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At the Gates of Spiritual Science
GA 95

7. Workings of the Law of Karma in Human Life

28 August 1906, Stuttgart

Today I want to speak about the workings of the law of karma through individual human lives. Any such explanation is bound to be incomplete, for I shall not be putting before you any speculations or theories. I shall limit myself, as occultism always should, to facts and experiences. I shall therefore tell you of a karmic influence of one kind or another only when I have observed a person in that particular situation. In speaking of karmic relationships I shall draw only on real experiences.

We touched yesterday on the fact that for most people the really burning question is: How does our destiny come about and why are we born with talents and circumstances that vary so widely? In order to understand these karmic relationships, we shall have to look back again at what has been said about man's four bodies—the physical, the etheric, the astral, and within them the Ego-body, in which the higher part of the human being is enclosed. In considering karmic relationships we shall be concerned chiefly with how causes and effects are connected with these different bodies.

Let us consider first the physical body, in so far as it bears on the law of karma. All our actions take place in the physical world; if we are to cause anyone pleasure or pain we have to be—of course not literally—in the same place as he is. What we do results from the movements of our physical body and on everything connected with it. Our external destiny in a later life depends upon what we do in this physical life. This external destiny is, as it were, the environment into which we are born. Anyone who has done bad deeds prepares for himself a bad environment, and vice versa. That is the first important karmic law: what we did in a former life determines our external destiny.

There is a second fundamental law. If we look at the way a man develops, we see that in the course of his life he learns an extraordinary amount. He absorbs concepts, ideas, experiences, feelings, and all this produces great changes in him. Think of yourselves as you were a few years ago before you knew anything about Theosophy; think of the new ideas you have acquired and how they have changed your life. All this has produced a corresponding change in the astral body, for it is the most subtle and delicate and responds most quickly to change.

Temperament, character and inclinations change much more slowly. A passionate child, for example, changes very slowly. Temperament, character and inclinations often persist all through life. Ideas and experiences change quickly; it is just the opposite with temperament, character and inclinations. These attributes are very tenacious; they do change, but slowly. Their relation to quickly changing ideas is somewhat like the relation of the hour-hand of a clock to the quick-moving minute-hand. This is because they depend on the etheric body, which consists of substance much less open to change than is the substance of the astral body. Slowest of all to change is the physical body. It is laid down once for all, so to speak, and retains more or less the same character throughout life. We shall see later how the Initiate can work upon his etheric body and can change even his physical body. For the moment we must consider how all this extends beyond a single life.

The ideas, feelings and so on which transform the astral body during a long life will produce a marked change in the etheric body only in the next life. Thus if someone wants to be born. in his next life with good habits and inclinations, he must try-to prepare these as much as possible in his astral body. If he makes the effort to do good, he will be born in his next life with the tendency to do good and that will be a characteristic of his etheric body. If he wants to be born with a good memory, he must exercise his memory as much as he can; he must practise looking back over the separate years of his life and over his life as a whole. In this way he will engender in his astral body something which will become a characteristic of his etheric body in his next life—the foundation for a good memory. A man who simply hurries through the world will find in his next life that he cannot stick at anything. But if anyone lives in intimate sympathy with a particular environment, he will be born with a special predilection for everything that reminds him of it.

We can trace the various temperaments, also, back to a previous life, for they are qualities of the etheric body.

The choleric man has a strong will, is bold, courageous, with an urge to action. Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon, for example, were cholerics. This type of character shows itself even in childhood, and a child with this temperament will take the lead in childhood games.

The melancholic man is very much occupied with himself and hence is apt to keep himself to himself. He does a lot of thinking, particularly about the way in which his environment affects him. He withdraws into himself, tends to be suspicious. This temperament, too, is apparent in childhood: a child of this type does not like to display his toys; he is afraid something will be taken away from him and would like to keep everything under lock and key.

The phlegmatic man has no real interest in anything; he is dreamy, inactive, lazy, and seeks sensuous enjoyment.

The sanguine man, on the other hand, gets easily interested in anything but he does not stick to it; his interest quickly fades; he is continually changing his hobbies.

These are the four basic types. Generally a man is a mixture of all four, but we can usually discover the fundamental one. These four temperaments express themselves in the etheric body, and so there are four main types of etheric body. They have differing currents and movements, and these impart a particular basic colour to the astral body. This does not depend on the astral body; it only reveals itself there.

The melancholic temperament is karmically determined if a man in his previous life was compelled to lead a narrow, restricted existence and to be much alone; if he was always preoccupied only with himself and unable to Make much interest in anything else. If, however, a man has learnt a great deal from experience but has also had something of a hard struggle, if he has encountered many things and has not merely looked on at them, he will become a choleric. If, again, he has had a pleasant life without much struggle or toil, or if he saw and passed by many things, but only as an onlooker, all this will work karmically into the etheric body of his next life: he will become a phlegmatic or a sanguine type.

From this we can see how we can work for our next life: and in occult schools this is done with conscious intention. In former times it was done more often than it is today because of the changes in human evolution. Five thousand years ago the occult teacher had a quite different task. He had to concern himself with people in groups; human beings had not reached the stage where each man has to take responsibility for himself. The deliberate purpose was to enable whole classes and groups of people to work together harmoniously in their next lives. But human beings are becoming more and more individual and independent; the occult teacher can no longer use anyone as a means to an end but has to treat everyone as an end in himself, and to help him to develop as far as is possible for him. In the oldest civilisations, in India for example, the entire population was divided into four castes, and the training given was intended to fit everyone for a particular caste in the next life. The development of human beings, together with the picture of the world they were to have, was deliberately planned for thousands of years ahead, and it was this that gave occult leaders their great power.

How, then, should we try to influence our etheric body for the next life? Everything done to develop the etheric body produces a result, however slowly, and education can take pains to instil quite specific habits. Whatever the etheric body acquires during one life comes to expression in the physical body in the next life. All the habits and inclinations of the present etheric body will create a predisposition to good or bad health. Good habits will produce good health; bad ones will create a tendency to some specific illness in the next life. A strong determination to rid oneself of a bad habit will work down into the physical body and produce a tendency to good health. How a disposition to infectious diseases arises in the physical body has been particularly well observed. Whether we actually get a disease will depend on what we do; but whether we are specially liable to contract it is the result of the inclinations we had in a previous life. Infectious diseases, strangely enough, can be traced back to a highly developed selfish acquisitiveness in a previous life.

If we want really to understand health and illness, we must bear in mind how complicated the circumstances are. Illness need not be a matter of individual karma only; the karma of a whole people has to be taken into account.

An interesting example of how things in the spiritual life are inter-related can be seen in the migration of the Huns and Mongols who poured from Asia into the West. The Mongols were stragglers of the Atlanteans. While the Indians, the German and other peoples were progressing, the Mongols had remained behind. Just as the animaLs have separated off from the evolutionary path of mankind, so have certain lower peoples and races fallen behind. The Mongols were Atlanteans whose physical development had taken a downward course. In the astral bodies of such decadent people an abundance of decaying astral substance can be seen. When the Mongols fell upon the Germans and other Central European peoples, they created a wave of fear and panic. These emotions belong to the astral body, and under such conditions decaying astral substances will flourish. Thus the astral bodies of Europeans became infected and in later generations the infection came out in the physical body, affecting not merely individuals but whole groups of peoples. It emerged as leprosy, that terrible disease which wrought such devastation in the Middle Ages. It was the physical consequence of an influence on the astral body.

Philology will not help you in finding evidence for this, because it knows nothing of astral influences. But you will at least find some evidence for the descent of the Mongols from the Atlanteans in the names: thus Attila, the leader of the Huns, is called in the Nordic language, Atli—meaning someone descended from the Atlanteans.

This then is how diseases affecting whole peoples have originated, and in ancient times some knowledge of it survived. The Bible has a true saying, very often misunderstood, when it speaks of God visiting the sins of the fathers on the children, even to the third and fourth generations. This does not refer to the successive incarnations of individuals, but to a karma affecting whole generations. We have to take the saying literally, as indeed many such statements have to be taken more literally than is usually thought.

The fact is that we must first learn to read the religious sources properly. In ancient times simple-minded people took them literally. As people became more sophisticated, this way of reading became increasingly rare. Then the clever liberal theologians began to expound the sources, each in his own way; and this meant that many passages were not expounded but undermined. Then there was a third stage: that of the people who took everything—old myths and legends and even the life of Christ—as a series of symbols. All this depends on the ingenuity of individuals; some will always be cleverer at it than others. But there is also a fourth stage: that of the occultist, who can once more understand everything literally because through his spiritual knowledge he can see how things are interconnected.

From what has been said you will realise that habits and feelings, which first belong to the spiritual life, can later express themselves in physical life. There is an important principle here: if care is taken to inculcate good habits, not only will the moral life of subsequent generations be improved, but also the health of a whole people, and vice versa. This is then their collective karma.

There is a form of illness, very widespread today, which was hardly known a hundred years ago—nerves or neuroticism—not because it was unrecognised, but because it was so uncommon. This characteristic illness springs from the materialistic outlook of the eighteenth century. Without that, the illness would never have appeared. The occult teacher knows that if this materialism were to continue for a few decades more, it would have a devastating effect on the general health of mankind. If these materialistic habits of thought were to remain unchecked, people would not only be neurotic in the ordinary sense but children would be born trembling; they would not merely be sensitive to their environment but would receive from everything around them a sensation of pain. Above all, mental ailments would spread very rapidly; epidemics of insanity would occur during the following decade. This was the danger—epidemic insanity—that faced mankind, and the possibility of it in the future was why the leaders of humanity, the Masters of Wisdom, saw the necessity of allowing some spiritual wisdom to be diffused among mankind at large. Nothing short of a spiritual picture of the world could restore to coming generations a tendency to good health. Theosophy, you will realise, is thus a profound movement which has been given out to meet the needs of humanity. A hundred years ago a “nervous” man meant one with iron nerves. Simply from the change in the meaning of the word you can see that something quite new has come into the world.

How is the law of karma related to physical heredity? Physical heredity plays a great role; we know that some of the characteristics of a father and his ancestors may be found again in the son. In the Bach25Bach. Among the children of Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685–1750, were three sons, all well-known musicians: Friedemann Bach, 1710–1784; Philip Emanuel Bach, 1714–1788; Johann Christian Bach, 1735–1782. family, for instance, there were twenty-eight highly gifted musicians in a period of 250 years. Again, Bernoulli26Bernoulli, a family of mathematicians, Basle. Jacob Bernoulli, 16J4–1705; Nicholas Bernoulli, 16871759; Daniel Bernoulli, 1700–1782. was a great mathematician, and eight other gifted mathematicians came after him in his family. This is all a matter of heredity, we are told; but that is only partially true. In order to be a good musician you need more than a musical predisposition in your soul; you need also a good ear in the physical sense. This good ear is a physical quality to be found in a family of musicians, and is passed on from one generation to the next. In a family, then, where a great deal of music is performed, you will find good musical ears, and so when a soul with a strongly developed musical talent is to be incarnated, it will naturally not choose a family with no interest in music—where it would languish—but one which has suitable physical organs. This fits in very well with the law of karma.

The same thing applies to moral courage. If a soul with that predisposition cannot find a suitable heredity, the characteristic will fade out. You can see that you have to be very careful in your choice of parents! The fact is not that the child resembles his parents, but that he is born into a family where the parents most resemble him.

You might ask: Does not this devalue a mother's love? Not at all. Just because the deepest sympathy already exists before birth, a particular child seeks out a particular mother; the love between them has its source much further back, and after birth it continues. The child loved its mother before it was born: no wonder then that the mother returns the love. Thus the significance of a mother's love is not falsely explained away; rather is its true source made clear. Of this, more tomorrow.