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Karma and Details of the Law of Karma
GA 96

This single lecture is the 7th of 21 lectures in the lecture series entitled, The Original Impulse of Spiritual Science, published in German as, Ursprungsimpulse der Geisteswissenschaft.

15 October 1906, Berlin

Translated by D. S. Osmond

We shall speak today about Karma and details of the law of Karma. You know that by Karma is meant the great law of cause and effect in the spiritual life and that this law of Karma comes into consideration in Spiritual Science since it applies to repeated lives on Earth. We speak of the interrelationship of Reincarnation and Karma. Now as you certainly know, the prevailing conception of this law of Karma is somewhat superficial, as if it were simply a matter of reward and punishment extending from one incarnation into the other, so that when the individual experiences something evil or reprehensible in the present life he must say to himself unconditionally: Because of some guilt incurred in my previous life, I have deserved this—or, if I do this or that, the corresponding reward or punishment will be mine in the next life—but the matter is not as simple as that. Whosoever desires to understand this law of Karma must penetrate more deeply into the nature of man and his whole being.

The law of Karma and Reincarnation, of repeated lives on Earth, comes in for the fiercest possible attacks from the opponents of Spiritual Science, attacks often beginning with the hackneyed phrase: One life on Earth is enough for me. I have no wish to endure it more than once—and finishing with the assertion that it is a teaching which leads to inactivity and blind resignation in face of destiny. We shall go closely into this opposition and be able in the case of every objection to refute it when we study the whole course of Karma. For this purpose, we must remind ourselves once again of what Man is in the deeper sense.

We know that man consists, primarily, of the physical body that can be seen by the eyes and touched by the hands, that is investigated and examined by physical science, dissected by anatomy and is familiar in ordinary life. Many materialistic thinkers regard the physical body as being the only evidence of the existence of man. We have then to regard the etheric body, or life-body, as a second member of the human being. It is a body which consists of a substance essentially different from that of the physical body. It is by no means enough to say that the matter, the substance, of which the etheric body consists is essentially finer than the substance of which the physical body is composed. Far rather we have here a completely different ‘substantiality’. It is active matter, matter of the nature of force. This etheric matter which has no connection whatever with what is called ether in Physics, has a certain creative quality and is actually the upbuilding, constructive principle. The best mental picture you can make of the etheric body is that its form is approximately the same as that of the physical body, but it is luminous throughout, although not fully transparent—even for clairvoyants. It is also penetrable; if it were alone one could therefore pass through it. At the same time, it is creative; man's physical organs are built of it. Heart, lung, liver and so forth are created out of this etheric body. From the materialistic standpoint it could therefore be said that in a young child the etheric body must be very small. And that is so. We must think of the etheric body more as a force which in certain circumstances may occupy a smaller space than what it actually creates. Thus, we have here to do with creative life, with a creative body which underlies the physical body that can be touched in space. This etheric body is the bearer of a man's habits. Above all it is the bearer of the memory and the temperament, of the permanent qualities of soul in a human being. In speaking of the soul-nature of a human being we do not mean only the temperament and the qualities of character. But in respect of form all this comes to expression in the etheric body.

The third member of man's being is the astral body. It fills and surrounds his body as an aura of light in which the impulses, desires and passions become visible. This has often been described.

A fourth member of man's being is what comes into manifestation in self-consciousness, in the ‘I.’ The other members are germinal only and are centred in the ‘I.’

In connection with karmic evolution it is these members of man's being that are of primary interest to us. Above all we must be mindful of a very important fact of life. When you look back over your life and think of your childhood, you will be able to say that you have learnt a very great deal. There was a time when you could not write or read and knew nothing about happenings in the world, about history or literature as well as a great deal else. Now you have knowledge of all this, and it has become a possession of your soul. But you also know that a person can learn a great deal and yet no great change takes place in his original character and temperament. There are individuals who in the course of their lives have amassed a tremendous amount of knowledge and have filled their souls with science of every kind, but who must admit to themselves: I once had a violent temper and still have it today—Or again: I was phlegmatic from the beginning and have remained so. Once upon a time I had this or that habit and still have it. Admittedly there are also individuals who have changed a great deal in their own natures and characters. Perhaps indeed there is no individual who has brought about no change whatever in his fundamental disposition. When you look back to your childhood you will certainly have to admit that you have achieved many changes in your character since then. But at the same time, you will realise that realisation of your characteristics and learning how to change them are processes related to each other as the minute hand of a clock and the hour hand. The transformation of character and temperament proceeds slowly, as does the hour hand of a clock and observations of life are comparatively rapid, rather like the minute hand. This is connected with the fact that everything an individual learns can be received quickly into the soul; the astral body is its bearer and it takes effect in the astral body. When you learn something fundamentally new a feeling comes over you at the moment and is forgotten the next day. Or if you experience pain that with time disappears from your consciousness—these are things which can be seen lighting up in the astral body and then disappearing from it. The astral body is the bearer of all this.

Whatever lights up in us temporarily and disappears again has its seat in the astral body. What becomes a man's permanent stock, as it were, in so far as it comes to expression in the life of soul, everything that becomes habit so that it is noticeable in an individual for a long time—perhaps always—in his life, everything that has to do with the temperament, is situated in the etheric body which is denser than the astral body. When an individual succeeds in changing a habit, a characteristic feature of his temperament, when, for example, he rids himself of habitual indolence and becomes alert and attentive, this becomes evident in the etheric body, not only in the astral body. When a person learns a great deal, assimilating it so thoroughly that it gradually becomes an asset of his very soul and an actual constituent of his inner nature—so that he does not only know it but possesses it in a deeper sense—then he is changing the configuration of his etheric body. When someone accepts a moral principle and is obliged to say to himself repeatedly: the principle exists so that is why I obey it—then the principle is rooted in the astral body only. But if the principle is rooted so firmly in him that he simply can do no other than obey it—then it is established in the etheric body. Transition from the astral body to the etheric body takes place slowly and gradually in the course of life.

We will now pass from a study of these members of man's constitution to their connection with Karma. What takes place during the same life on Earth only slowly, that is to say the transition of something that to begin with is in the astral body into the etheric body manifests karmically from one incarnation to the other in the following way.—Someone who has tried to judge things in accordance with true morality, and who in this striving may perhaps still have been prompted by other considerations, finds the fruits of this striving in his next life as a basic quality of his etheric body, as a kind of habit, as a quality of his character. What is active in the present life in the astral body becomes in the next life an attribute of the etheric body. When you come across a person with a certain praiseworthy habit which is constantly expressed in his life, this, is an indication that in his earlier incarnation he had absorbed the corresponding ideas or closely scrutinised his own nature. Propensities and habits stem from ideas, thoughts and concepts that had been formed in previous lives. If you pay attention to this, you can make provision for the next incarnation by laying the foundation of a definite organisation of the etheric body. You can say to yourself: I shall try in this life to convince myself over and over again that this or that is good and right. Then the etheric body will ultimately show you that it is good and right in the very nature of things to follow the corresponding principles.

A certain concept that can be explained in the light of karma, is particularly important here. It is the concept of conscience. What arises from a man's conscience is equally something that has been acquired. He has a conscience, an instinct for what is good, right and true only because in his past lives, in his experiences during life, in his moral principles, he has moulded this conscience. You can provide for the strengthening and enhancement of conscience if you undertake every day to deepen your moral conceptions. Moral conceptions become conscience in the next life and the one after that.

So you see, that what the minute hand on the clock of life shows us becomes the hour hand in the next life. There must, however, be a certain strengthening of the moral principle and its realisation in one life and then they are consolidated for the next. What is established in the etheric body of one life brings to maturity the attributes of the physical body of the next life. Good habits, good inclinations, good traits of character, prepare healthiness, physical proficiency, physical strength, therefore 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 through self-acquired habits and qualities of character. A particularly strong connection exists between a well-developed memory in one life and the physical body in the next life.

Let us take as an example a person who forgets everything immediately and another who has a faithful memory. One need only consciously recall experiences into the memory and practise this consistently, and it will finally be noticed that not only has a good memory of things for which one has had specific training been acquired, but that this memory also becomes a quite different faculty which comes into consideration during the process of spiritual development. The capacity to survey the past develops to a very marked degree. An individual who develops his memory conscientiously will be reborn with physical soundness, with limbs that can be truly useful to him for giving effect to what his soul inwardly desires. A body that is incapable of giving effect to what the soul wishes stems from a previous life during which no care was given to the development of a good and healthy memory but when, through slovenliness, forgetfulness prevailed.

Today we are speaking only of single phenomena, but you can realise the magnitude of the domain of which we are speaking. A genuine occultist will never indulge in speculations on this subject. What I have put before you are not theories but definite cases that have been tested. What has been said here is based upon specific results of research. When it was stated that a sound physical organism which obeys the soul can be traced back to a good memory in the previous life, a number of cases had been investigated and the indications given were based upon the facts ascertained by that investigation. Facts alone have been presented.

Now what develops in the etheric body passes in the next life into the physical body. Good inclinations, qualities of character, and proficient habits in life come to expression in a healthy physical body in the next incarnation, whereas the opposite qualities produce a sickly organism in the next life. This is not to be understood in the sense that a particular disease stems from a particular quality, but certain predispositions for illness can always be led back to quite definite qualities of character and temperament in the previous life. An individual whose life in the past was fraught with tainted qualities of character has, in the present life, an organism that is more easily prone to physical illnesses than the organism of an individual who was equipped with healthy characteristics and a sound temperament. Such an individual will be reborn with a body that can be exposed to every possible form of epidemic without being infected.

You see, therefore, that things in the world are complicated and are subject to the law of cause and effect. To give an example, here is a case based on definite results of investigation. It may at first be something of a shock but in a study group it may certainly be spoken of. A certain individual had developed an entirely egoistic urge for acquisition, a veritable greed for external wealth. It was not a matter of a healthy striving for riches which may spring from an altruistic aim to be of help and engage in selfless activity in the world—that is something different—but it was a case of an egoistic longing for acquisition due to a particular constitution of the etheric body; the striving for acquisition was abnormal. Such an individual may very possibly be born in the next life with a physical body prone to catch infectious diseases. In numerous cases it has been established by occultism that individuals readily prone to infection from epidemics in the present life, were possessed of a pathological sense for acquisitions in the previous life.

Other examples could be specifically quoted. Thus, there are two characteristics which have a clearly recognisable influence upon the karmic formation of the following life. There we must speak to begin with of the strong influence exerted by a loving, benevolent attitude towards one's fellow men. There are individuals who accept everything from their fellowmen with benevolence, who deal with their environment lovingly and sympathetically. In many cases this love extends far beyond pure philanthropy. Such individuals love nature and the whole world. The more strongly this sense of all-embracing love has developed and become habit in the soul and is therefore rooted in the etheric body, the greater becomes the capacity of the individual concerned to retain the qualities of youth for a long time in a subsequent incarnation. Therefore an individual who ages very late in life, who remains youthful and mobile, has behind him an earlier life—or maybe several lives—during which he had a true love of his environment. The more strongly he expresses love for his environment, the longer he remains physically youthful in a following incarnation. An individual prone to show antipathy towards his fellowmen, ages early in the next life. A body that shows the signs of age at a physically early age, stems from the life of a perverse critic, from a life of aversion and ill-will. Thus, we see that life can be influenced by a conscious intervention in Karma. A person capable of love in the present life can rest assured that in the next life he will have a body that reveals all the traits of youth. Individuals who become harsh critics at an early age will in the next life be people who are almost born with wrinkles! That is a radical expression, but it is based upon truth.

Thus, the laws of Karma reveal the connection between health and the spiritual life. Everybody will agree that this connection cannot be immediately obvious but that individual details must doubted that a genuinely moral, sincere, conscientious soul is the future creator of a healthy body. But actual knowledge of this cannot be expected from one day to the next, nor can it be believed that a person afflicted with flaws of soul can be healed overnight. It should also be realised that one must rise above egoism and adopt a selfless mode of life that does not want to garner the fruits of its deeds immediately. What becomes habit, however, can react upon the physical body already in the present life. A proof of this is afforded by occult development which can acquire conscious influence not only upon the astral body but also upon the etheric body. An individual who achieves occult development learns how to influence not only his astral body but also his etheric body and his physical body. Through the transformation of habitual behaviour, a violent, choleric individual can become a gentle character, a highly emotional human being an equable, harmonious person. An occultist must change his habits in a comparatively short time. Genuine development pre-supposes that what a man learns does not remain mere teaching but penetrates into the etheric body. In an occultist it penetrates even into the physical body. He learns to control the heartbeat, the pulse beat and the breathing. A process that in ordinary life is distributed over many incarnations is therefore shortened. The process of Karma itself is shortened in the case of an occultist.

Much that will be discussed this Winter will become more intelligible to us when we learn of certain more intimate karmic connections, for example the difference between the karma of a beautiful and an ugly human being. What is the karma of a beautiful human being? Something comes into consideration there that at first seems incredible, nevertheless it is a fact. Beauty of the physical body is in many cases, not always but very often, a consequence of suffering endured in the preceding life. Suffering in the preceding life—physical and also soul-suffering—becomes beauty in a subsequent life, beauty of the external physical body. In these cases, it is permissible to use an analogy which I have often applied. How does the beautiful pearl in a pearl-oyster originate? Actually, as the result of an illness. Approximately speaking, therefore, there is a karmic process which represents the connection of illness, of suffering, with beauty. This beauty is often bought at the cost of suffering and illness.

Wisdom too is in many respects bought at the cost of pain. It is not without interest that a. certain example of outer investigation today confirms in many ways what occultists have said for thousands of years, namely, that wisdom is connected with pain and sufferings, with a life of earnestness and renunciation in the previous existence. It is sometimes very rewarding to consult ordinary scientific investigation. A book on the effects of thinking has recently been published. Its aim is to show how in the physiognomy of a human being there is engraved the quality and trend of his thinking. The author of the book who clearly does not know much about occultism has nevertheless discovered through outer observation that an impression of pain once endured can be recognised in the physiognomy of a thinker. Modern science is on the point of confirming ancient occult wisdom little by little. In the coming years this will be the case far more often than any learned scholar dreams of.

It will now be still easier for you to realise that one cannot give way to blind belief or submission to authority in connection with certain revelations of the history of spiritual life. Faced with the problem of understanding Karmic law in the case of a phenomenon such as Schopenhauer, whose whole world-conception was filled with a mood of pessimism, nobody possessed of deeper insight must believe that this pessimism represents the fundamental attitude of humanity in general. It is far rather the individual trait of Schopenhauer's soul, karmically forecast and brought about by a certain constitution of his etheric body. This pessimistic mood of his thinking can only be understood by examining the karmic aspect. In an earlier life—and this is an absolutely real explanation—a personality of this nature had had no opportunity of doing much good. Because of his position in life and vocation this man had been obliged to commit much evil and injustice. And this evil and injustice which he was fated—not by karma but by his vocation—to bring about, returned to him in the form of a certain feeling of antipathy towards the world he now encountered. This antipathy was the recapitulation of his own deeds. If you want to understand karma you should not adopt the fatalistic standpoint that everything is predestined. A man need not be condemned by his previous lives to carry out his present deeds. Adjustment is often made in the next life. Thus, deeds are not always the fruits of an earlier life but in certain cases find their adjustment in a future speaking of the cause of the pessimistic mood in Schopenhauer.

We must strictly differentiate between everything a man accomplishes as his own individual deeds, deeds which proceed entirely from himself, and those made obligatory by his race, family and profession. Two Councillors may do the same thing because they happen to be Councillors but that too is exempted. They may however also perform utterly different deeds because they are different human beings. And that is what we are considering now. Deeds that stem from a man's personality—that is what meets him as his outer destiny in the next incarnation. If some individual finds himself in fortunate circumstances of life, if he enjoys a favourable destiny, this leads back to the just, ingenious and good deeds of an earlier life. If a man's circumstances in life are unfavourable, if he has many failures and is surrounded by adverse conditions—external circumstances are meant, not the qualities of the physical body—this equally leads back to personal deeds of the previous life. What an individual has accomplished as the result of his vocation and family circumstances is stored in his temperament and character. Thus, the destiny of a man is determined by his personal deeds in the preceding life. Vice versa, through good, intelligent and righteous deeds, he can bring about a favourable or unfavourable destiny in the next incarnation.

An individual who comes into contact with particular personalities has himself created the conditions for this in a preceding life. He had had something to do with these individuals and has himself now led them into his environment. Here is an example from the time of the Vehmic tribunals.1A German system of irregular Tribunal prevailing in Westphalia in the 14th and 15th centuries. More serious crimes were tried in secret night sessions. One such tribunal was concerned with an execution. The victim was placed before masked judges who immediately gave effect to the judgment. This is a case where a man was condemned and executed. Occult investigation of his destiny in the earlier incarnations brought to light the fact that the individual who had been executed by the five judges had, at the time, when he was a chieftain, allowed these five persons to be murdered. His deed in days gone by had brought these five individuals as it were with magnetic force again into his life and they wreaked their vengeance upon him. This is a radical case, but it is founded upon universal law. You cannot come into contact with an individual who makes an impact upon your life if you have not yourself brought him into your orbit on the basis of earlier relationships. It may, of course, also he the case that through general conditions, through his vocation or family a man is led into contact with individuals he had never yet encountered. But then, through their mutual behaviour, the foundation is laid for a meeting in the next incarnation, a meeting connected with the destinies and lives of the individuals concerned. You will realise that these illustrations of Karma are in many respects complicated and by no means so easy to explain. It is important to study these examples individually because only so can we really understand life.

It must again and again be stressed that the idea of Karma, rightly understood and to be found in Christianity, must never be thought to contradict the teaching of the Redemption. To many of you I have already spoken of the compatibility of the Christian teaching of the Redemption with the idea of Karma, but there are new listeners here. Many misunderstandings are to be found, due very often to the fact that numbers of people talk about Theosophy without much understanding. It is stated that Karma means simply that a man must take upon himself all the effects of his deeds. If he has committed some offence, he alone can redeem himself from his sin. From this point of view many Theosophists declare that the thought of the Redemption through Christ Jesus is unfounded, that Theosophy could not accept the idea of Redemption through another being, for every man must redeem himself. Christian Theologians dispute this, saying: we believe in the Redemption through Christ Jesus, but you believe in self-redemption. This is irreconceivable.2Perhaps intended to be inconceivable, or irreconcilable. The original German text is “Das vereinigt sich nicht recht.”

Meanwhile, Karma is a kind of life account that can quite rightly be compared with a salesman's accounts. On the one side there are the debit entries and on the other the credit entries. They are added and the balance struck. It would be a peculiar salesman who said: I will do no more business in order that my balance shall not be upset.—Just as in every moment of a salesman's life a new transaction can be made, so at every moment through a new deed, new karma can be created. When somebody says: A man has himself brought about his suffering, he has deserved it, so I may not help him—this is so much nonsense. It is just as if one thousand marks would help you, but if I were to give them to you, I should upset your account book.—That would certainly not be the case! The sum of money lent would simply be entered in the account book. It is the same with life. Compensation must be made but it need not necessarily be made by oneself. Karma does not signify self-compensation but only that compensation shall be made through a deed. Now suppose you are a wealthy, powerful person who can help not only one but two. Then you can intervene in the Karma of two human beings. Just because Karma exists you can intervene in the life accounts of both these two people. There are individuals who can help three, four, five people—indeed even hundreds. Such individuals will not say: I must not help those others because then I shall intervene in their Karma.—Far rather, they will help them.

Such help can be vouchsafed by a most mighty Being who once appeared in the world co those who account themselves His followers. This Being is Christ Jesus. The fact that the Redemption was brought about by a certain form of evil, does not contravene the law of Karma. The Redemption through Christ Jesus is perfectly compatible with the law of Karma, just as is the help given by the wealthy man to the bankrupt salesman. The misunderstandings arise from the fact that Theosophists do not basically understand Karma and Theologians have not bothered about it. It is precisely through the intrinsic nature and importance of the deed of a single sublime Being that the validity of the law of Karma is guaranteed. When, in the future, these things are rightly understood, it will become evident for the first time that Theosophy is not an opponent of any confession that has a genuine foundation and how it leads far rather to a true understanding of it. If you have discerned the law of Karma in a certain number of cases, you will feel that you have here perceived a deep necessity of spiritual life. Truth to tell, the law of Karma has been rightly understood only by one to whom it is not merely a piece of theoretic knowledge but has become part of his whole world of feeling and perception. Inner security and harmony then pervade the whole of life. And those people who again and again assert that the law of Karma leads to inactivity and lethargy, that it causes a person to abandon himself to his destiny and does not lead to freedom in life—such people have not made any endeavour to live in harmony with the law of Karma. To live in accordance with the law of Karma means to infuse courage and hope into the soul.

The law of Karma must above all throw light upon our future. We must think less about the past than about the future. It has been indicated in many ways that in compliance with the law of Karma a man can produce effects far into the future by preparing in his astral body the future configuration of the etheric body and in the course of further progress the future formation of the physical body. When you have grasped the implications of this you will realise the tremendous importance of these connections and what a deepening the idea of education, especially of that of peoples, will experience in the light of the law of Karma. If efforts are made today to induce human beings to live in conformity with the law of Karma and to prepare the configuration of their future accordingly, they are at the same time preparing the future communities of peoples. After all, life in the future will consist of the reincarnated human beings of the present. Healthy races and especially healthy leaders of the future races will come into existence if human beings live on into the future intelligently, in accordance with the law of Karma. For if the single individual achieves perfection in some degree, he has an effect upon the organisms of the peoples and of races.

The actual mechanism of Karma is a matter for early discussion. The question is concerned with which forces are being activated when the astral characteristics of the present life are transmitted to the etheric body in the next life and which forces bring it about that the qualities established in the etheric body of the present life—habits and inclinations—are carried over into the physical predisposition of the next life. It is still more difficult to answer the following question: Which forces are at work in cases where a man's deeds in the present life determine his external environment in the next incarnation when he not only gathers around him the individuals with whom he has and previously had, something to do, but also takes his place within the world of Nature that surrounds him, in the plant world and animal world, also in the conditions of the race and society which he himself has prepared? What is the character of these forces which bring all this again to the individual concerned? How does it come about that two human beings who had some connection with each other in an earlier life and of whom one is reborn in America and the other in Europe are nevertheless led together? Such are the great questions which we will endeavour to answer next time. Briefly, how do the relationships of the one life form the relationships of the next? As we shall have many guests, this question will also be suitable for study at the general Meeting. Naturally, those who have been present at this series of lectures will be at an advantage. The title of the next lecture will be: The Technique of Karma.

Thus, consideration of an important question in life will have been dealt with today and next time. I ask you to bear in mind that what has been said consisted of selected cases, based upon actual occult facts. Everything that has been disclosed today on the subject of karmic connections leads back to actual investigation of the Karma of specific individuals. The study of Karma also gives us knowledge of how to evaluate, even in the present life, the connection between illness and specific characteristics, of the life of soul, especially the awakening of certain forces of the soul. So far those who have assimilated the lectures on Karma given here, what is said in general outline in the Architektenhaus lectures about illness and death, suffering and evil, will have been amplified in greater detail. During this Winter special consideration will be given here and elsewhere to the place of the spiritual—scientific view of the world in practical life. In this way we shall strengthen the impulse and the insight ensuring that Spiritual Science is not presented as something impractical but that it is a factor in practical life itself.