Asteya means non-stealing (or, thou shalt not steal).
In high school, in one of my classes, the teacher brought in a stack of stickers (supporting the football team) to sell to us. He was then called out of class by the principal. He left the stickers on the corner of his desk and over the next few moments, everyone in the class (but me) trotted up front to steal a sticker. The bossy ringleader girl turned to me and said, her voice full of menace, “You’d better not tell on us!” And the teacher came in. He noticed that the stack had diminished significantly. He surveyed the room and asked, “Who took them?” Everyone else gazed calmly forward (at least in my imagination) while I stared, red-faced, at my desk top.
I don’t regret not taking one, and I can’t really blame my loner, outsider self for not speaking up. I do wish I’d asked my aunt and uncle at home what I should do.
When I think of Asteya, I always think of that event. For me, existence was already amorphous and hard to understand. This made it harder because one of the rules I knew by heart was, “Thou shalt not steal” (thank goodness for the ten commandments) and I couldn’t believe those kids were doing it so blatantly. What I do know is that, had I gone along, I would have been doing real damage to myself, heart and soul.
There is a level at which each of us is part of everyone and everything and from that perspective, stealing from others is stealing from ourselves; in fact, stealing pieces of ourselves from ourselves. Thinking of my classmates now, I can’t help wondering if any of them ever think of that day and whether they are aware of that event/action having an impact on them. While it is true that from the perspective of us us all being one, theft is a meaningless concept (as is killing), it is also true that we generally conceive of ourselves as individuals and therefore, we need to be mindful of our connection to that greater reality and the impact our actions have on ourselves as well as on others.
From the perspective of me and mine, you and yours, etc., we try to differentiate between petty and grand theft just as we believe there is a difference between white lies and the real humdingers. But stealing a dollar is as harmful to our souls as stealing the Mona Lisa would be.
Stealing is part of certain aspects of our culture. Most of us have, at one time or another, been guilty of employee pilferage (paper clips, pens, file folders). And most of us have snatched a grape in the grocery store. But all of these thefts (petty or grand) nibble away at our integrity. Stealing is similar to lying in how it disintegrates the authentic self. The practice of Asteya helps us own that which is most valuable to us: our selves.