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Original Impulses for the Science of the Spirit
GA 96

VII. Karma and Details of the Law

15 October 1906, Berlin

Today we are going to talk about karma and details of karmic laws. You know that by karma we mean the great law of cause and effect in the life of the spirit. In the science of the spirit this law of karma applies primarily to repeated lives on earth. We speak of reincarnation and karma as two things that go together. As I think you know, this law of karma is often taken rather superficially, as if it were just a matter of reward or punishment extending from one incarnation to the next, so that when something bad or terrible happens to people in this life they’d have to say to themselves: ‘I deserve it because of something I did wrong in my previous life.’ The matter is not as simple as that. To understand the law of karma we have to go more deeply into the whole essential nature of man.

The law of karma and reincarnation, of repeated lives on earth, is under severe attack from our opponents, starting with the common phrase: ‘One life on earth is enough—would not like to live this life several times over’, and even calling it a dogma that leads to inactivity, resignation in the face of blind fate. We are going to give this opposition careful attention and we shall discover how we can counter every such objection if we consider the whole evolution of karma. To do so we have to remember—and we have heard this many times—what the human being really is in the deeper sense.

As we know, the human being first of all has a physical body that we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands, a body studied and investigated in the physical sciences, dismembered in anatomy, and known to people in everyday life. Many people who think in materialistic terms believe this physical body to be all there is really of the human being. The second part of this human being must be seen in the ether or life body. This is completely different in substance from the physical body. It does not meet the case to say that the material which makes up the ether body is thinner than the matter in the physical body. It is a completely different ‘substance nature’ we have here. It is active matter, energy. This ether matter, which has nothing to do with the ‘ether’ that physicists speak of, is creative by nature, it is constructive activity.

The best way of thinking of the ether body is that it has approximately the same form as the physical body but is completely translucent though not completely transparent, not even to clairvoyant people. It is permeable; if it were on its own, one would be able to walk through it. But it is also creative, and our physical organs are built by its activities. Heart, lung, liver and so on have been created out of the capacities of the ether body. From a materialistic point of view people might say: ‘In that case the ether body of a child would have to be quite small.’ That is certainly the case. You must not let this upset you, for we have to see it more in terms of energy which in some situations may take up less space than the creation it then produces. We are thus dealing with active, creative life, with an active body that is the basis of the physical body which we can touch in space. The ether body sustains people’s habits. It is above all the vehicle for our memory and temperament, and in fact anything we have by way of lasting qualities of soul. When we speak of the soul element in us, we certainly also mean our temperament and original character. This comes to expression in the form of the ether body.

The third part of human nature is the astral body. It fills us and surrounds the living human body like an aura of light in which drives, appetites and passions show themselves. This has been described many times.

A fourth part of human nature shows itself in our self-awareness, in the I. Further parts of human nature are still at the seed stage and are held within the I.

With regard to karmic evolution, we are mainly interested in the parts of human nature I have been speaking of. There is one thing, a fact of life, we must consider, for it is important. If you look back on your life and go back to your childhood days, you'll be able to say to yourself that you have learned a very great deal. There was a time when you were not yet able to write and read, and knew nothing of world events, history, literature and many other things. Now you know all this; it has become part of your inner life. But there is something else you know as well. You know that one can learn a great deal and yet this will not make much of a change in one's original character and temperament. Some people have learned a tremendous amount in the course of life, having filled their minds with all kinds of knowledge, and yet they have to say to themselves: ‘I used to have a violent temper then and I still have it today.’ Or: ‘I've always been phlegmatic and still am to this day.’ ‘I used to have this particular habit, and also this one, and I still have them today.’ Other people, however, will have changed greatly in themselves and in their character traits.

Perhaps there isn't anyone who has not changed at all. Looking back to your childhood you will ultimately have to say that you have made some changes since then. You will also find that observation and learning relate to change as the minute hand of a clock does to the hour hand. The change in character and temperament goes slowly like the hour hand and the absorption of observations made in life goes faster, more or less like the minute hand. This has to do with the fact that everything we learn is taken up quickly into the mind, having the astral body behind it and coming to expression in the astral body. When you hear something that is completely new, you will have a feeling that will come to you at the time and be completely forgotten the next day, or if you feel pain this will be gone from your mind after a time. These are the things that light up in the astral body, but then vanish again. All this is supported by the astral body. Things that light up in us for a time and vanish again are thus connected with the astral body.

Things that are the permanent stock of our inner life, on the other hand, everything that becomes habit, so that we remember it for long periods, perhaps for the whole of life, everything connected with temperament, is in the ether body, which is denser than the astral body. When someone manages to change a habit, a quality belonging to his temperament, getting rid of habitual carelessness, for instance, and becoming more attentive, this shows itself in the ether body and not only in the astral body. When someone learns a great deal and really makes it his own, so that it becomes part of his soul, his inner life, and he does not merely know it but has made it his own, in a deeper sense, this changes the configuration of his ether body. If someone takes up a moral principle and has to tell himself again and again: ‘The principle exists, and I therefore follow it’, it will only be in the astral body. However if the principle becomes so much part of him that he cannot do any other, then it is in the ether body. The transition from astral body to ether body happens slowly and gradually in life.

Let us now move on from considering the parts of human nature to the nature of karma and its context. Something that happens only slowly in one life on earth, this transition from something being only in the astral body to it also being in the ether body, happens in the following way from one incarnation to another. If someone has tried hard to make the right moral judgments, with others perhaps also helping him with this, the fruits of those efforts will be an original disposition of the ether body in the next life, a kind of habit, therefore, a character trait. Something which now lives in the astral body will be part of the ether body in the next life. When you meet someone with a habit worthy of praise, and this habit shows itself in his life again and again, this indicates that he took in relevant ideas or brought them to his mind himself in his earlier life. Inclinations and habits come from ideas, thoughts and concepts one has developed in earlier lives. If you take heed of this, you can make provision for your next life, laying the foundations for a particular organization of your ether body in that life. You can say to yourself: ‘I am going to try in this life to tell myself again and again that this or that is a good and proper thing.’ The ether body will then show you that it is of course a good and proper thing to follow those particular principles.

Here we come to a particularly important concept that may be illuminated by karma. It is the idea of conscience. Anything that comes to mind from one’s conscience is also something we have acquired. Human beings have a treasury of conscience, an instinct for the good, the right and the true, but only because they have fashioned its principles for themselves in their past lives, through life’s experiences. You can make provisions to fortify and enhance your conscience if you decide to deepen your moral views a little bit every day. Moral views become our conscience in our next and next-but-one lives. You see, therefore, that what the minute hand of life shows now will be shown by the hour hand in our next life. Principles and views just need to be reiterated to some degree in one life and they'll be consolidated for the next life.

What shows itself in the ether body in one life, will yield fruit for the physical body in the next life. Good habits, good inclinations, good character traits lay the foundation for health, physical ability, physical energy, that is, a healthy physical body for the next life. A healthy physical body in one life indicates that the individual concerned prepared this physical body for himself in an earlier life by acquiring particular habits and character traits. Above all a marked connection exists between a well-developed memory in one life and the physical body for the next life.

Let us take someone who immediately forgets things again, for instance, and someone else who has a faithful memory. All one has to do is consciously bring experiences to mind again and practise this consistently. You will then find that not only have you developed a good memory for the things for which you have been specially training, but that this memory also becomes a completely different power. And this plays a role in spiritual development. The ability to gain an overview of the past develops in a quite specific way. If you conscientiously train your memory, you will be reborn with a firm physical body, with limbs that will truly serve well, so that you will be able to do the things you want to do in your inmost soul in that next life. A body unable to do what the soul wants comes from an earlier life where care was not taken to develop a good, sound memory and one has instead been content to let things go, without recall, and forget about them.

We are just considering individual phenomena today, but you can imagine the vastness of the field we are discussing. A true occultist will never give himself up to speculation. The things 1 am telling you are not theories but things that have been tried and tested in specific cases. They are thus based on specific research findings. When I said that a firm physical organism that obeys the soul is due to a good memory in the previous life, this means that a number of cases have been investigated and that the information given is based on those investigations. The aim is to speak of facts only.

The qualities developed in the ether body thus enter into the physical body in the next life, which means that not only good inclinations and character traits and sound habits of life develop in a sound physical body in the next life, but bad qualities, bad habits, corrupt inclinations also show themselves in the next life in a sick organism. This does not mean that a quite specific illness comes from a particular quality, but that certain dispositions, inclinations towards illness, always go back to quite specific character and temperamental qualities in the previous life. Someone who has a life with corrupt inclinations behind him will have an organism in this life that is more easily subject to physical illnesses than someone else's organism. Someone who has had sound character traits, a good temperament, will be reborn in a body that can be exposed to all kinds of epidemics without catching anything, and vice versa.

You can see that things in this world are connected in complex ways through the law of cause and effect. To give an example, let me tell you of something arising from particular spiritual investigations. It may shock you at first, but in a theosophical group one can speak of it. Someone had developed a highly egoistical sense of acquisition in one life, a real appetite for outer riches. This was not the healthy endeavour to be rich from altruistic motives, wanting to help others in the world and work selflessly—that would be something else. No, this was an egoistical desire to possess that would condition a particular constitution of the ether body and take acquisitive desires beyond the necessary level. Such a person is very often born with a physical body in his next life that shows a disposition towards infectious diseases. Occult investigation has shown that people who easily get infected during certain epidemics in this life have in many cases had a pathologically developed acquisitive streak.

It is also possible to go into detail about other things. Thus there are two qualities that have a clearly apparent effect on the karmic configuration of the next life. On the one hand we may speak of the powerful influence of a loving, well-meaning approach to other people when this is a persistent character trait. There are people who look kindly on everything they see in others, showing great love and empathy for those around them. In some, this love goes far beyond the ordinary love of humanity. They love nature and the whole world. The more this sense of embracing the world has developed and become a habit of soul, so that it is attached to the ether body, the more will the person have a tendency to be young in a next life; he will stay young for a long time. Someone who does not age until late in life, therefore, remaining young and flexible for a long time, will have spent one or more earlier lives in love for the world around them. A person will be all the more inclined to stay physically young in a later life the more he comes to love those around him. Someone who tends to feel antipathy towards others will age early. A body showing early signs of ageing physically, points back to the life of a petty critic, of disaffection and ill will. You see, therefore, that it is possible to influence one’s life by consciously intervening in karma. Someone able to develop love in this present life can be assured of having a body with youthful traits in the next life. All the people who write as critics for the supplements at an early age, will in their next life be people who are practically born with wrinkles. These are radical words, but there is a powerful truth behind them.

The karmic laws thus show us the connection between health and our life in mind and spirit. It is beyond dispute, of course, that this connection cannot be reached in a couple of steps and one must certainly consider the details. Nor can there be any doubt but that a moral, honest, conscientious inner attitude will in future create a sound body. But we can’t expect someone with faulty attitudes to be cured from one day to the next. And we have to realize that we have to progress from egoism to a selfless way of life that does not want to gather the immediate fruits of its actions. When something becomes a habit, however, it can have an effect on the physical body even in this life. Proof comes with occult development, where one is consciously able to influence not only the astral but also the ether body and the physical body. Someone who goes through the process of higher development learns to influence not only his astral body but also the ether body and the physical body. By changing their habitual attitude, people with a violent temper may grow gentle, people falling into affects may develop equanimity and a harmonious inner life. An occultist has to change his habits in a relatively short time. True development means that anything one learns does not remain theory but enters into the ether body. The occultist then also manages to let it enter into the physical body. He learns to control his heartbeat, pulse beat and breathing. Occult development shortens a process that otherwise takes many incarnations. Karma is shortened, therefore.

Some of the things we are going to talk about this winter will be easier to understand and more transparent if we know some of the more subtle karmic connections, such as the difference between a handsome or beautiful and an ugly person. What is the karmic situation when someone is beautiful? This has to do with something which may seem incredible at first but is definitely so. Physical beauty is often, though not always, a consequence of suffering borne in the previous life. Suffering in the previous life—in body or also in soul—becomes beauty in a next life, beauty of the outer physical body. A comparison I have made on other occasions is highly appropriate here. How does a beautiful pearl develop in an oyster shell? Actually due to a disease; it is the product of a disease. And in more or less the same way there is also a process in karmic connections that connects sickness, suffering, with beauty. This beauty has often been paid for with suffering and sickness.

Wisdom, too, has often been paid for with pain. It is not without interest that modern scientists are in many ways confirming what occultists have been saying for millennia: wisdom has to do with pain and suffering, a sombre earlier life full of renunciation, it really is sometimes worth while taking note of modern scientific research. A book has recently appeared on the way in which our thinking shows itself in our expression.49de Sanctis, S. Die Mimik des Denkens, published in 1906/1907 It is intended to show that the mood of a person’s thinking is reflected in his physiognomy. The author, and it is clearly apparent that he does not know much about occult things, has nevertheless discovered by means of sheer observation that the physiognomy of a thinker reflects pain that has been suffered before. Modern science is in the process of gradually substantiating ancient occult wisdom. This will be even more so in the next few years, more than any academic would ever have dreamt of.

You will also find it easier to see now that we cannot take certain phenomena of cultural life in blind faith or simply on authority. If we know karmic law and consider a phenomenon such as Schopenhauer,50Schopenhauer, Arthur (1788–1860). German philosopher. for example, who drenched the whole of his philosophy in pessimism, someone able to see deeper should not think that this pessimism is the basic mood of humanity. It is a basic mood in his own soul that has been prepared for karmically and brought about by his ether body having a particular constitution. This pessimism can only be understood if one follows the karma of the philosopher. Someone like him will not have had the opportunity to do many good things in an earlier life—this is something quite real and definite. On the other hand his position in life and profession had condemned him to do some evil and wrong things. This evil, these wrongs he was condemned to commit in that earlier life, not by karma, but by his profession, came back to him as a feeling of antipathy to the world which was now coming to meet him. It was a recapitulation of his own actions. If you want to understand karma you should not simply take a fatalistic view, saying that all is predestined. It need not be the case that someone is condemned by his earlier lives to do the things he is doing now. Very often his actions will only be balanced out in a future life. These are the kind of actions I mean in speaking of Schopenhauer’s basic pessimism.

Everything people do by way of personal, individual actions arising wholly and completely from their own person—not the actions they have to perform because of the national community they belong to, or their family, community or profession—needs to be seen in a clear light. Two court counselors may do the same things because they hold that position. This we leave aside. But they may also do completely different things because they are two different people. And this we'll now consider. Something done because of the person one is will meet one in one’s next life as outer destiny. If someone has a good life, with destiny kind to him, this goes back to the right, well-considered and good things he did in an earlier life. If some people have a difficult life, with many things going wrong for them, and conditions are unfavourable for them—meaning the outside situation, not the constitution of their physical body—this, too, goes back to personal actions taken in their previous life. The things people have done because of their profession and their family become part of their temperament and character. Human destiny is thus determined by personal actions in the previous life. On the other hand, it is possible to create a favourable or unfavourable destiny for one’s next life by good, well-considered and right actions.

If life brings you together with particular people, you yourself have created the conditions for this in a previous life. You have had something to do with them and have now arranged things so as to have them around you. Here’s an example from the time of the Vehmgericht. This also involved execution. The individual concerned would face hooded and cloaked judges who would also execute their sentences on the spot. Someone was once condemned and killed. This destiny has been the subject of occult investigation going far back into earlier incarnations. It was found that the individual, killed by five judges, had once been a tribal head and had had those five people killed. His former action had brought those five people back into his life as if drawn there by magnetism and they had their revenge. You cannot have someone intervene in your life whom you have not brought into your life yourself because of earlier relationships. It may happen, however, that general conditions—work or family—bring someone together with individuals he has never been in contact with before. People's behaviour to one another will then be the basis for their meeting in the next life, now at the level of their outer destiny and life. You can see that such karmic ideas are highly complex and not so easy to explain. It is important to study these things in detail, for this alone will make it possible for us to gain real understanding of life.

It also needs to be pointed out, again and again, that the idea of karma, if rightly understood, must not in any way contradict the idea of redemption in Christian teaching. Many of you have heard me speak of the fact that the Christian concept of redemption and the idea of karma can be reconciled, but others in the audience are new to this. Misunderstandings are common, often because many of the people who talk about theosophy do not know much about it. They will say, therefore, that karma simply means that one has to accept all the consequences of one’s actions, and if someone has committed a sin, only he can redeem himself. Many theosophists taking this point of view declare that the idea of redemption through Christ Jesus means nothing. They say that in theosophy one cannot accept the notion of redemption by another spirit, for man has to redeem himself. Christian theologians dispute this, saying that they believe in redemption through Christ Jesus, whilst theosophists believe in redeeming oneself. The two ideas are not compatible.

Karma is, however, a kind of life account that can reasonably be compared with a balance sheet. You have a debit and a credit side. They are added together and a balance is drawn. It would be very odd for a business person to say: ‘I'll cease trading so that my balance won’t change.’ Just as a new business deal can be made at any time in commercial life, so new karma can be created at any time. It is foolish to say of someone: ‘He’s brought his suffering on himself, he deserves it, and so I must not help him.’ That is just like saying to a trader who’s gone bankrupt: ‘A few thousand pounds would help you, but it would upset your bookkeeping if I were to give them to you.’ That would certainly not be the case. The money that had been lent would merely be entered in the balance sheet. Balance has to be created, but not always by the individual concerned. Karma does not mean balancing things out yourself but only balancing things out by an action that is taken. Now imagine you're a rich man able to help not just one person but two. You would thus be able to intervene in the karma of two people. It is exactly because karma exists that you would be able to intervene in the life accounts of those two people. So there are people who are able to help three, four, five or even hundreds of others. They'll not say: I must not help them because this means intervening in their karma.’ No, they'll simply help them.

Now there is a spirit endowed with the most tremendous powers who has appeared in the world once. He is able to give this kind of help to those who see themselves as his people. This is Christ Jesus. Because the redemption has been brought about by a kind of evil it does not go against the law of karma. Redemption through Christ Jesus is completely reconcilable with the law of karma, just like the help a rich person gives to a bankrupt trader. Misunderstandings arise because some theosophists have not thoroughly understood karma and theologians have not taken note of this. It is exactly the essence and importance of the deed done by a single sublime spirit that guarantees the existence of karmic law. When these things are rightly understood at some future time, it will be apparent how far removed theosophy is from being in opposition to any professed belief that is based on the truth, and that it will actually help people to see the truth of such a belief. Once you have seen the way karma works in some instances, you will feel that insight is gained into a profound necessity for the life of the spirit. Karmic law will, however, only be rightly understood by someone who does not just take it as theoretical knowledge but makes it part of the whole inner world of feeling that is his being. Inner certainty and harmony will then fill the whole of his life. And people who keep insisting that karmic law leads to inactivity and lethargy, making people accept their destiny, and that it does not give joy in life, and the like, have simply not tried to live with the law of karma. To live with the law of karma is to let courage for life and hope flow into your soul.

Karmic law must above all throw light on our future. We should not think so much of the past, but more of the future. We have said that human beings can have an effect on the distant future by preparing the configuration of the ether body according to karmic law in their astral body, and looking further ahead also the configuration of a future physical body. If you are able to see this, realizing the tremendous importance of it, you'll have an idea of the way the idea of education, above all national education, will be deepened in the light of karmic law. If people work towards it today, that they may live in accord with karmic law, preparing for their next life, they will also be preparing for the future of their nations. The people of the future will, of course, be present-day people in reincarnation. Healthy races for the future and above all sound leaders of future races, will come if people live sensibly for the future in the light of karmic law. For when an individual makes himself more perfect, this will also have an effect on the organisms of nation and race in the future.

Now we need first of all to consider the actual mechanism of this karma. The question is, what powers take effect when the astral qualities of one’s present life are transferred to the ether body in the next life, and what powers bring it about that the qualities the ether body has in the present life—habits and inclinations—are transferred to the physical disposition in one’s next life. An even more difficult question concerns the powers that are active where, because of actions taken in this life, one will have a particular environment in the next; this will mean not only the people one will be dealing and have dealt with, but also the natural environment, the plant and animal worlds, the national and social context one has prepared for oneself. What is the nature of the powers that make all these things come to a person again? How does it come about that two people who had something to do with one another in a previous life, with one of them reborn in America, the other in Europe, are nevertheless brought together? These are big questions and we'll endeavour to answer them the next time we meet. In short, how do conditions in one life create the conditions for the next? We'll have many visitors and the subject would also be suitable for consideration at the annual general meeting. The people who have been attending these lectures will of course be at an advantage on that next occasion. The subject of the next lecture will be ‘karma technique’.51See lecture given in the evening on 22 Oct. 1905 (in this volume).

With today and the next time we shall thus have considered an important issue in life. Please take note that I have been referring to a selection of cases that are based on genuine, positive occult facts. All the karmic connections shown today thus come from investigations made on the karma of particular individuals. Karma and the study of karma also show us the basic approach we must use in judging the relationship between sickness and individual soul qualities and above all the awakening of certain inner powers. Some of the things that will be presented more in general outline in the Architects' House concerning the connection between sickness and death, suffering and evil, will be more clearly apparent to those who have been taking these lectures on karma into their hearts and minds. This winter, special attention will be paid to the way the spiritual scientific view of the world relates to life. This will help us to gain more of an impulse and the insight that the science of the spirit is not something to be thought of as impracticable but that it plays a direct role in everyday life.