Clarifying Gandhi # 13: Defining Non-stealing, Asteya

All the ideals that Gandhi evolved visions of, through the demonstration of his life, are interwoven. If one is picked up and examined, all the others are found in tow. Likewise, the spheres he worked his ideals through: economics, political activity, education, religious expression, health care, and diet, are similarly inseparable from one another.

This is the beauty of a life lived with clarity of intention. Imperfections are of course there: distortions on that intention abound in Gandhi’s life also. Yet his burning effort to clarify, his constant work at refining his own understanding, leaves a legacy worth contemplating for defining and becoming aware of our own personal life intentions. Those intentions are known less by what we do, than ‘how we are’ with ourselves, with others.

We touched on Gandhi’s definitions of non-possession (#11) then moved into a cursory view of the foundations of what was to become his educational thought (#12). This article re-visits the theme of one’s relationship to material possessions through the ideal Gandhi sought to follow of non-stealing. His unending effort leaves a record of good thinking, and action upon those thoughts.

Non-stealing is the English translation of the more ‘comprehensive’ term that Gandhi used, the Sanskrit ‘a-steya’. I say ‘comprehensive’, as ‘a-steya’, non-stealing, is ultimately an attitude that becomes a quality of personal character. A careful and wise public education would address itself to the cultivation of this virtue to ensure a more just society.

Reflecting on this principle during one of his terms of imprisonment, Gandhi gave this definition which pierces our laxity and unawareness of the critical importance of this ideal, our deep sleep in front of our own conscience:

“It is impossible that a person should steal and simultaneously claim to know Truth or cherish Love. Yet every one of us is consciously or unconsciously more or less, guilty of theft. We may steal not only what belongs to others, but also what belongs to ourselves, as is done, for instance, by a father who eats something secretly, keeping his children in the dark about it. The ashram kitchen stores are our common property, but one who secretly removes a single crystal of sugar from it stamps himself a thief…It is theft to take anything belonging to another without his permission, even if it be with his knowledge. It is equally theft to take something in the belief that it is nobody’s property. Things found on the roadside belong to the ruler or the local authority. Anything found near the ashram must be handed over to the secretary, who in his turn will pass it on to the police if it is not ashram property.”i

Gandhi was able to define his understanding of theft through several contextual refinements which provide food for thought. The first is the outer, physical form of theft. In this form alone, he found several different types.

“…Non-hoarding refers to stocking of things not needed. Non-stealing refers to the use of such things. If I need only one shirt to cover myself with, but use two, I am guilty of stealing one from another. For a shirt which could have been of use to someone else does not belong to me. If five bananas are enough to keep me going, my eating a sixth one is a form of theft. Suppose we have a stock of 50 limes, thinking that among us all we would need them. I need only two, but take three because there are so many. This is theft.ii

Gandhi also noted that, “It is also theft to use a thing for a purpose different from the one intended by the lender or to use it for a period longer than that which has been fixed with him.”iii

Gandhiji sought out the ramifications of all his vows or observances, seeking to understand their subtlest forms of expression. It takes great honesty.

It would be a different world, our relations with one another would be more open, trusting and gracious if these principles were followed, at least in part. At the next stage of physical theft, the line between non-stealing and non-possession, appears to merge:

“Thus far it is pretty smooth sailing. But the observance of non-stealing goes very much farther. It is theft to take something from another even with his permission if we have no real need of it. We should not receive any single thing that we do not need…We are not always aware of our real needs and most of us improperly multiply our wants and thus unconsciously make thieves of ourselves…One who follows the observance of non-stealing will bring about a progressive reduction of his wants. Much of the distressing poverty in this world has arisen out of breaches of the principle of non-stealing.”iv

If we can look at it honestly, stealing starts in the mind, through what is really, greediness, coveting. This negative quality of coveting has been enhanced and encouraged to our detriment by an economic system based upon indefinite consumption. For example, equality, a sense of ourself in relation to others, has been distorted by coveting, through shopping for the latest fad. It is perhaps almost a ‘spiritual need’ that in order to feel our larger self-identity with a group of those who have what we have, and are therefore, equal materially, we try to buy the same things. Yet, coveting, greediness, becomes an energy, a force impelling action in our lives. Gandhi saw its ramifications and reigned his own horse in tightly.

“Theft thus far considered may be termed external or physical theft. There is, besides, another kind of theft, subtler and far more degrading to the human spirit. It is theft mentally to desire acquisition of anything belonging to others, or to cast a greedy eye on it. It is mental theft if anyone, whether a grown-up person or a child, feels tempted by the sight of an attractive thing. One who observes the principle of non-stealing will refuse to bother himself about things to be acquired in future. This evil anxiety for the future will be found at the root of many a theft. Ideas may be stolen no less than material things.”v

This is particularly relevant to the raising of our children, our own self-discipline regarding what we subject our minds to, what we consider important to learn and know about. Gandhi said:

“We should remember that non-possession is a principle applicable to thoughts as well as to things. A man who fills his brain with useless knowledge violates that inestimable principle. Thoughts which turn us away from God or do not turn us towards Him are unnecessary possessions and constitute impediments in our way…We are there [in the World’s Scriptures] told that humility, etc. constitute real knowledge and that all the rest is ignorance.”vi

In seeking to follow Gandhi’s observances, we must exercise commonsense. If someone in an effort to emulate Gandhi were to take the vow of non-possession and non-stealing, and divest themselves of all their material possessions and live upon the charity of others it could be disastrous. The external observance can only meaningfully and practically come about through inner renunciation. Gandhi had trust and certainty in God as being the Truth within himself. Once the light of renunciation dawns within, dispassion and detachment naturally and spontaneously arise. Once that dialogue with the ideals within begins, light is shed on how to adhere to and practice them. In the beginning stages, we can consciously strive to move in that direction, seeking not to collect and acquire what we do not need. For me personally, Gandhi’s thinking on this subject is a challenge and an inspiration. I have far to go, and even further to think in regard to non-stealing in my own life.

References and Endnotes:

iGandhi, M.K. Swaminathan, K. (Ed.) (1956–1983). Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Navajivan: Ahmedabad : 44: 89–91. August 19, 1930. Age 60. From `Yeravda Mandir’.

ii Ibid. 23: 227–228. March 8, 1924. Age 54. Letter to Maganlal Gandhi, Sabarmati Ashram Manager.

iii Gandhi, M.K. Ashram Observances in Action.

ivGandhi, M.K. Swaminathan, K. (Ed.) (1956–1983). Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Navajivan: Ahmedabad : 44: 89–91. August 19, 1930. Age 60. From `Yeravda Mandir’.

vIbid. 44: 103–104. August 24–26, 1930. Age 60.


PK Willey

PK Willey, Ph.D., is an American, a Gandhian scholar, author and entrepreneur, who has delved deeply into Gandhi's Earth Ethics. Willey seeks to enhance philosophical discourse around the world where globalization has altered ethical values, particularly in the USA. Willey finds Gandhi's ideas, thoughts, and example, to be invaluable in this effort. Currently, besides numerous articles and book projects,Willey is developing a new framework for qualitative research that employs Earth Ethics, guided by a Gandhian compass and Weibust's Transformative Paradigm.

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