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Reincarnation and Karma

On-line since: 20th January 2001

HOW KARMA WORKS

by Dr. Rudolf Steiner

Read this Essay in the original German

SLEEP has often been called the younger brother of death. This simile illustrates the paths of the human spirit more exactly than a superficial observation might feel inclined to assume. For it gives us an idea of the way in which the most manifold incarnations passed through by this human spirit are interrelated. In the first chapter of this book, Reincarnation and Karma, Concepts Compelled by the Modern Scientific Point of View, it has been shown that the present natural-scientific mode of thought, if it but understands itself properly, leads to the ancient teaching of the evolution of the eternal human spirit through many lives. This knowledge is necessarily followed by the question: how are these manifold lives interrelated? In what sense is the life of a human being the effect of his former incarnations, and how does it become the cause of the later incarnations? The picture of sleep presents an image of the relation of cause and effect in this field. (See Appendix (e)) I arise in the morning. My continuous activity was interrupted during the night. I cannot resume this activity arbitrarily if order and connection are to govern my life. What I have done yesterday constitutes the conditions for my actions of today. I must make a connection with the result of my activities of yesterday. It is true in the fullest sense of the word that my deeds of yesterday are my destiny of today. I myself have shaped the causes to which I must add the effects. And I encounter these causes after having withdrawn from them for a short time. They belong to me, although I was separated from them for some time.

The effects of my experiences of yesterday belong to me in still another sense. I myself have been changed by them. Let us suppose that I have undertaken something in which I succeeded only partially. I have pondered on the reason for this partial failure. If I have again to carry out a similar task, I avoid the mistakes I have recognized. That is, I have acquired a new faculty. Thereby my experiences of yesterday have become the causes of my faculties of today. My past remains united with me; it lives on in my present; and it will follow me into my future. Through my past, I have created for myself the position in which I find myself at present. And the meaning of life demands that I remain united with this position. Would it not be senseless if, under normal conditions, I should not move into a house I had caused to be built for myself?

If the effects of my deeds of yesterday were not to be my destiny of today, I should not have to wake up today, but I should have to be created anew, out of the nothing. And the human spirit would have to be newly created, out of the nothing, if the results of its former lives were not to remain linked to its later lives. Indeed, the human being cannot live in any other position but the one which has been created through his previous life. He can do this no more than can certain animals, which have lost their power of sight as a result of their migration to the caves of Kentucky, live anywhere else but in these caves. They have, through their deed, through migration, created for themselves the conditions for their later existence. A being which has once been active is henceforth no longer isolated in the world; it has inserted itself into its deeds. And its future development is connected with what arises from the deeds. This connection of a being with the results of its deeds is the law of karma which rules the whole world. Activity that has become destiny is karma.

And sleep is a good picture of death for the reason that the human being, during sleep, is actually withdrawn from the field of action upon which destiny awaits him. While we sleep, the events on this field of action run their course. For a time, we have no influence upon this course. Nevertheless, we find again the effects of our actions, and we must link up with them. In reality, our personality every morning incarnates anew in our world of deeds. What was separated from us during the night, envelops us, as it were, during the day.

It is the same with the deeds of our former incarnations. Their results are embodied in the world in which we were incarnated. Yet they belong to us just as the life in the caves belongs to the animals which, through this life, have lost the power of sight. Just as these animals can only live if they find again the surroundings to which they have adapted themselves, so the human spirit is only able to live in those surroundings which, through his deeds, he has created for himself and are suited to him.


Every new morning the human body is ensouled anew, as it were. Natural science admits that this involves a process which it cannot grasp if it employs merely the laws it has gained in the physical world. Consider what the natural scientist Du Bois-Reymond says about this in his address, Die Grenze des Naturerkennens (The Limits of the Cognition of Nature): “If a brain, for some reason unconscious, as for instance in dreamless sleep, were to be viewed scientifically” — (Du Bois-Reymond says “astronomically”) — “it would hold no longer any secrets, and if we were to add to this the natural-scientific knowledge of the rest of the body, there would be a complete deciphering of the entire human machine with its breathing, its heartbeat, its metabolism, its warmth, and so forth, right up to the nature of matter and force. The dreamless sleeper is comprehensible to the same degree that the world is comprehensible before consciousness appeared. But just as the world became doubly incomprehensible with the first stirring of consciousness, so the sleeper becomes incomprehensible with the first dream picture that arises in him.” This cannot be otherwise. For, what the scientist describes here as the dreamless sleeper is that part of the human being which alone is subject to physical laws. The moment, however, it appears again permeated by the soul, it obeys the laws of the soul-life. During sleep, the human body obeys the physical laws: the moment the human being wakes up, the light of intelligent action flashes forth, like a spark, into purely physical existence. We speak entirely in the sense of the scientist Du Bois-Reymond when we state: the sleeping body may be investigated in all its aspects, yet we shall not be able to find the soul in it. But this soul continues the course of its rational deeds at the point where this was interrupted by sleep. — Thus the human being, also in this regard, belongs to two worlds. In one world he lives his bodily life which may be observed by means of physical laws;in the other he lives as a spiritual-rational being, and about this life we are able to learn nothing by means of physical laws. If we wish to study the bodily life, we have to hold to the physical laws of natural science; but if we wish to grasp the spiritual life, we have to acquaint ourselves with the laws of rational action, such, for instance, as logic, jurisprudence, economics, aesthetics, and so forth.

The sleeping human body, subject only to physical laws, can never accomplish anything in the realm of the laws of reason. But the human spirit carries these laws of reason into the physical world. And just as much as he has carried into it will he find again when, after an interruption, he resumes the thread of his activity.

Let us hold on to the picture of sleep. If life is not to be meaningless, the personality has to link up today with its deeds of yesterday. It could not do so did it not feel itself joined to these deeds. I should be unable to pick up today the result of my activity of yesterday, had there not remained within myself something of this activity. If I had today forgotten everything that I have experienced yesterday, I should be a new human being, unable to link up with anything. It is my memory which enables me to link up with my deeds of yesterday. — This memory binds me to the effects of my action. That which, in the real sense, belongs to my life of reason, — logic, for instance, — is today the same it was yesterday. This is applicable also to that which did not enter my field of vision yesterday, indeed, which never entered it. My memory connects my logical action of today with my logical action of yesterday. If matters depended merely upon logic, we certainly might start a new life every morning. But memory retains what binds us to our destiny.

Thus I really find myself in the morning as a threefold being. I find my body again which during my sleep has obeyed its merely physical laws. I find again my own self, my human spirit, which is today the same it was yesterday, and which is today endowed with the gift of rational action with which it was endowed yesterday. And I find — preserved by memory — everything that my yesterday, that my entire past has made of me. —

And this affords us at the same time a picture of the threefold being of man. In every new incarnation the human being finds himself in a physical organism which is subject to the laws of external nature. And in every incarnation he is the same human spirit. As such he is the Eternal within the manifold incarnations. Body and Spirit confront one another. Between these two there must lie something just as memory lies between my deeds of yesterday and those of today. And this something is the soul. It preserves the effects of my deeds from former lives and brings it about that the spirit, in a new incarnation, appears in the form which previous earth lives have given it. In this way, body, soul, and spirit are interrelated. The spirit is eternal; birth and death rule in the body according to the laws of the physical world; both are brought together again and again by the soul as it fashions our destiny out of our deeds. (Each of the above-mentioned principles: body, soul, and spirit, in turn consists of three members. Thus the human being appears to be formed of nine members. The body consists of: (1) the actual body, (2) the life-body, (3) the sentient-body. The soul consists of: (4) the sentient-soul, (5) the intellectual-soul, (6) the consciousness-soul. The spirit consists of: (7) spirit-self, (8) life-spirit, (9) spirit-man. In the incarnated human being, 3 and 4, and 6 and 7 unite, flowing into one another. Through this fact the nine members appear to have contracted into seven members.)


In regard to the comparison of the soul with memory we are also in a position to refer to modern natural science. The scientist Ewald Hering published a treatise in 1870 which bears the title: Ueber das Gedaechtnis als eine allgemeine Funktion der organisierten Materie (Memory as a General Function of Organized Matter). Ernst Haeckel agrees with Hering's point of view. He states the following in his treatise: Ueber die Wellenzeugung der Lebensteilchen (The Wave Generation of Living Particles): “Profound reflection must bring the conviction that without the assumption of an unconscious memory of living matter the most important life functions are utterly inexplicable. The faculty of forming ideas and concepts, of thinking and consciousness, of practice and habit, of nutrition and reproduction rests upon the function of the unconscious memory, the activity of which is much more significant than that of conscious memory. Hering is right in stating that it is memory to which we owe nearly everything that we are and have.” And now Haeckel tries to trace back the processes of heredity within living creatures to this unconscious memory. The fact that the daughter-being resembles the mother-being, that the former inherits the qualities of the latter, is thus supposed to be due to the unconscious memory of the living, which in the course of reproduction retains the memory of the preceding forms. — It is not a question here of investigating how much of the presentations of Hering and Haeckel are scientifically tenable; for our purposes it suffices to draw attention to the fact that the natural scientist is compelled to assume an entity which he considers similar to memory; he is compelled to do so if he goes beyond birth and death, and presumes something that endures beyond death. He quite naturally seizes upon a supersensible force in the realm where the laws of physical nature do not suffice.

We must, however, realize that we are dealing here merely with a comparison, with a picture, when we speak of memory. We must not believe that by soul we understand something that is equivalent to conscious memory. Even in ordinary life it is not always conscious memory that is active when we make use of the experiences of the past. We bear within us the fruits of these experiences even if we do not always consciously remember what we have experienced. Who can remember all the details of his learning to read and write? Moreover, who was ever conscious of all those details? Habit, for instance, is a kind of unconscious memory. — By means of this comparison with memory we merely wish to point to the soul which inserts itself between body and spirit and constitutes the mediator between the Eternal and that which, as the Physical, is inwoven into the course of birth and death.

The spirit that reincarnates thus finds within the physical world the results of its deeds as its destiny; and the soul that is bound to it, mediates the spirit's linking up with this destiny. Now we may ask: how can the spirit find the results of its deeds, since, on reincarnating, it is certainly placed in a world completely different from the one in which it existed previously? This question is based upon a very externalized conception of the web of destiny. If I transfer my residence from Europe to America, I, too, find myself in completely new surroundings. Yet my life in America is completely dependent upon my previous life in Europe. If I have been a mechanic in Europe, my life in America will take on a form quite different from the one it would take on had I been a bank clerk. In the one case I shall probably be surrounded in America by machines, in the other by banking papers. In every case my previous life determines my surroundings, it attracts, as it were, out of the whole environment those things which are related to it. This is also the case with my spirit-soul. It surrounds itself quite necessarily with what it is related to out of its previous life. This cannot constitute a contradiction of the simile of sleep and death if we realize that we are dealing only with a simile, although a most striking one. That I find in the morning the situation which I myself have created on the previous day is brought about by the direct course of events. That I find on reincarnating an environment that corresponds to the result of my deeds of the previous life is brought about through the affinity of my reborn spirit-soul with the things of this environment.

What leads me into this environment? Directly the qualities of my spirit-soul on reincarnating. But I possess these qualities merely through the fact that the deeds of my previous lives have implanted them into the spirit-soul. These deeds, therefore, are the real cause of my being born into certain circumstances. And what I do today will be one of the causes of my finding myself in a later life within certain definite circumstances. — Thus man indeed creates his destiny for himself. This remains incomprehensible only as long as one considers the separate life as such and does not regard it as a link in the chain of successive lives.

Thus we may say that nothing can happen to the human being in life for which he has not himself created the conditions. Only through insight into the law of destiny — karma — does it become comprehensible why “the good man has often to suffer, while the evil one may experience happiness.” This seeming disharmony of the one life disappears when the view is extended upon many lives. — To be sure, the law of karma must not be conceived of as being so simple that we might compare it to an ordinary judge or to civil justice. This would be the same as if we were to imagine God as an old man with a white beard. Many people fall into this error. Especially the opponents of the idea of karma proceed from such erroneous premises. They fight against the conception which they impute to the believers in karma and not against the conception held by the true knowers.


What is the relation of the human being to his physical surroundings when he enters a new incarnation? This relation is composed of two factors: first, in the time between two consecutive incarnations he has had no part in the physical world; second, he passed through a certain development during that period. It is self-evident that no influence from the physical world can affect this development, for the spirit-soul then exists outside this physical world. Everything that takes place in the spirit-soul, it can, therefore, only draw out of itself, that is to say, out of the super-physical world. During its incarnation it was interwoven with the physical world of facts; after its discarnation through death, it is deprived of the direct influence of this factual world. It has merely retained from the latter that which we have compared to memory. — This “memory remnant” consists of two parts. These parts become evident if we consider what has contributed to its formation. — The spirit has lived in the body and through the body, therefore, it entered into relation with the bodily surroundings. This relation has found its expression through the fact that, by means of the body, impulses, desires, and passions have developed and that, through them, outer actions have been performed. Because he has a corporeal existence, the human being acts under the influence of impulses, desires, and passions. And these have a significance in two directions. On the one hand, they impress themselves upon the outer actions which the human being performs. And on the other, they form his personal character. The action I perform is the result of my desire; and I myself, as a personality, am what is expressed by this desire. The action passes over into the outer world;the desire remains within my soul just as the thought remains within my memory. And just as the thought image in my memory is strengthened through every new impression of like nature, so is the desire strengthened through every new action which I perform under its influence. Thus within my soul, because of corporeal existence, there lives a certain sum of impulses, desires, and passions. The sum total of these is designated by the expression “body of desire.” — This body of desire is intimately connected with physical existence, for it comes into being under the influence of the physical corporeality. The moment the spirit is no longer incarnated it cannot continue the formation of this body of desire. The spirit must free itself from this desire-body in so far as it was connected, through it, with the single physical life. The physical life is followed by another in which this liberation occurs. We may ask: Does not death signify the destruction also of this body of desire? The answer is: No; for to the degree in which, at every moment of physical life, desire surpasses satisfaction, desire persists even when the possibility of satisfaction has ceased. Only a human being who does not desire anything of the physical world has no surplus of desire over satisfaction. Only a man of no desires dies without retaining in his spirit a certain amount of desire. And this amount must gradually diminish and fade away after death. The state of this fading away is called “the sojourn in the region of desire.” It can easily be seen that the more the human being has felt bound to the sense life, the longer must this state persist.

The second part of the “memory remnant” is formed in a different way. Just as desire draws the spirit toward the past life, so this second part directs it toward the future. The spirit, through its activity in the body, has become acquainted with the world to which this body belongs. Each new exertion, each new experience enhances this acquaintance. As a rule the human being does a thing better the second time than he does it the first. Experience impresses itself upon the spirit, enhancing its capacities. Thus our experience acts upon our future, and if we have no longer the opportunity to have experiences, then the result of these experiences remains as memory remnant. — But no experience could affect us if we did not have the capacity to make use of it. The way in which we are able to absorb the experience, the use we are able to make of it, determines its significance for our future. For Goethe, an experience had a significance quite different from the significance it had for his valet; and it produced results for Goethe quite different from those it produced for his valet. What faculties we acquire through an experience depends, therefore, upon the spiritual work we perform in connection with the experience. — I always have within me, at any given moment of my life, a sum total of the results of my experience. And this sum total forms the potential of capacities which may appear in due course. — Such a sum total of experiences the human spirit possesses when it discarnates. This the human spirit takes with it into supersensible life. Now, when it is no longer bound to physical existence by bodily ties and when it has divested itself also of the desires which chain it to this physical existence, then the fruit of its experience has remained with the spirit. And this fruit is completely freed from the direct influence of the past life. The spirit can now devote itself entirely to what it is capable of fashioning out of this fruit for the future. Thus the spirit, after having left the region of desire, is in a state in which its experiences of former lives transform themselves into potentials — that is to say, talents, capacities — for the future. The life of the spirit in this state is designated as the sojourn in the “region of bliss.” (“Bliss” may, indeed, designate a state in which all worry about the past is relegated to oblivion and which permits the heart to beat solely for the concerns of the future.) It is self-evident that the greater the potentiality exists at death for the acquirement of new capacities, the longer will this state in general last.

Naturally, it cannot be a question here of developing the complete scope of knowledge relating to the human spirit. We merely intend to show how the law of karma operates in physical life. For this purpose it is sufficient to know what the spirit takes out of this physical life into supersensible states and what it brings back again for a new incarnation. It brings with it the results of the experiences undergone in previous lives, transformed into the capacities of its being. — In order to realize the far-reaching character of this fact we need only elucidate the process by a single example. The philosopher, Kant, says: “Two things fill the soul with ever increasing wonder: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Every thinking human being must admit that the starry heavens have not sprung out of nothingness but have come gradually into existence. And it is Kant himself who in 1755, in a basic treatise, tried to explain the gradual formation of a cosmos. Likewise, however, we must not accept the fact of moral law without an explanation. This moral law, too, has not sprung from nothingness. In the first incarnations through which man passed the moral law did not speak in him in the way it spoke in Kant. Primitive man acts in accordance with his desires. And he carries the experiences which he has undergone through such action into the supersensible states. Here they become higher faculties. And in a subsequent incarnation, mere desire no longer acts in him, but it is now guided by the effect of the previous experiences. And many incarnations are needed before the human being, originally completely given over to desires, confronts the surrounding world with the purified moral law which Kant designates as something demanding the same admiration as is demanded by the starry heavens.


The surrounding world into which the human being is born through a new incarnation confronts him with the results of his deeds, as his destiny. He himself enters this surrounding world with the capacities which he has fashioned for himself in the supersensible state out of his former experiences. Therefore his experiences in the physical world will, in general, be at a higher level the more often he has incarnated, or the greater his efforts were during his previous incarnations. Thus his pilgrimage through the incarnations will be an upward development. The treasure which his experiences accumulate in his spirit will become richer and richer. And he thereby confronts his surrounding world, his destiny, with greater and greater maturity. This makes him increasingly the master of his destiny. For what he gains through his experiences is the fact that he learns to grasp the laws of the world in which these experiences occur. At first the spirit does not find its way about in the surrounding world. It gropes in the dark. But with every new incarnation the world grows brighter. The spirit acquires a knowledge of the laws of its surrounding world; in other words, it accomplishes ever more consciously what it previously did in dullness of mind. The compulsion of the surrounding world decreases; the spirit becomes increasingly self-determinative. The spirit, however, which is self-determinative, is the free spirit. Action in the full clear light of consciousness is free action. (I have tried to present the nature of the free human spirit in my book, Philosophie der Freiheit, (Philosophy of Freedom — Spiritual Activity.) The full freedom of the human spirit is the ideal of its development. We cannot ask the question: is man free or unfree? The philosophers who put the question of freedom in this fashion can never acquire a clear thought about it. For the human being in his present state is neither free nor unfree; but he is on the way to freedom. He is partially free, partially unfree. He is free to the degree he has acquired knowledge and consciousness of world relations. — The fact that our destiny, our karma, meets us in the form of absolute necessity is no obstacle to our freedom. For when we act we approach this destiny with the measure of independence we have achieved. It is not destiny that acts, but it is we who act in accordance with the laws of this destiny.

If I light a match, fire arises according to necessary laws; but it was I who put these necessary laws into effect. Likewise, I can perform an action only in the sense of the necessary laws of my karma, but it is I who puts these necessary laws into effect. And new karma is created through the deed proceeding from me, just as the fire, according to necessary laws of nature, continues to be effective after I have kindled it.

This also throws light upon another doubt which may assail a person in regard to the effectiveness of the law of karma. Somebody might say: “If karma is an unalterable law, then it is wrong to help a person. For what befalls him is the consequence of his karma, and it is absolutely necessary that it should befall him.” Certainly, I cannot eliminate the effects of the destiny which a human spirit has created for himself in former incarnations. But the matter of importance here is how he finds his way into this destiny, and what new destiny he may create for himself under the influence of the old one. If I help him, I may bring about the possibility of his giving his destiny a favorable turn through his deeds; if I refrain from helping him, the opposite may perhaps occur. Naturally, everything will depend upon whether my help is a wise or unwise one. [The fact that I am present to help may be a part of both his Karma and mine, or my presence and deed may be a free act. (Editor.)]


His advance through ever new incarnations signifies a higher development of the human spirit. This higher development comes to expression in the fact that the world in which the incarnations of the spirit take place is comprehended in increasing measure by this spirit. This world, however, comprises the incarnations themselves. In regard to the latter, too, the spirit gradually passes from a state of unconsciousness to one of consciousness. On the path of evolution there lies the point from which the human being is able to look back upon his successive incarnations with full consciousness. — This is a thought at which it is easy to mock; and it is easy to criticise it negatively. But whoever does this has no idea of the nature of such truths. And derision as well as criticism place themselves like a dragon in front of the portal of the sanctuary within which we may attain knowledge of these truths. For it is self-evident that truths, the realization of which lies for the human being in the future, cannot be found as facts in the present. There is only one way of convincing oneself of their reality: namely, to make every effort possible to attain this reality.




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