She summoned the official and took him on a boat ride to the middle of the Narmada river. Then, showing him the account books, she said to him, “Look, I know that you have manipulated the accounts so that no one catches you for stealing money meant for the poor widows. I want you to throw these account books into the river with your own hands. Then no one will have any proof that you are a thief because there will be no accounts to cross-check against the stolen money.”
The official broke down and asked her, “Your majesty, I confess that I have stolen money. Then why do you want to destroy the proof that you can use to prosecute me?” The Queen replied, “I do not want the poor widows to find it out, because if they do, then they will lose all faith in me. They will lose hope that the government is sincerely trying to good to do them. This department of my government is the only source of their livelihood and if they discover that even that is not reliable, they will not have reason to live.”
These words of the noble Queen really pierced the heart of the official and he turned over a new leaf. He decided that henceforth, he will be completely honest and will not steal any more money that was meant to provide for the poor widows.
When is Stealing permissible?
Stealing is not always a bad thing to do and Hindu scriptures allow it under certain circumstances. For example, if one is starving and has not had food for 3 days in a row, and yet no one is willing to give food in a charity, then the hungry person may steal food from somewhere. Poverty, hunger and starvation etc., are mitigating circumstances in this case. In the English tradition, we read about Robin Hood, who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. Do some research on him on the internet. Below is a story of the great Sikh Emperor showing his generosity towards a lady who was trying to steal some fruit to feed her stomach.
Story: Mahārāja Ranjit Singh gives Charity to a Thief
Mahārāja Ranjit Singh was the Sikh Emperor of Punjab from 1799 – 1839 CE. He was a very noble king, very fair and very generous towards the poor and the needy. One day, he was sitting under a tree in his garden. Suddenly, a stone came from the other side of the tree and hit him.
His guards immediately ran to catch the culprit, who turned out to be a young lady. When she was asked as to why she had attacked the Mahārāja with the stone, she started crying. She said, “Forgive me your majesty. I did not know that you or anyone else was sitting below this tree. I am a poor woman and have no money to buy food. So, I threw a stone at the tree, thinking that it will hit one of the mangoes and cause it to fall. I had hoped to eat that mango to fill my stomach.” The Mahārāja ordered the guards to release the woman, and then said, “Give her some money so that she can buy food.” The guards were surprised that the Mahārāja gave money to the lady whose stone could have hurt him. The king senses their puzzled looks and said, “If her stone had hit the right spot on the tree, the tree would have given her food for her lunch. Now, am I not better than this tree? If the tree can give her a mango on being hit, I should surely give her something more. She was a poor woman and she threw a stone at the tree to fight her hunger.”
Preventing Theft: Our Responsibility
It is not always the thief who is at fault. There are times when the owner of the stolen good is also blameworthy. A lot of us get tempted when we see valuable things lying unguarded around us which is ready for us to pick up stealthily. But if the same valuables were locked, or protected by guards, we do not get tempted because we realize that first, it will not be easy to steal it. There might be consequences if we are overcome by temptation and steal the object. The story below illustrates how it is also the responsibility of the owner of valuables to not tempt others into stealing them.
“After Swami Vivekānand had started organizing his work in America in order to popularize Vedānta in that country, he asked some of his brother monks to come and help him in that work. When they arrived in America, Vivekānanda initiated them into the ways and customs of American life. One of the new monks had the habit of leaving his wrist watch on the table after coming back from his classes and lectures. Swami Vivekānanda had asked him on several occasions to keep the watch in a drawer but the young monk used to forget to follow his advice. One day Swami Vivekānanda told him, “I know, my dear brother, you care very little for the wrist watch, but do you not realize that by leaving the watch on the table, you may be tempting someone to commit a theft?”
You work for a company and are asked to go on a business trip to a different city. Your company rules for travel on business purposes say that you will be reimbursed for all your expenses during the trip. They also say that you do not have to give proof of your expenses that are below $25 and that you are allowed to spend up to $20 on each meal.
During the trip, you eat at a cheap fast food restaurant every day and for every meal and at no meal is your bill is more than $5. But when you return to your office after the trip and fill out a form to claim money for your expenses during the trip, you enter between $15 and $20 for every meal. Do you think this is stealing?
Notes & References
- These problems is called as Kleptomania.
- These consequences refers to arrest and imprisonment.
- Swami Sambuddhananda, p. 43