Asteya & Aparigraha


In this article we’re going to compare two similar concepts:  Asteya and Aparigraha.  The definitions of Asteya, which we usually translate as ‘non-stealing,’ and Aparigraha, or ‘non-grasping,’ are actually very similar in the Sanskrit:

Asteya comes from the stem stai, cognate to the English words steal and stealth:  Indeed, the meaning of stai is “steal,” or “do anything stealthily or in secret.”  It also means to “put on,” or “adorn.”  [Yoga Sutras II.37]

Aparigraha derives from grah, a stem with many shades of meaning of which we note the following [Yoga Sutras II.39]:

  1. Receive, acquire, take possession of

  2. Take upon oneself, begin, undergo

  3. Seize, take, overpower, grasp, covet

  4. Wear, put on, use, assume [a shape]

  5. Deprive one, rob, take away

Now you’ve probably noticed that Patanjali is a sage of very few words:  In fact, it’s said of the sutra-writers that, if they could shorten a sutra by even half a syllable, it was considered a bigger event than the birth of a child!  Patanjali’s success in this regard becomes obvious when we compare the length of his sutras with the number of words it takes any commentator to translate, never mind explain, them.  Thus, if Patanjali uses two terms where one might “do the job,” or if he chooses to repeat himself, the message is clear:  Pay Attention!  This is Important!

So why does he separate Asteya, ‘non-stealing,’ and Aparigraha, ‘non-grasping,’ instead of lumping them together as ‘non-attachment,’ as do the Bhagavad Gita and many other texts?  One reason is that, although stealing and grasping both stem from the same cause and lead to the same results, at certain levels of practice and understanding they are really quite different:  Stealing is internally oriented and more involved with perceptions of the self than grasping, which is focused toward external ideas and objects.

Stealing is internal?  That sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it?  The last time most of us were scolded for stealing, we had our hands in somebody’s cookie jar.  And, indeed, many commentators on the Yoga Sutras seem to think that this surface definition is all Patanjali had in mind.  In light, however, of our understandings of ahimsa – with its roots in the Unity of all things – and satya – with its lessons that what is True is infinite and eternal, not transient – we are led to suspect there are meanings of asteya that lie below the surface.

There is no “I” in Asteya

The experience of stealing is the illusion that “I” am the maker and the doer, the thinker and the feeler.  Making, doing, thinking and feeling are the actions of material forces, and as such are not the true Self. 

  1. The Eternal Self doesn’t steal the manifestations of subtle matter and claim them as its own; it doesn’t “put on” or “adorn” itself with a body, mind and personality and then insist, “This is me.”  Nor does it steal around like a thief in the night, guiltily hiding its Shadow aspects from itself and others.  These are traits and actions of the limited and conditioned ego-self, trying to maintain its neurotic security in the relative world.

(Continued @ NEXT)