Unlike the yamas so far, Asteya does not have an ancient spiritual heritage inside Hinduism. Stealing is condemned in the Vedas, but there isn’t much about the virtue of not stealing. Honesty shows up a few times but doesn’t have the transcendent power associated with truth (sat).
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is considered by scholars as a compilation because he borrows extensively from previous writings. It is thought that his book was composed when Sankhya, Yoga, Buddhism and the Jain religion intermingled during the relative peace of the Gupta Empire. Sankhya, from Ayurveda and the Bhagavad Gita, had conflicts with Buddhism and Jainism that Patanjali tried to resolve. There is a strong Buddhist flavor to his definition of yoga, and Chitta is a Buddhist term. His levels of Samadhi closely match Buddhist levels of enlightenment and his Yamas exactly match the Jain 5 great vows. The roots of Asteya are deeper in Jainism and Buddhism than Hinduism and Yoga.
The second Buddhist precept often is translated “do not steal.” Some Buddhist teachers prefer “practice generosity.” A more literal translation from the early Pali texts is “I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.” The Precepts of Buddhism are associated with the “Right Action” part of the Eightfold path.
These oldest references to Asteya refer specifically to taking someone’s possessions and are foundational to living in community. As communities grew larger, from Vedic tribes to North Indian cities, the members’ relationships with neighbors grew less close, and injunctions and laws against taking the possessions of others became more important.
When Swami Kripalu taught Asteya, he spoke of stealing and withholding things from others, but his focus was on the disturbances of mind that happen when we steal.
…naturally we desire to practice yoga, and progress. You have to have mental peace because the turmoil that has its deep roots within cannot be rooted out unless our mind is at peace. And, if our mind is disturbed by the external situations, then there is no way it can go to the root of the problems. So when we are doing inner purification, all external problems must be resolved first.
It is said that the sadhak should not steal, and that is called “asteya” which is one of the yamas. What happens as a result of stealing? When we have dishonestly got somebody’s money or things, and we are enjoying it, our mind becomes disturbed. Then, under that disturbed condition, how can we do sadhana? If we have stolen, we will always be thinking about it.
– Bapuji Darshan on Asteya
Swami Kripalu’s emphasis on the effects of stealing on one’s mind led to the broad definition of stealing that is used in Pranakriya Yoga. The practice of non-stealing can be limited if we restrict it to things. The field of practice grows larger, and provides more benefits, if we allow stealing to include less tangible items such as time, credit, attention and appreciation.