In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali gives us five recommendations, called yamas, for how we should treat others if we want to attain liberation. The third yama is asteya, which means “non-stealing.” Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati defined theft as “the unauthorized appropriation of things of value from another.” People steal because they feel deprived or “less than.” They try to make up for their deficits by depriving others. When we steal, we set into motion dire karmic consequences that affect our future well-being. But through the practice of yoga, we come to feel confident and develop a feeling of wholeness and completeness; we have no need to steal from others to feel good about ourselves.
The meat, dairy, and fashion industries are founded upon stealing-stealing milk intended for a mother’s new baby, stealing wool intended to keep someone warm, stealing skin and fur intended to be worn by the being who was born into that skin. To confine an animal for its entire life is to steal its life. To kill and eat animals is to steal their lives from them. The meat and dairy industries have successfully convinced us not to see animals as having their own purpose for living, a purpose that doesn’t include being exploited and used up by human beings.
In our present time, we may not think we are stealing from others when we eat meat and dairy products because we have been deluded by our culture into thinking that animals exist for our benefit. In fact, it is expected of us that we eat them, and it is considered strange to question this expectation. But the truth is that the animals never entered into any agreement to be bought and sold. We have been stealing their lives for our own selfish reasons. According to Patanjali, this is not conducive to our material, mental, and spiritual prosperity.
When someone says, “If people choose to eat meat, it is their business. We should not interfere, and we should be tolerant and accommodating of their dietary preferences,” the proper yogic response is that whatever any of us does affects us all. When someone eats meat, it affects all of us because of the terrible environmental impact of the meat and dairy industries on the planet. By eating meat, we are not only stealing the lives and happiness of billions of animals, we are also stealing fresh water and clean air from future generations who will be born into this world.
Can we afford to care about the suffering of animals when so many human beings are starving? Yes, not only because caring about animals does not preclude caring about human beings, but also because vegetarianism is of direct benefit to the planet and to reducing starvation around the world. A human child dies of malnutrition every 2 seconds, yet it takes 15 to 20 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat. If just 10 percent of American meat eaters adopted a vegetarian diet, there would be 12 million more tons of grain to feed to humans-enough to support the 60 million people who starve to death each year. When we come to understand the true benefits that come from the practice of asteya-non-stealing-the means to abolish human starvation will be realized, and all will have enough to eat.