Between Death and Rebirth. Lecture 6 of 10.
Rudolf Steiner, Berlin, January 7, 1913:
We have already considered certain aspects of man's life between death and rebirth, and a short time ago an account was given of the relationship between Christian Rosenkreutz and Buddha. This was done because since the time indicated then, the Buddha has been connected with the planetary sphere of Mars and because the human being, after experiencing the Christ Event in the Sun sphere between death and rebirth, passes into the Mars sphere and there undergoes an experience connected with Buddha in the form that is right for the present age, though not, of course, for the age when the individuality of whom we are now thinking lived on the Earth as Gautama Buddha. Genuine enlightenment about the being of man and his connection with the evolution of worlds is possible only if our understanding keeps abreast of that evolution.
We know that in the post-Atlantean era there have so far been five main consecutive epochs during which the human soul has undergone significant experiences. These epochs are: the ancient Indian, the ancient Persian, the Egypto-Chaldean, the Graeco-Latin, and our own. We also know that in each such epoch the next is prepared — as it were in germ. In our present epoch the sixth post-Atlantean period is already slowly being prepared in the souls of men. The preparation consists in human souls being helped to understand what is now spreading in the world in the form of occult teachings, of Spiritual Science. In this way not only will a knowledge of the being of man that is necessary for the future be promulgated but there will also be an ever deepening understanding of the Christ Impulse. Everything that contributes to this increasing understanding of the Christ Impulse is comprised for the West in what may be called the Mystery of the Holy Grail. This Mystery is also closely connected with matters such as the one spoken of recently, namely, the mission for Mars being delegated by Christian Rosenkreutz to Buddha. This Mystery of the Holy Grail can impart to men of the modern age knowledge that will help them to understand the life between death and rebirth in the way that is right for our time. This understanding depends upon resolute efforts to answer a question of vital importance, and unless we try to carry this question to greater depths than has hitherto been possible, we shall be unable to make further progress in our studies of man's life between death and the new birth. The question is this: Why was it that even in areas where Christianity was proclaimed in its deeper aspect, certain teachings were left in the background — teachings that must be introduced today into the presentation of Christianity in its more advanced form?
You are aware that everything connected with the subject of reincarnation and karma was left in the background not only in the outer, exoteric presentations of Christianity but also in the more esoteric expositions of past centuries. And many people who hear about the content of anthroposophical views, ask: How comes it that although Rosicrucianism must, we are told, be included in everything that occultism has to give — how comes it that hitherto, indeed until our own time, Rosicrucianism did not contain the teachings of reincarnation and karma? Why had these teachings now to be added to Rosicrucianism?
To understand this we must again consider man's relationship to the world. The prelude to the advanced study we hope to reach in these lectures is already to be found in the book Occult Science — an Outline. But we must now consider closely how man is related to the world in our own main epoch, in the epoch that was preceded by the planetary stages of Old Saturn, Old Sun and Old Moon.
We know that the human being on Earth consists of physical body, etheric body, astral body and the ‘I’ or Ego, together with everything that belongs to these members. We know, too, that when an individual passes through the gate of death he leaves behind him, first of all, his physical body; then, after a certain time, most of the etheric body dissolves into the cosmic ether and only a kind of extract of it remains with him. The astral body accompanies him for a considerable time but again a kind of sheath of that body is cast off when the Kamaloka period is over. After that the extracts of the etheric and astral bodies are subject to the further transformation undergone by the human being between death and rebirth. In the innermost sphere the human ‘I’ remains unchanged. Whether the human being is passing through the period between birth and death in the physical body, through the period of Kamaloka when he is still completely enveloped by the astral body, or through the period of Devachan which lasts for the greater part of the time between death and rebirth — it is the ‘I’ or Ego which, basically speaking, passes through all these periods. But this ‘I’, the real, true ‘I’, must not be confused with the ‘I’ which the human being on Earth recognises as his own. Philosophers have a good deal to say about this ‘I’ of man in the physical body, which they think they understand. They say, for instance, that the ‘I’ is the principle that remains intact although everything else in the human being changes. The true ‘I’ does indeed remain but whether this can be said of the ‘I’ of which the philosophers speak is another matter altogether. Anyone who insists on referring to the persistence of that ‘I’ of which the philosophers speak is refuted by the simple fact that during the night the human being sleeps, for then the ‘I’ of the philosophers is extinguished, is simply not there. And if during the whole period between death and rebirth conditions were the same as they are during sleep at night, to speak of the permanence of man’s soul during that period would be meaningless. Fundamentally speaking, there would be no difference between the ‘I’ not being there at all or merely continuing to live knowing nothing of itself, as if it were something external. In the question of immortality it cannot be a matter of the ‘I’ simply being there, but it must also have some knowledge of itself. Thus the immortality of the ‘I’ of which human consciousness is first aware is refuted by every sleep at night, for then this ‘I’ is simply extinguished. The real, true ‘I’ lies much deeper, much, much deeper! How can we form an idea of this real ‘I’, even if we cannot yet claim to have any knowledge of occultism?
We can form a valid idea if we say to ourselves: the ‘I’ must be present in the human being even when he cannot yet say ‘I’, when he is still crawling on the floor. The real ‘I’ — not the ‘I’ of which the philosophers speak — is already present and manifests itself in a very striking way.
Our observation of the human being during the first months or even first years of his life will seem to external science to be quite without significance. But for one who is intent upon acquiring knowledge of the nature of man, this observation is of supreme importance.
To begin with, the human being crawls about on all fours and very special effort is required on his part to lift himself out of this crawling position, out of this subjection to gravity, into the vertical position and maintain this. That is one thing. The second is the following: We know that in the first period of his life the human being is not yet able to speak and has to learn how to do so. Try to remember how you first learnt to speak, how you learnt to utter the first word of which you were capable and to formulate the first sentence. Try to remember this, although without clairvoyance you will be as little able to remember it as you can remember how you made the first effort to lift yourself from the crawling into the vertical position. And a third capacity is thinking. Remembrance does indeed go back to the time when you were first able to think, but not before that time.
Who, then, is the actor in this process of learning to walk, to speak and to think? The actor is the real, true ‘I’! Now let us observe what this real ‘I’ does.
Man was ordained from the very beginning to walk upright, to speak and to think. But he is not at once capable of this. He is not immediately the being he is intended to become as a man of the Earth. He does not at once possess the capacities that enable him to participate in the evolving culture of mankind; he has to acquire these capacities gradually. In the earliest period of his life there is a conflict between the spirit living within him when he stands permanently upright and the spirit living within him while he is still under the sway of gravity and crawls on all fours, while his faculties of speaking and thinking are still undeveloped. When the human being reaches the level ordained for him, when he can stand upright, walk, speak and think, he is an expression of the form proper to mankind. There is, in fact, a natural correspondence between the true form of man and the faculties of standing and walking upright, speaking and thinking. It is impossible to conceive of any other being who can walk as man does, that is to say with a vertical spine, and who can speak and think. Even a parrot is able to talk only because its form is upright. The fact that it is able to talk is connected fundamentally with the vertical position. Animals with an intelligence much greater than that of a parrot will never learn to talk because their backbone is horizontal, not vertical. Other factors too, of course, play their part. The human being is not at once able to adopt the posture ultimately ordained for him. The reason for this is that after the exertions made by his real ‘I’ or Ego which have enabled him to think, to speak and adopt the upright posture, the human being is ultimately embedded, as it were, in the spheres of the Spirits of Form, the Exusiai. These Spirits of Form, known in the Bible as the Elohim, are the Beings from whom the human form actually stems; it is the form in which the human ‘I’ has its natural habitation and asserts itself during the first months and years of life.
But there is opposition from other Spirits who cast man down to a level below that of these Spirits of Form. To what category do these other Spirits belong?
The Spirits of Form are the Beings who enable man to learn to speak, to think and to walk upright. The Spirits who cast him down, causing him to move about on all fours and to be incapable in his earliest years of speaking and thinking in the real sense, are Spirits whom he has to overcome in the course of his life, who give him, to begin with, a perverted form. These Spirits ought really to have become Dynamis, Spirits of Movement, but fell behind in their evolution and have still not reached the level of the Spirits of Form. They are Luciferic Spirits who have come to a standstill in their evolution, who work upon man from outside, consigning him to the sway of gravity out of which he must lift himself with the help of the true Spirits of Form.
Observing how a human being comes into existence through birth, in the efforts he makes to acquire capacities which he will need later on in life, we can perceive the true Spirits of Form battling with those other Spirits who ought already to have become Spirits of Movement but have remained at an earlier stage. We see the Spirits of Form battling with Luciferic Spirits who in this sphere are so strong and forceful that they suppress the consciousness belonging to the Ego. Otherwise, if Luciferic Spirits did not suppress this consciousness, the human being at this stage of his life would realise: You are a warrior; you are aware of your horizontal position and consciously desire to stand upright, to learn to speak and to think! All this is beyond his power because he is enveloped by the Luciferic Spirits. There we have a dim inkling of what we shall gradually come to recognise as the true ‘I’, in contrast to an ‘I’ which merely appears in the field of our consciousness.
At the beginning of this series of lectures it was said that we should endeavour to vindicate to healthy human reason what occultism and seership have to say about the nature of man. But this healthy human reason must be willing to recognise how during the earliest periods of his life the human being is only gradually finding his bearings in the physical world. Which part of him is most completely formed? His stature as a whole is still not particularly noticeable because there is inconsistency between the human being himself and his outer form. By his own efforts he has to make his way into the form destined for him. Which part of him is most completely finished — not only after but also before birth? The head! The head is the most fully developed of all the physical organs, even in the embryo. Why is this? The reason is that the Beings of the higher Hierarchies, the Spirits of Form, pervade and weave through all the organs of the human being quite differently in each case — the head in one way, the trunk to which the legs and arms are attached, in another. There is an essential difference between the head and the rest of man's physical body. If we observe the human head with clairvoyance a remarkable difference is revealed between the head and, for example, the hand. When we move a hand, the physical hand and the etheric hand move together. But when a certain stage in the development of clairvoyance has been reached, the clairvoyant can hold the physical hands still and move the etheric hands only. To hold mobile parts of the body still and move only the corresponding etheric parts is a specially important exercise. If this is achieved, the clairvoyance of the future will develop to further and further stages, whereas to indulge in any way in unconscious, convulsive movements is a resurgence of Dervish practices which are already obsolete. Repose of the physical body is the requirement of modern clairvoyance; convulsive movements of every kind were characteristic of epochs now past. It would be a very noteworthy achievement if a clairvoyant were, for example, to hold his hands quite still in a certain position — perhaps crossed over the breast — and yet maintain complete mobility of the etheric hands. He would be keeping his physical hands still while engaging in all kinds of super-sensible activities with the etheric hands. This would be an indication of very marked development, coming to expression in conscious control of the hands.
Now there is one organ in man in which, even if he is not clairvoyant, the etheric part moves freely while the corresponding physical part remains immobile. This organ is the brain around which the cosmic Powers have placed the hard skull; the lobes of the brain would certainly like to move but they cannot. Thus the brain of an average human being is permanently in the condition of a clairvoyant who while he holds his physical hands still, moves the etheric hands only. The brain is seen by a clairvoyant to be something that comes out of the head like writhing snakes. Every head is, in fact, a Medusa head. This is a very real phenomenon. The essential difference between the human head and the rest of the body is that in respect of the rest of the body the human being will need to undergo a lengthy process of evolution to achieve what has already been achieved by the head in the way of ordinary thinking. In a certain respect the strength of thinking lies in the ability of the human being, while he is thinking, to bring the brain to rest even down to the finer, invisible movements of the nerves. The more thoroughly he can keep the brain at rest while he is thinking, including the more delicate movements of the nerves, the subtler, more deliberate and more logical his thoughts will be.
So we can say that when the human being passes into physical existence through birth, it is his head that is the most perfect because in the head there has already been achieved what in the case of the hands — the part of the human being which expresses itself through gestures — can be achieved only in the future. In the evolutionary period of Old Moon the brain was still at the stage of the hands at the present time. On the Old Moon the head was still exposed in several places and not yet enclosed by the skull. Whereas it is now fixed and static in a kind of prison, it could then expand outwards on all sides. All this applies, of course, to the conditions of existence in the Old Moon epoch, when man was still living in the fluid or watery element that had not yet condensed to the solid state. Even in a certain period of the ancient Lemurian epoch, when man had reached the stage of evolution recapitulating the Old Moon period — even then it was still the case that at the top of the brain there appeared not only the organ we have often mentioned, but a kind of efflux of thoughts. A formation like a fiery cloud was still to be seen over the head of man even as late as the Atlantean epoch. Without super-normal clairvoyance, simply with the clairvoyant faculty possessed by every single human being at that time, an Atlantean could see whether a man was or was not a thinker in the sense of that ancient epoch. Over the head of a man who was a thinker there was a luminous, fiery cloud but no such phenomenon was present in the case of one who was not.
These are matters of which we must have knowledge if we are to understand the transformation that takes place in man’s nature when, after living in a physical body, he dies and passes into the other period of existence between death and the new birth. All the forces that have been at work to enable a human being to come into existence disappear when he is already in the physical world; but they become all-important when he has laid aside his physical body. During his life between birth and death man is quite unaware of the forces which moulded the physical brain. But everything of which he is aware between birth and death vanishes and is of no significance when he passes through the gate of death. He lives then within the forces of which he is unconscious during his physical life on Earth. Whereas during this physical life he experiences his ‘I’ as pictured during the waking state, in the period between death and the new birth he experiences that higher ‘I’ of which we can have a dim inkling when we contemplate how a human being learns to walk, to speak and to think. While a man is on Earth he is unaware of this ‘I’; it does not penetrate into his consciousness. What thus remains entirely concealed we can follow back as far as birth and before birth, even still further back, when we contemplate the life that takes its course after death. That which is most completely hidden because it has built up the human being and vanishes while he is living on Earth is most fully in evidence when he is no longer on Earth, namely during the period of his existence after death. The forces of which we can have a faint inkling only, the forces which, working from within, enable the human being to walk, which launch the sounds of speech, which make him into a thinker and mould the brain into becoming the organ of thinking — these are the forces of supreme importance during man's existence between death and the new birth. It is then that his true ‘I’ comes to life. Of this we will speak in the next lecture.