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Foundations of Yoga, Part 4: Asteya (Non-Stealing) and Aparigraha (Non-Possessiveness)

Asteya: non-stealing, honesty, non-misappropriativeness

Asteya is abstinence from stealing, which Vyasa defines as: "the improper appropriation to oneself of others' things: refusal to do it, in freedom from desire, is non-stealing."

What constitutes ordinary stealing is well known to almost all, but, as Yogananda said, "people are skillful in their ignorance," so we have thought up countless ways to steal and not seem to be stealing-all the way from putting slugs in pay telephones to getting people to give us things or money which we neither need nor deserve. Theft and untruth are certainly interrelated. So we must analyze Vyasa's definition and apply it to our situation. But we can consider a few "fudges" that have become respectable and prevalent.

Taking credit that really belongs to another is a form of stealing. So is taking what is not ours, pretending that we either own it or have it coming to us.

Plagiarism is a common form of stealing, especially in academic matters.

Taking what is not legitimately coming to us, even if freely given, is stealing. People do this continually in relation to welfare benefits and insurance claims.

Demanding more than a just price or a just wage is perhaps the most usual form of stealing. I knew a virtuous man who worked in the automobile industry. Every week he turned back in to the cashier whatever he felt was above his honest earnings.

Forcing others to give us something we want from them, whether material or metaphysical, is extortion and stealing. So also is not giving to others what we owe them or what we are legally or morally obligated to give. For example, a lot of people (especially churches and religious orders) expect others to continually give them things or services which they are perfectly capable of paying for. (I am not speaking about unsolicited gifts or charity-that is virtuous.) Or they want big discounts given to them Once a natural health practitioner-whose financial situation was much worse than mine-told me that she was willing to charge only half her usual fee for my treatment, and would even treat me for free if I wanted. I explained to her that since I could afford the full amount it would be stealing from her for me to either accept a discount or free treatment. And I cited the Yoga Sutras in support of my contention. The law applies to all .

The prophet Malachi posed the frightening question: "Will a man rob God?" (Malachi 3:8) That is extremely easy to do and extremely common. It might be good for you to figure that one out for yourself and see if in some way you are perhaps doing that very thing.

But all these forms of stealing are inner or outer acts, whereas Vyasa defines non-stealing as essentially a psychological state of "freedom from desire." This, then, is the goal of mere abstinence from stealing. What must be attained is the state of mind in which there is absolutely no desire or impulse to steal. "Stealing cannot exist in those whose desire has been cut off," says Shankara.

Aparigraha: non-possessiveness, non-greed, non-selfishness, non-acquisitiveness

Aparigraha includes the ideas of non-possessiveness, non-greed, non-selfishness, and non-acquisitiveness. Vyasa's definition is particularly interesting because it is so practical: "Seeing the defects in objects involved in acquiring them, and defending them, and losing them, and being attached to them, and depriving others of them, one does not take them to himself, and that is aparigraha." Here, as in the other Pillars, the true virtue or observance is mostly internal, leading to the correct state of mind for successful yoga practice.

Basically, when a person sees all the effort expended on "things" as well as the unhappiness attendant on both keeping and losing them-what to speak of awareness of their inherent defects-he wisely backs away and frees himself from Thingolatry. Of course we all have to obtain and use many kinds of things, but we can do so objectively, not letting ourselves get stuck up in them like the tar baby of the Uncle Remus story. Being possessed by possessions is truly a great misery; and the belief that happiness comes from external things is truly a great folly.

People do literally lose themselves in "stuff," for they adopt a completely false self-concept. To think that we are what we "have" is to forget who and why we are. Aparigraha clears the inner eye and lets us see our true "face."

Swami Nirmalananda Giri is the abbot of Atma Jyoti Ashram, a traditional Hindu monastery in the small desert town of Borrego Springs in southern California. He has written extensively on spiritual subjects, especially about yoga and meditation and about the inner, practical side of the world's religions . More of his writings may be found at the Ashram's website, http://www.atmajyoti.org/ .