Thursday, March 31, 2011
The Law of Karma
Theosophy and Rosicrucianism. Lecture 7 of 14
Rudolf Steiner, June 22, 1907:
Today we must speak of what is designated as the law of karma, the law of cause and effect in the spiritual world. To begin with, the last lectures should be borne in mind, because they showed us how life as a whole takes its course through a series of incarnations. You have all been in the world many times and you will often return to it. We shall see later on that it is not right to think that our incarnations repeat themselves through all eternity either in the past or in the future. On the contrary, we shall see that they began at a certain point in time and that a time will come when they will cease; the human being will then continue his development in a different form.
Let us first consider that space of time in which reincarnations take place. In connection with this we should realize that everything which we call destiny, whether relating to character and inner qualities or to external events, is brought about by our preceding incarnations, and that everything which we do in this life has an effect upon our subsequent lives. The great law of cause and effect, the law of karma, thus runs through all our incarnations.
Let us now picture to ourselves how this law is active in the whole universe — not only in the spiritual but also in the physical world.
Take two imaginary jugs of water and then assume that you are heating an iron ball until it becomes red hot. You then drop it into the first jug, What will happen? The water will hiss and the ball will become cool. Then take the ball out of the first jug and drop it into the second one. In that case the water will hiss no longer and the ball will not become much cooler. We therefore find that the ball behaves differently in each case; in the second case it would not have behaved as it did had it not been dropped into the first jug. Consequently the way in which it behaved in the second case is the result of what happened to it in the first jug. Such a connection is called karma. The ball's karma brings about the fact that the water in the second jug does not hiss and that the ball itself does not become much cooler.
I will now give you an example from the animal kingdom showing that preceding life-conditions bring about subsequent ones. Take those animals which immigrated into the caves of Kentucky; their eyes gradually degenerated through the complete deprivation of sunlight. The substances which are generally used for the structure of the eyes go to other organs and as a result the eyes degenerate and the animals little by little become blind. It is then the destiny of all their descendants to be born blind. Had the parents not immigrated into the dark caves, the descendants would not have been fated to lose their eyesight. The condition of blindness is therefore the consequence of the immigration into the dark caves.
Spiritual science explains that everything which occurs in the world is dependent upon karma. Karma is the general law of the universe. Even the Bible speaks of this law at the very beginning. It says: “In the beginning God created the heaven and earth”. On reading this superficially, as is generally the case today, you do not notice that these words lie within the meaning of the law of karma, but you notice it without further ado if you consult the original text of this ancient document, or if you take one of the oldest Latin translations, for instance the Septuagint, which the Roman Catholic Church still considers as the authoritative translation of the Old Testament, and particularly of Genesis. Perhaps in an introductory course such as this one, which is to acquaint you step by step with the immense depths of the spiritual-scientific world-conception, it is not inappropriate to deviate a little from our main subject.
Modern man has really no connection with the “living word”. Speech has become, on the one hand, a conventional means of communication and, on the other, a“business language”. Things were quite different in ancient times, when words were being coined, for the human being still possessed a living connection with the word. Indeed, in the remotest times, even the single letter leading to the composition of a word had a deep significance. A modern man has not the faintest idea of that which passed through the soul of an ancient Hebrew sage when he uttered the word “bara”, contained in the first sentence of Genesis; and which posterity — that is to say, the Latin world — translated with “creare”, and which we translate with “created”. What is the deep meaning of the word “bara”? In the German language we still find the same root “bar” in the word “gebären”, to bear children.
The root “K-r” lies in the word karma. It is the same root which also lies in the word “creare”, so that when we say “creare” in Latin (to create), this simply means: something arises as the result of earlier influences; that is to say, something arises which is karmically determined by something which preceded it!
We can speak of karma in the way in which we interpret it today only since the influx of the Luciferic influence, that is to say, from that moment onwards in which man took upon himself guilt. Consequently something of the idea of guilt always adheres to everything connected with the word karma. “Creare” therefore means to produce something brought about karmically by earlier connections and conditions, whereas the root “bar” does not contain anything of this karmic relationship. How does this come about? Undoubtedly through the fact that the ancient Hebrew was still connected far more intimately with the spiritual world and still realized quite clearly that at a time when “the Elohim were meditating creatively” it was not yet possible to speak of karma in the meaning in which we generally speak of it. But in the Latin epoch of human evolution man was already completely severed from the spiritual world, as we shall see upon some other occasion, and therefore he could imagine even the Elohim's “creative meditation” only within a karmic connection.
But “bara” as well as “creare” do not mean that God created the world out of nothing; both words contain the meaning that God led over earlier conditions into new ones ... in the same way in which a mother does not bear her child out of nothing. To bear a child means that the child passes over from a former concealed condition within the mother's womb into a condition in which it becomes visible in the external world.
This shows you how the meaning of the Bible can be distorted. Theology was the first to decree that God made the world out of nothing (for theology no longer knew anything of the cosmic epochs of evolution which preceded earthly existence) and whole libraries have been written on this subject. Yet all these theologians fought against windmills, like Don Quixote. We should always know, however, against whom and against what we are fighting; that is to say, we should always reveal the original meaning of the ancient documents.
If we think of this law of karma in the right way, as the connection between cause and effect, applying it not only to physical life here on Earth between birth and death but also to the life in the spiritual world, we shall find that this very law of karma becomes a torch which illuminates our own life. Insight into the law of karma not only gives us a deep intellectual satisfaction, but it also profoundly satisfies our heart and soul and gives us the right understanding of our relationship to the world. More and more you will realize its deep significance and that only a true insight into this law of karma enables you to mold your life harmoniously in regard to your environment.
The law of karma does not throw light upon abstract riddles of the universe, but upon problems which we actually encounter in life at every step. Is it not a real life-riddle when we see that one human being is born in misery and poverty, apparently without any fault of his own, and that the finest gifts which lie concealed within him must atrophy owing to the social condition into which life has placed him? We must often ask ourselves in life: How can we explain the fact that an apparently innocent man is born in the midst of misery and pain, whereas another man is born without his merit in surfeit and wealth, surrounded at the cradle by those who tenderly love him? These are problems which modern superficiality alone can ignore.
The deeper we look into the law of karma the more we find that the hard injustice apparently presenting itself to a superficial observation of this law disappears. We then realize more and more why one man must live in one condition of life and another man in another. Injustice and hardness in one or other life-situation can only be seen if we limit ourselves to the observation of one life; but if we know that this one life is the absolute result of former deeds, the injustice completely vanishes, for we perceive that the human being prepares his own life.
Someone might now object: It is terrible to think that all the blows of destiny which a human being encounters in this life are brought about through his own fault! We must realize, however, that the law of karma is not something for sentimental people to brood over, but that it is an active law, rendering us strong and giving us courage and hope. For even though we ourselves have molded our present life with all its hardships, we know at the same time that karma is a law the chief significance of which must be looked for not in the past but in the future. No matter how deeply oppressed we may be in the present owing to the result of past deeds, our insight into the law of karma will bear fruit in our subsequent lives. Our attitude determines what fruit our deeds will bear, for no action is without consequence. It is far more theosophical to look upon karma as a law of action, as an active law! For no matter what we do, we cannot escape the consequences of our deeds. The more we suffer in this life and the better we bear our sufferings, the more shall we profit by this in future lives. Karma is a law which solves the riddles of life which we encounter at every step.
What is the connection between a preceding and a subsequent life? We should clearly bear in mind that everything which we experience as inner effects of external events — joy or pain over things which we encounter in life — that all this has an influence upon our future lives.
Now you know that everything living within us in the form of pleasure and pain, of joy and suffering, is borne by the astral body. Everything which the astral body experiences during this life, particularly if experiences repeat themselves again and again, appears in the next life as a quality of the etheric body. Some object in this life which gives us pleasure and which we call up in our soul again and again will produce in the next life a deep inclination and predilection for this particular object. But this inclination and predilection are character qualities, and their bearer is the etheric body. Consequently the effects produced by the astral body in a preceding life become qualities of the etheric body in the next life. What you repeatedly experienced during this life appears in your next life as fundamental character. A melancholic temperament is due to the fact that in a preceding life the human being in question had many sad impressions throwing him again and again into a sad mood; as a result, the etheric body will have the inclination to sadness in the next life. The opposite may be found in people who obtain something good from everything in life, thus producing in their astral body joy and happiness and an uplifted mood; this will become a lasting characteristic of the etheric body in the next life, producing a merry temperament. But if a human being courageously overcomes every sad experience in spite of the hard school in which life has placed him, his etheric body will be born in the next life with a choleric temperament. If we know all this, we can almost prepare our etheric body for our next life.
The qualities which the etheric body possesses during one life appear, in the next, in the physical body. Thus if a man has bad habits and bad characteristics and does nothing to get rid of them, this will appear in the next life in the physical body as a disposition, a predisposition to illness. Strange as this may sound the disposition towards certain illnesses, particularly infectious ones, depends on the bad habits of a preceding life. This insight therefore enables us to prepare health or illness for our next life. If we conquer a bad habit, we become healthy and immune against infections in our next life. Thus we can prepare health for our next life. By endeavoring to foster only noble qualities, we can prepare a healthy body for our next incarnation.
A third and most important thing should be borne in mind in order to understand the law of karma, to truly estimate our actions in this life. So far we have only spoken of what takes place within the human being; but what he does during this life, that is to say, his attitude towards his environment and his actions, produces a result which appears in the surrounding world during his next life.
A bad habit in itself does not mean that I have done something; but if this bad habit leads to an action, this action changes the external world. In fact, everything which thus exercises an influence upon the physical world returns to us during our next life as our external destiny in the physical world. Thus the deeds of our physical body during this life become our destiny in the next. We learn this through being placed in this or in that life-situation. Whether a person is happy or unhappy in one or other condition of life depends upon his actions during his preceding life. An appropriate and instructive example for this case is that of the judges' murder [see the previous day's lecture], which shows us how an external action during one life falls back upon men as their destiny during the next one.
This is a brief sketch of karmic relationships in regard to individual human beings . But we can speak of karma not only in the case of individual persons, for man should not consider himself as a single being. If the individual were to rise even a few miles above the Earth, the result would be the same as if the finger severed itself from the body.
If we penetrate into spiritual science we are literally forced to admit through this knowledge that we should not delude ourselves to the extent of insisting that we are single beings. This applies to the physical world and even more to the spiritual world. Man belongs to the whole world and his destiny is involved with that of the entire world. Karma touches not only the individual, but also the life of whole nations.
Let me give you an example: You all know that in the Middle Ages there were pestilences resembling leprosy. In Europe they completely disappeared only during the 16th century. Quite a definite cause, a spiritual cause, produced this form of pestilence in the Middle Ages. Materialists are of course inclined to trace such a contagious disease to bacilli, but not only the physical cause should be borne in mind in such illnesses. We can make exactly the same mistake if we try to find out, for example, why a man has been whipped, what is the cause of this whipping. A person of insight will immediately discover that certain brutal men in the village were the cause of the whipping. In this case it would be foolish to say that the blue wheals are due solely to the fact that the sticks came down so and so many times on the mans back. The purely materialistic cause of the blue marks is undoubtedly the fact that the sticks came down on the victim's back, but the deeper cause must be sought in the brutality of the men who whipped him. Similarly the pestilence of the Middle Ages has a spiritual cause in addition to the materialistic one of the bacilli.
We have an analogous example in weeping. Its spiritual cause is sadness, but its material one is the secretion of the lachrymatory glands. It hardly seems possible that a famous modern scientist should have come to the same foolish conclusion mentioned above, but he actually made the monstrous statement that the human being does not weep because he feels sad, but that he feels sad because he weeps!
But let us get back to the pestilence. If you wish to explain the deeper cause of this disease spiritually, you must look back upon a significant historical event: upon the great masses of peoples coming from the East, who overflowed Europe, bringing with them fear and terror. These Asiatic masses were people who had remained behind at the ancient Atlantean stage, and were consequently decadent races. They were races whose decadence had the character of putrefaction, which was particularly strong in their astral body. Had they invaded Europe without bringing so much terror and fear to the Europeans, nothing would have happened. But these hordes brought with them fear, terror, and and alarm; whole nations in Europe experienced this state of fear and terror. Now the putrid substance of the Huns' astral bodies mixed with the terror-stricken astral bodies of the peoples whom they had invaded. The degenerated astral bodies of these Asiatic hordes unloaded their bad substances on the terror-stricken astral bodies of the Europeans, and this putrid substance was the cause of the pestilence, the physical effects of which appeared later on.
This is in reality the deep. spiritual cause of pestilence in the Middle Ages. Consequently something which had a spiritual cause appeared later in the physical body.
Only those who know the law of karma and have insight into it are called upon to play an active part in the course of history.
Let me now tell you something which contributed to the founding of the spiritual-scientific world-conception: Karma influences not only individual men, but also nations, and even humanity as a whole. Those who pursue the course of history in the spiritual life of Europe know that materialism came to the fore during the last 400 years or so. The most innocent aspect of materialism is to be found in science, for there every mistake can always be perceived and corrected. The influence of materialism is far more harmful in practical life, where everything is viewed from the angle of material interests. But materialism would never have entered practical life had men not had a predilection for it. The influence of of materialism is most harmful of all in the sphere of religious life, that is to say, in the Church: The Church above all has been heading towards materialism for centuries. In which way? If you go back to the days of early Christianity, you would never have heard people say, for instance that the seven days' creation was actually accomplished in seven days, as we so often hear today, nor was the “seventh” day imagined in such a way that after a hard piece of work someone sits down and rests. The materialistic age has lost all knowledge of the reality underlying this work of seven days.
It is the task of spiritual science to give mankind an explanation concerning the true meaning of this ancient document, Genesis. [See Rudolf Steiner's “Secrets of the Bible Story of Creation”]
It is the materialistic conception in religion which corroded most deeply the life of nations. Materialism will hold sway more and more in the religions sphere, and. particularly in this direction people will less and less realize that the spirit, not physical material things, counts most of all. It will readily be admitted that the materialistic way of thinking, feeling, and willing has gradually penetrated into the whole life-conception of mankind, and finally this appears in the state of health of the succeeding generations.
In an epoch in which men have a sound conception of life, a strong central point is produced within them, enabling them to be self-contained personalities whose descendants become strong and healthy. But an epoch in which people believe only in matter will give rise to a generation of men who have a body where everything goes its own way, where nothing is directed towards a center, thus producing symptoms of neurosis, of nervous diseases. If materialism continues to be the ruling world conception in the future, these nervous health conditions will gradually increase.
The clairvoyant can tell you exactly that which must occur if materialism is not counter-balanced by a sound spiritual conception. Mental diseases would in that case become epidemic and even newly born children would suffer from symptoms of trembling and from other nervous disturbances, while the further result of the materialistic mentality would be a race without any power of concentration; in fact, we can see this already today. About three decades ago, this thought — how mankind would fare without spiritual remedy against the effects of materialism — led to the inauguration of the spiritual-scientific movement. Many discussions may arise regarding a remedy, yet no objections can be of much avail in the face of the chief argument: its efficacy. It is the same with the efficacy of spiritual science as a remedy, for it is a preventive against that which would inevitably occur if men continue along the path of materialism.
If we reflect more deeply over the law of karma, we cannot look upon men as single beings, but as forming part of a community subjected to the law of karma. The law of karma is not of much use to those who wish to believe in a blind fate. It would of course be quite wrong to attribute such a character to the law of karma. Yet we constantly come across people who fall into this error. One person says: “I know that it is not my fault that this or that thing happens to me; it is my karma and I must bear it!” Or another one says: “I see a person who is in misery; but I must not help him, for this misfortune is his own fault; it is his karma and he must bear it!” — Such arguments would be quite a senseless interpretation of the idea of karma!
In order to have a clearer conception of this great law, you may compare it with the commercial law of debit and credit. Even as the merchant is subjected to this law in all his actions, so life is subjected to karma. Your items in life are marked off on the debit or credit side, according to the good or bad actions which you have done during your past life. All your good qualities are booked on the credit side, and all your bad ones on the debit side of karma.
But we should not say: “I have no right to interfere!” This would be just as foolish as when a merchant balancing his accounts says: “I must not do any more business, for in that case I should alter my balance sheet.” Even as the merchant improves his balance sheet with good business, so I improve my karma with every good action. And even as the merchant is always at liberty to enter a debit or a credit item in his account, so the human being is always free to do likewise in his account book of life. Not in spite of the law of karma, but just because of it, man is free in regard to his actions. Just because he knows that everything he does — and he does this in full freedom — has an effect upon his account book of life, he cannot agree with those who do not help a man in need. It would be the same as if a merchant facing bankruptcy were to ask us for a loan of 5000 pounds. Would you not give him the money if you knew that he is a good businessman who would work his way up again? It is the same with man in need: You help him to better his karma so that his destiny takes a turn for the better, and at the same time you improve your own karma through this good action.
The law of karma consequently induces us to take an active part in daily life. A right understanding of the law of karma, particularly from this aspect, is of special importance if we consider it in relation to Christianity. In this connection there are serious misunderstandings, particularly on the part of theologians. Modern theologians say: We teach that sins were forgiven us through Christ's death upon the Cross, and you teach the law of karma, but this contradicts the former.
Yet the contradiction is only apparent, because the law of karma is simply misunderstood. On the other hand, there are theosophists who declare that they cannot accept Christ's death of atonement — but these theosophists misunderstand the law of karma just as much as the others.
Take the following case: You help a man, interfere in his destiny, and turn it to the good. If you could help two men, this would just as little contradict the law of karma. Assume that you are an individuality called upon to blot out evil in the world by a certain deed: would this contradict the law of karma? The Christ-Being has, in the largest measure, done something analogous to the above example, like a man who helped not only a hundred or a thousand other men through his own deed, but the whole of mankind. The death of redemption, Christ's death of atonement, therefore harmonizes completely with the law of karma — indeed, it can only be understood in the light of this law. A contradiction can only be seen by those who do not understand this law. Christ's death contradicts the law of karma just as little as when I help a man in his need.
When looking upon the law of karma you must think of the future, for with every one of our actions we enter into our account book an item which will bear fruit. Only as long as one is passing through the illnesses of childhood in theosophy can a contradiction be found between Christianity and the law of karma.
Many things become clear to us through an insight into this law. In the first place, we can accurately prove the connection between the individual bodily development and earlier lives. A life full of love prepares for the next life a course of development whereby the human being preserves his youth for a long time; a premature aging is on the other hand caused by much antipathy during the past life. In the second place: a particularly selfish sense of grasping and hoarding things produces in the next life a disposition to infectious diseases. In the third place, it is of special interest that pains, and particularly certain illnesses through which we pass, produce a beautiful body in our next life. This insight enables us to bear many an illness more easily.
An insight into such connections of destiny enabled one of the greatest Bible students of our time, Fabre d'Olivet, to use an image which clearly shows us how things are linked up in life. He says: Behold the pearl in the shell! The animal in it had to pass through an illness, and the beautiful pearl arises through this illness. Thus illness during this life is in fact often connected with things which render our next life more beautiful.
How these things may be further developed in various directions will be shown to-morrow.