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Reincarnation and Karma
Their Significance in Modern Culture
GA 135

1. How can a direct conception be gained of the inner kernel of man's being which passes through many lives on earth?

23 January 1912, Berlin

People who have made some study of Anthroposophy, and particularly of the basic principles of reincarnation, karma and other truths connected with man and his evolution, may well ask: Why is it so difficult to gain a true, first-hand conception of that being in man which passes through repeated earth-lives—that being, which, if one could only acquire more intimate knowledge of it, would inevitably lead to an insight into the secrets of repeated earth-lives and even of karma? It is certainly true to say that as a rule man misinterprets everything connected with this question. At first he tries, as is only too natural, to explain it through his ordinary world of thought, through the ordinary intellect, and he asks himself: To what extent can we find, in the facts of life, proof that the conception of repeated earth-lives and karma is true? This endeavour, which is essentially of the nature of reflection, can, admittedly, lead man to a certain point, but no further. For our world of thought, as at present constituted, is entirely dependent on those qualities of our human organism which are limited to one incarnation; we possess them because, as men living between birth and death, we have been given this particular organism. And on this particular formation of the physical body, with the etheric body which is only one stage higher, everything that we can call our thought-world is dependent. The more penetrating these thoughts are, the better able they are to enter into abstract truths—so much the more are they dependent on the outer organism that is limited to one incarnation.

From this we may conclude that when we pass into the life between death and a new birth—that is to say, into the spiritual life—we can least of all take with us what we experience in our souls—our thoughts! And our most penetrating thoughts are what we have most of all to leave behind.

It may be asked: What is it that man more particularly discards when he passes through the Gate of Death? First of all, his physical body; and of all that constitutes his inner being he discards practically to the same extent all the abstract thoughts formulated in his soul. These two things—physical body, abstract thoughts, scientific thoughts as well—are what he can least of all take with him when he passes through the Gate of Death. It is in a certain sense easy for man to take with him his temperament, his impulses, his desires, as they have been formed in him, and especially his habits; he also takes with him the mode and nature of his impulses of will—but his thoughts least of all. Therefore, because our thoughts are so intimately bound up with the outer organism, we may conclude that they are instruments not very well adapted to penetrate the secrets of reincarnation and karma, which are truths extending beyond the single incarnation.

All the same, man can reach a certain point, and indeed he must develop his thinking up to a certain point, if he wishes to gain insight into the theory of reincarnation and karma. What can be said on this subject has practically all been said either in the pamphlet, Reincarnation and Karma from the standpoint of modern Natural Science, or in the chapter on reincarnation and karma in the book Theosophy. Scarcely anything can be added to what is said in these two publications. The question of what can be contributed by the intellect will not further concern us to-day, but rather the question of how man can acquire a certain conception of reincarnation and karma; that is to say, a conception of more value than a mere theoretical conviction, able to bring about a kind of inner certainty that the real soul-spiritual kernel of being within us comes over from earlier lives and passes on into later lives.

Such a definite conception can be acquired by means of certain inner exercises which are by no means easy; indeed they are difficult, but they can nevertheless be carried out. The first step is in some degree to practise the normal kind of self-cognition, which consists in looking back over one's life and asking oneself: What kind of person have I been? Have I been a person with a strong inclination for reflection, for inner contemplation; or am I one who has always had more love for the sensations of the outer world, liking or disliking this or that in everyday life? Was I a child who at school liked reading but not arithmetic, one who liked to hit other children but did not like being hit? Or was I a child always bound to be bullied and not smart enough to bully others?

It is well to look back on one's life in this way, and especially to ask oneself: Was I cut out for activities of the mind or of the will? What did I find easy or difficult? What happened to me that I would like to have avoided? What happenings made me say to myself: “I am glad this has come to pass ”—and so on.

It is good to look back on one's life in a certain way, and above all to envisage clearly those things that one did not like. All this leads to a more intimate knowledge of the inner kernel of our being. For example, a son who would have liked to become a poet was destined by his father to be a craftsman, and a craftsman he became, although he would sooner have been a poet. It is well to know clearly what we really wanted to be, and what we have become against our will, to visualise what would have suited us in the time of our youth but was not our lot, and then, again, what we would have liked to avoid.

All that I am saying refers, of course, to life in the past, not in the future—that would be a false conception. We must therefore be quite clear as to what such a retrospect into the past means; it tells us what we did not want, what we would have liked to avoid. When we have made that clear to ourselves, we really have a picture of those things in our life which have pleased us least. That is the essential point. And we must now try to live into a very remarkable conception: we must desire and will everything that we have not desired or willed. We must imagine to ourselves: What should I actually have become if I had ardently desired everything that in fact I did not wish for and which really went against the grain in life? In a certain sense we must here rule out what we have succeeded in overcoming, for the most important thing is that we should ardently wish or picture ourselves wishing for the things we have not desired, or concerning which we have not been able to carry out our wishes, so that we create for ourselves, in feeling and thought, a being hitherto unfamiliar to us. We must picture ourselves as this being with great intensity. If we can do this, if we can identify ourselves with the being we have ourselves built up in this way, we have made some real progress towards becoming acquainted with the inner soul-kernel of our being; for in the picture we have thus been able to make of our own personality there will arise something that we have not been in this present incarnation but which we have introduced into it. Our deeper being will emerge from the picture built up in this way.

You will see, therefore, that from those who wish to gain knowledge of this inner kernel of being, something is required for which people in our age have no inclination at all. They are not disposed to desire anything of the sort, for nowadays, if they reflect upon their own nature, they want to find themselves absolutely satisfied with it as it is. When we go back to earlier, more deeply religious epochs, we find there a feeling that man should feel himself overwhelmed because he so little resembled his Divine Archetype. This was not, of course, the idea of which we have spoken to-day, but it was an idea which led man away from what usually satisfies him, to something else, to that being which lives on beyond the organism existing between birth and death, even if it did not lead to the conviction of another incarnation. If you call up the counterpart of yourself, the following thought will dawn upon you. This counterpart—difficult as it may be to realise it as a picture of yourself in this life—is nevertheless connected with you, and you cannot disown it. Once it appears, it will follow you, hover before your soul and crystallise in such a way that you will realise that it has something to do with you, but certainly not with your present life. And then there develops the perception that this picture is derived from an earlier life.

If we bring this clearly before our souls, we shall soon realise how erroneous are most of the current conceptions of reincarnation and karma. You have no doubt often heard anthroposophists say when they meet a good arithmetician: “In his previous incarnation this man was a good arithmetician!” Unfortunately, many undeveloped anthroposophists string together links of reincarnation in such a way that it is thought possible to find the earlier incarnation because the present gifts must have existed in the preceding incarnation or in many previous incarnations. This is the worst possible form of speculation and anything derived from it is usually false. True observation by means of Spiritual Science, discloses, as a rule, the exact opposite. For example, people who in a former incarnation were good arithmeticians, good mathematicians, often reappear with no gift for mathematics at all. If we wish to discover what gifts we may probably have possessed in a former incarnation (here I must remind you that we are speaking of probabilities!)—if we wish to know what intellectual or artistic faculties, say, we possessed in a former incarnation, it is well to reflect upon those things for which we have least talent in the present life.

These are true indications, but they are very often interwoven with other facts. It may happen that a man had a special talent for mathematics in a former incarnation but died young, so that this talent never came to full expression; then he will be born again in his next incarnation with a talent for mathematics and this will represent a continuation of the previous incarnation. Abel, the mathematician who died young, will certainly in his next incarnation be reborn with a strong mathematical talent. [1The Norwegian Niels Henrik Abel (1802–1829), of whom Hermite said: “He has left mathematicians something to keep them busy for five hundred years.” Two days after Abel's death in poverty, from tuberculosis, a letter came saying that he was to be appointed Professor of Mathematics in the University of Berlin. But when a mathematician has lived to a great age, so that his talent has spent itself—then in his next incarnation he will be stupid as regards mathematics. I knew a man who had so little gift for mathematics that as a schoolboy he simply hated figures, and although in other subjects he did well, he generally managed to get through his classes only because he obtained exceptionally good marks in other subjects. This was because in his former incarnation he had been an exceedingly good mathematician.

If we go more deeply into this, the fact becomes apparent that the external career of a man in one incarnation, when it is not merely a career but also an inner vocation, passes over in his next incarnation into the inward shaping of his bodily organs. Thus, if a man has been an exceptionally good mathematician in one incarnation, the mastery he has obtained over numbers and figures remains with him and goes into a special development of his sense-organs, for instance, of the eyes. People with very good sight have it as a result of the fact that in their former incarnation they thought in forms; they took this thinking in forms with them and during the life between death and rebirth they worked specially on the shaping of their eyes. Here the mathematical talent has passed into the eyes and no longer exists as a gift for mathematics.

Another case known to occultists is where an individuality in one incarnation lived with intensity in architectural forms; these experiences lived as forces in his inner soul-life and worked strongly upon the instrument of hearing, so that in his next incarnation he became a great musician. He did not appear as a great architect, because the perception of form necessary for architecture was transformed into an organ-building force, so that there was nothing left but a supreme sensitiveness for music.

An external consideration of similarities is generally deceptive in reference to the characteristics of successive incarnations; and just as we must reflect upon whatever did not please us and conceive of ourselves as having had an intense desire for it, so we must also reflect upon those things for which we have the least talent, and about which we are stupid. If we discover the dullest sides of our nature, they may very probably point to those fields in which we were most brilliant in our previous incarnation. Thus we see how easy it is in these matters to begin at the wrong end. A little reflection will show us that it is the soul-kernel of our being which works over from one incarnation to another; this can be illustrated by the fact that it is no easier for a man to learn a language even if in his preceding incarnation he lived in the country associated with this particular language; otherwise our school-boys would not find it so difficult to learn Greek and Latin, for many of them in former incarnations will have lived in the regions where these were the languages of ordinary intercourse.

You see, the outer capacities we acquire are so closely connected with earthly circumstances that we cannot speak of them reappearing in the same form in the next incarnation; they are transformed into forces and in that way pass over to a subsequent incarnation. For instance, people who have a special faculty for learning languages in one incarnation will not have this in the next; instead, they will have the faculty which enables them to form more unbiassed judgments than those who had less talent for languages; these latter will tend to form one-sided judgments.

These matters are connected with the mysteries of reincarnation, and when we penetrate them we obtain a clear and vivid idea of what truly belongs to the inner being of man and what must in a certain sense be accounted external. For instance, language to-day is no longer part of man's inner being. We may love a language for the sake of what it expresses, for the sake of its Folk-Spirit; but it is something which passes over in transformed forms of force from one incarnation to another.

If a man follows up these ideas, so that he says: “I will strongly desire and will to be what I have become against my will, and also that for which I have the least capacity”—he can know that the conceptions he thus obtains will build up the picture of his preceding incarnation. This picture will arise in great precision if he is earnest and serious about the things just described. He will observe that from the whole way in which the conceptions coalesce, he will either feel: “This picture is quite near to me”; or he will feel: “This picture is a long, long way off.”

If through the elaboration of these conceptions, such a picture of the previous incarnation arises before a man's soul, he will, as a rule, he able to estimate how faded the picture is. The following feeling will come as an experience: “I am standing here; but the picture before me could not be my father, my grandfather, or my great-grandfather.” If however the student allows the picture to work upon him, his feeling and perception will lead him to the opinion: “Others are standing between me and this picture.” Let us for a moment assume that the student has the following feeling. It becomes apparent to him that between him and the picture stand twelve persons; another may perhaps feel that between him and the picture stand seven persons; but in any event the feeling is there and is of the greatest significance. If, for instance, there are twelve persons between oneself and the picture, this number can be divided by three, and the result will be four, and this may represent the number of centuries that have elapsed since the last incarnation. Thus a man who felt that there were twelve people standing between him and the picture, would say: “My preceding incarnation took place four centuries ago.”—This is given merely as an example; it will only actually be so in a very few cases, but it conveys the idea. Most people will find that they can in this way rightly estimate when they were incarnated before. Only the preparatory steps, of course, are rather difficult.

Here we have touched upon matters which are as alien as they can possibly be from present-day consciousness, and it cannot be denied that if we spoke of these things to people unprepared for them, they would regard them as so much irresponsible fantasy. The anthroposophical world-picture is fated—more so than any of its predecessors—to oppose traditional, accepted ideas. For to a very great extent these are imbued with the crudest, the most desolate materialism; and those very world-pictures which appear to be most firmly established on a scientific basis have, in point of fact, grown out of the most devastating materialistic assumptions. And since Anthroposophy is condemned to be labelled as the outlook cultivated by the kind of person who wants to know about his previous incarnations, one can readily understand that people of the present day are very far from taking anthroposophical views seriously. They are as far remote from the inclination to desire and to will what they have never desired or willed, as their habits of thought are remote from spiritual truths. The question might here be asked: Why, then, does spiritual truth come into the world just now? Why does it not leave humanity time to develop, to mature?

The reason is that it is almost impossible to imagine a greater difference between two successive epochs than there will be between the present epoch and that into which humanity will have grown when the people now living are reborn in their next incarnation. The development of certain spiritual faculties does not depend upon man, but upon the whole purpose and meaning, the whole nature, of earth-evolution. Men of the present day could not be more remote than they are from any belief in reincarnation and karma. This does not apply to students of Anthroposophy, but they are still very few; neither does it apply to those who still adhere to certain old forms of religion; but it applies to those who are the bearers of external cultural life: it sets them far away from belief in reincarnation and karma. Now the fact that people of the present day are particularly disinclined to believe in reincarnation and karma is connected in a remarkable way with their pursuits and studies—that is, in so far as these concern their intellectual faculties—and this fact will produce the opposite effect in the future. In the next incarnation these people, whether their pursuits are spiritual or material, will have a strong predisposition to gain an impression of their previous incarnation. Quite irrespective of their pursuits in this age, they will be reborn with a strong predisposition, a strong yearning for their last incarnation, with a strong desire to experience and know something of it. We are standing at a turning-point in time; it will lead men from an incarnation in which they have no desire at all to know anything of reincarnation and karma, to one in which the most living feeling will be this: “The whole of the life I now lead has no foundation for me if I cannot know anything of my former incarnation.” And the very people who now inveigh most bitterly against reincarnation and karma will writhe under the torment of the next life because they cannot explain to themselves how their life has come to be what it is.

Anthroposophy is not here for the purpose of cultivating in man a retrospective longing for former lives, but in order that there should be understanding of what will arise in connection with collective humanity when the people who are alive to-day will be here again. People who are anthroposophists to-day will share with those who are not the desire to remember, but they will have understanding, and therefore an inner harmony in their soul-life. Those who reject Anthroposophy to-day will wish to know something of it in the next life; they will really feel something like an inner torment concerning their previous incarnation but they will understand nothing of what it is that most distresses and torments them; they will be perplexed and will lack inner harmony. In their next incarnation they will have to be told: “You will understand the cause of this torment only if you can conceive that you have actually willed it into existence.”—Naturally, nobody will desire this torment, but people who are materialists to-day will in their next incarnation begin to understand their inner demands and the advice of those who will be in a position to know and who may say to them: “Conceive to yourselves that you have willed into existence this life from which you would like to flee.” If they begin to follow this advice and reflect: “How can I have willed this life?” they will say to themselves: “Yes, I did perhaps live in an incarnation where I said that it was absurdity and nonsense to speak of a following incarnation, and that this life was complete in itself, sending no forces on into a later one. And because at that time I felt a future life to be unreal, to be nonsense, my life now is so empty and desolate. It was I who actually implanted within myself the thought that is now the force making my life so meaningless and barren.”

That will be a right thought. Karmically it will outlive materialism. The next incarnation will be full of meaning for those who have acquired the conviction that their life, as it now is, is not only complete in itself but contains causes for the next. Meaningless and desolate will be the life of those who, because they believe reincarnation to be nonsense, have themselves rendered their own lives barren and void.

So we see that the thoughts we cherish do not pass over into the next life in a somewhat intensified form, but arise there transformed into forces. In the spiritual world, thoughts such as we now form between birth and death have no significance except in so far as they are transformed. If, for instance, a man has a great thought, however great it may be, the thought as thought is gone when he passes through the gate of death, but the enthusiasm, the perception and the feeling called to life by the thought—these pass through the gate of death with him. Man does not even take with him the thoughts of Anthroposophy, but what he has experienced through them—even to the details, not the general fundamental feeling alone—that is taken with him. This in particular is the point to grasp: thoughts as such are of real significance for the physical plane, but when we are speaking of the activity of thoughts in the higher worlds we must at the same time speak of their transformation in conformity with those worlds. Thoughts which deny reincarnation are transformed in the next life into an inner unreality, an inner emptiness of life; this inner unreality and emptiness are experienced as torment, as disharmony.

With the aid of a simile we may obtain an idea of this by thinking of something we like very much, and are always glad to see in a certain place—for instance, a particular flower blooming in a certain spot. If the flower is cut by a ruthless hand, we experience a certain pain. So it is with the whole organism of man. What causes man to feel pain? When the etheric and astral elements of an organ are embedded in a particular position in the physical body, then if the organ is injured so that the etheric and astral bodies cannot permeate it properly, pain is the result. It is just like the ruthless cutting of a rose from its accustomed place in a garden. When an organ has been injured, the etheric and astral bodies do not find what they seek, and this is then felt as bodily pain. And so a man's own thoughts, working on into the future, will meet him in the future. If he sends over into the next incarnation no forces of faith or of knowledge, his thoughts will fail him, and when he seeks for them he will find nothing. This lack will be experienced as pain and torment.

These are matters which from one aspect make the karmic course of certain events clear to us. They must be made clear, for our aim is to penetrate still more deeply into the ways and means whereby a man can make yet further preparation for coming to know the real kernel of his being of spirit-and-soul.