The Hindu scriptures have time and again stressed the importance of strict ethical life as a pre-condition to spiritual enlightenment. A strict ethical life is essential even for social harmony and peace.
Among the few cardinal ethical principles delineated in these works, ‘asteya’ or ‘non-stealing’ is also one. The Yogasūtras (2.30) of Patañjali (200 B. C.) has included this under the first aṅga or limb of yoga, viz., yama. It is the third in the series of five such qualities.
Though ‘steya’ means ‘stealing’ and hence ‘asteya’ means ‘non-stealing,’ its connotation goes much beyond this restric-ted sense. All actions of appropriation of others’ things, not sanctioned by the scriptures, should be brought under this head.
Since greed has been recognized as a natural infirmity of the human mind (vide Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 5.2.2 and Īśāvāsya Upaniṣad 1) it is no wonder that the scriptures have laid such an emphasis on ‘asteya.’
Rules regarding ahiṁsā (non-injury), asteya and so on, may be relaxed under certain extraordinary conditions sanctioned by the scriptures. Thus, stealing of food is permitted when a person is dying of hunger during famine and is unable to procure food in any other way. But for persons who have totally dedicated themselves for spiritual enlightenment, no exemptions are allowed (vide Yogasūtras 2.31). For them, it is a ‘mahāvrata’ or ‘great vow.’
See also YAMA.