Almost everyone has had the unfortunate experience of having something of value disappear. Sometimes we conclude that we misplaced it or lost it. While that is unpleasant, it doesn’t compare to feelings we suffer when we figure out that the item was stolen, especially by someone we know. Some years ago a hundred dollars was missing from my jewelry box. I was certain it had been there the previous day. After some investigation, I discovered that one of my brother’s friends had taken the money. I felt violated, angry, and hurt.
When I worked as a psychotherapist in an inner-city mental health clinic, I often counseled children who had a history of stealing. Sometimes they’d been caught with small-ticket items like CDs, and at other times with expensive cars from off the street. I tried to have them imagine what it must have felt like for the victim of their crime—leaving the house in the morning to go to work and finding their car gone. But most of these kids lacked an ability to empathize. Not only were they unable to understand how the person they stole from felt, but they really didn’t seem to care. Their lack of social conscience made for a poor prognosis in treatment.
As potential victims of their crimes, we try to protect our property with elaborate alarm systems, gated communities, and vicious dogs. Despite these amenities, we are plagued with the growing fear of more insidious crimes, such as identity thefts, where our accounts are plundered and our credit ruined. Paper shredders have become an essential item in many homes, and we regularly check our credit reports to see if there is any unauthorized activity. Elaborate white-collar crimes flourish, cheating millions of people out of their money.
What accounts for this seemingly out of control proliferation of stealing in every sphere of our life? From a psychological perspective we could look to such factors as a lack of social responsibility arising from an increasing sense of alienation. Some things that contribute to this sense of depersonalization are the breakdown of the family structure, lack of community, and the waning influence of the church. Some people feel that social and economic inequalities entitle them to things they’re not getting. External conditions such as poverty and drug addiction exacerbate the psychological dynamics.
But to understand the root cause, I look to a spiritual perspective from the timeless Vedic commentaries. They tell us that we are living in the most degraded Iron Age, characterized by cheating and hypocrisy. All the pillars of religious, moral, and ethical life—including austerity, cleanliness, mercy, and truthfulness—have practically disappeared in this age. Stealing is but a symptom of the decline of these principles.
Religious principles flourish when people understand that everything is owned and controlled by God. In essence, nothing is ours. We have been entrusted with a quota of God’s property. That makes us responsible for using these temporary possessions in a way that pleases the owner.
Even the gifts of nature—water, sunlight, wood, minerals, gems—are supplied for our use in service of the Lord and His devotees. The Lord has created the material world to remedy our desires to enjoy separately from Him. He has supplied this world with all the ingredients we need to live a happy life here and make spiritual advancement. If we fail to recognize the true owner and exploit resources for our own pleasure, then we too are thieves and will have to suffer.
During a morning-walk conversation in India, Srila Prabhupada was speaking to a wealthy industrialist and asked him the nature of his business. When the man replied that he made glass, Prabhupada asked him how the glass was made. The man said that it’s produced from sand.
“And who owns the sand?” Prabhupada asked.
“Bhagavan, God, owns the sand.”
“Oh, you are stealing from Bhagavan?” Prabhupada challenged.
Trying to get off the hook, the man said that he gave much money in charity.
“Oh, then you are just a little thief,” Prabhupada lightheartedly replied.
While Prabhupada certainly encouraged his disciples and congregation to work in honest business enterprises, he also wanted us to remember that Krishna owns our business and that as much of the fruit of our labor as possible should be given back to Him. By using our time and money in the service of the Lord and His devotees, we can give back in many ways. Giving back to the Lord purifies our work and frees us from both the good and bad reactions of the work. Otherwise, by taking what is not legitimately ours we become further implicated in samsara, the cycle of birth and death.
Knowing Our Quota
This brings up the question of how to determine what quota has been allotted to us by the Supreme Lord. Like many aspects of spiritual life, the answer requires sincerity and honest introspection. We each have different needs, but we should be led by guiding principles such as those illuminated in the scriptures. Sri Ishopanishad and Bhagavad-gita, for example, teach us to be moderate in satisfying our bodily needs.
We should reject working too hard for worldly possessions or accomplishments very difficult to obtain. We also need to take guidance from advanced Vaishnavas who understand our psychophysical natures and can help us to discern what standard of living will best support our spiritual practices. When Prabhupada was designing the living quarters for the devotees in his temple projects in India, he included modern amenities such as flushing toilets and showers, which were not so commonplace there at the time. He understood the particular psychology of his Western disciples and took care to provide a standard of living that would be conducive to that nature.
Even within Western culture there is a vast variety of individuality. What might be excessive for one person may not be enough for another. Our allotment from Krishna may also vary according to our specific service to Him, our level of spiritual advancement, and our ability to manage material assets. Krishna gave Prabhupada so much for his service, and not a penny was used for his personal sense gratification.
While the disciples of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu often exemplified their advancement through severe renunciation, Srila Prabhupada displayed the principle of yukta-vairagya—using material resources in Krishna’s service. Someone once mentioned to Prabhupada a famous yogi who refused to accept money. In response, Prabhupada held his hands out as if to embrace the money, saying he would use it all in Krishna’s service. Prabhupada envisioned using the money to print Krishna conscious books and build beautiful temples for the benefit of the whole planet. The perfection of our intelligence is to take God’s gifts and offer them back in the form of service to Him.
Prabhupada’s higher understanding of renunciation had him look for every opportunity to engage others in Krishna ’s service. There is the famous story of the drunken man staggering into the first temple in New York City while Prabhupada was lecturing. The drunk put some toilet paper into the bathroom and without a word left the temple. Prabhupada commented that the man was not in order, but he had started his devotional service. So whatever we offer to the Lord will be good for us. We will never be the loser.
When a child buys a small gift for his father out of the allowance he received from his father, the father becomes charmed and feels increased affection for the child. In the same way, Krishna feels more affection towards us when we lovingly make an offering back to Him.
This is how we transform our mentality from that of a thief into that of devotee. When we come to the material world, we forget our position as eternal servants of the Lord. Instead we try to imitate the supreme enjoyer by exploiting material nature for our own pleasure. We ignore the Lord and try to be happy separate from Him. The Lord is so kind that despite our reluctance to come back to Him, He comes with us. He sits in our hearts, witnessing all of our activities. He sees us when we are giving, and he sees us when we are stealing. He sends His representatives, the pure souls, to come and help us understand how we should live our lives. He sends His holy name to sanctify our desires and help us to live in accordance with godly principles.
Those who receive His mercy have an obligation to help others who are also struggling in this world. When we help spread Krishna consciousness and the chanting of the holy name, more and more people will be transformed into loving servants of the Lord. Eventually this Iron Age can take on all the qualities of the Golden Age, where people understand the Lord’s divinity and their own identity as His eternal servants. This is the real antidote to society’s woes.
The Butter Thief
To help the wayward souls get out of this material entanglement and reconnect with Him, the Lord appears Himself in this world and exhibits pastimes to attract our mind and heart to His service. Some of those most celebrated pastimes involve the Lord stealing from His devotees. Krishna delights in stealing butter and yogurt from the cowherd women. He derives immense pleasure in stealing the young village girls’ garments.
Everything originates in the Lord. The negative qualities we see here in this world are but perverted reflections of the pure behavior of God. When we steal from one another in the material world, we create feelings of enmity and desires for revenge—the antithesis of goodwill and concern for others. But when Krishna steals from His devotees, they feel the greatest happiness. Their loving sentiments increase exponentially. It is a celebration, a festival of loving exchanges.
Besides, how can God steal when everything belongs to Him? His stealing is part of His divine play inspired by His love for His devotees. We are but tiny sparks of the Lord’s energy, and everything we possess is on loan to us in this lifetime. So there is no question of our imitating the Lord’s activities. Rather we should pray that the Lord steal our hearts away from this illusory world and allow us to again take part in His eternal pastimes.
By: Archana Siddhi Devi Dasi