Monday, April 1, 2013

Asteya - harmony between merit and appropriation

अस्तेयप्रतिष्ठायां सर्वरत्नोपस्थानम् ॥३७॥
asteya-pratiṣṭhāyāṁ sarvaratn-opasthānam ||37||
Once non-stealing (asteya) has been permanently established, all riches will be available.

Asteya is the third yama and generally translated and summarised as 'non-stealing', 'non-coveting' or 'non-hoarding'. Honesty is central to the concept of asteya (अस्तेय), a term derived from the Sanskrit root 'steya' – to steal, with the prefix 'a' indicating practice of the opposite. In yoga tradition, asteya is more than a commandment along the lines of "thou shall not steal". It describes the mindful exploration of the process of appropriation, of acquisition of material and non-material goods. This is followed by an investigation of our needs and motives to possess something which is further discussed in the fifth yama aparigraha.

Stealing is the appropriation or withholding of something from others without a moral right to do so. We gain the fundamental rights of acquisition and ownership by work and merits such as invention and authorship.

How can asteya be applied to our modern society? Let us first look at examples of unjust appropriation. Today, perhaps the most common act of withholding something from others is tax evasion, the refusal to share personal wealth with the society that helped to create it by providing the basic infrastructure, education, security, and other resources. Another example receiving increasing attention and debate in today's information society is the theft of ideas in the form plagiarism and copyright infringement. Plagiarism is the appropriation of somebody's language, thoughts, or ideas, without crediting the owner of the original work.

A more complex application of asteya in today's consumer world is the use and misuse of credit. The very nature of credit or debt is that we have not yet earned what we appropriate or consume. Taking up a credit can be a necessity for investing into future growth, helping to build the foundations of a business enterprise, or a public infrastructure project likely to result into tangible dividends which will repay the original investment. However, credit is often being misused by individuals and institutions to afford a lifestyle and spending behavior that is unmerited. Many nation states take up ever increasing mountains of debts to pay for unsustainable budgets and entitlements to please their electorate. Living in debt causes suffering expressed in numerous forms of stress and the need to satisfy the demands of our creditors. Debt is thereby significantly limiting personal freedom and undermining independence. As can be observed in current sovereign debt crises across the world, the results are the emergence of powerful financial institutions which strip individuals and countries of their sovereign rights and dictate the political agenda.

Asteya is as much about the quality of taking as it is about the nature of accepting. The willingness or even desire to accept something not merited by one's effort and work can have similar consequences. We become indebted to individuals and institutions by accepting something that we have not yet earned. It is not easy to draw a line between a present, promotional gift, bribery, and corruption. In each case the individual becomes indebted to a varying degree; from taking a more positive stance towards the giver and a desire to exchange favours, an intended corruption of one's judgement, down to explicitly misusing one's name, position and powers to advance the briber's agenda. How is our free and impartial judgement impacted by participating in customer loyalty programs, discounted vouchers, and other freebies? A recent meme on the Internet states “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”.

The unmerited acceptance of goods is not only promoted in consumerism but also found in welfare states in the form of misuse of social securities. The destructive psychological impact of longterm living on unemployment entitlements is well documented and highlighting perhaps the most important consequence of acceptance of unmerited favors; a decline of self esteem.

In conclusion, asteya is at the core of independence, self respect and dignity. This is not to say that we should never take up a credit, accept a present, or sign up to a free service. Even the Dalai Lama is signed up with Twitter and accepts countless gifts. However, the Dalai Lama uses social media to freely give, and he redistributes all gifts to those in need. In order to maintain our integrity both as an individual and a society, we must be mindful of the connection between earning, appropriating and accepting.

Asteya is harmony between merit and appropriation