Reincarnation and Karma
Answers to Some Questions Concerning Karma
The following question has been asked: “According to the law of reincarnation, we are required to think that the human individuality possesses its talents, capacities, and so forth, as an effect of its previous lives. Is this not contradicted by the fact that such talents and capacities, for instance moral courage, musical gifts, and so forth, are directly inherited by the children from their parents?”
Answer: If we rightly conceive of the laws of reincarnation and karma, we cannot find a contradiction in what is stated above. Only those qualities of the human being which belong to his physical and ether body can be directly passed on by heredity. The ether body is the bearer of all life phenomena (the forces of growth and reproduction). Everything connected with this can be directly passed on by heredity. What is bound to the so-called soul-body can be passed on by heredity to a much lesser degree. This constitutes a certain disposition in the sensations. Whether we possess a vivid sense of sight, a well-developed sense of hearing, and so forth, may depend upon whether our ancestors have acquired such faculties and have passed them on to us by heredity. But nobody can pass on to his offsprings what is connected with the actual spiritual being of man, that is, for instance, the acuteness and accuracy of his life of thought, the reliability of his memory, the moral sense, the acquired capacities of knowledge and art.
These are qualities which remain enclosed within his individuality and which appear in his next incarnation as capacities, talents, character, and so forth. — The environment, however, into which the reincarnating human being enters is not accidental, but it is necessarily connected with his karma. Let us assume a human being has acquired in his previous life the capacity for a morally strong character. It is his karma that this capacity should unfold in his next incarnation. This would not be possible if he did not incarnate in a body which possesses a quite definite constitution. This bodily constitution, however, must be inherited from the forebears. The incarnating individuality strives, through a power of attraction inherent in it, toward those parents who are capable of giving it the suitable body. This is caused by the fact that, already before reincarnating, this individuality connects itself with the forces of the astral world which strive toward definite physical conditions. Thus the human being is born into that family which is able to transmit to him by heredity the bodily conditions which correspond to his karmic potentialities. It then looks, if we go back to the example of moral courage, as if the latter itself had been inherited from the parents. The truth is that man, through his individual being, has searched out that family which makes the unfoldment of moral courage possible for him. In addition to this it may be possible that the individualities of the children and the parents have already been connected in previous lives and for that very reason have found one another again. The karmic laws are so complicated that we may never base a judgment upon outer appearances. Only a person to whose spiritual sense-organs the higher worlds are at least partially manifest may attempt to form such a judgment. Whoever is able to observe the soul organism and the spirit, in addition to the physical body, is in a position to discriminate between what has been passed on to the human being by his forebears and what is his own possession, acquired in previous lives. For ordinary vision these things are not clearly distinguishable, and it may easily appear as if something were merely inherited which in reality is karmicly determined. — It is a thoroughly wise expression which states that children are “given” to their parents. In respect of the spirit this is absolutely the case. And children with certain spiritual qualities are given to them for the very reason that they, the parents, are capable of giving the children the opportunity to unfold these spiritual qualities.
Question: “Does Anthroposophy attribute no significance to ‘chance’? I cannot imagine that it can be predestined by the karma of each individual person when five hundred persons are killed at the same time in a theater fire.”
Answer: The laws of karma are so complicated that we should not be surprised when to the human intellect some fact appears at first as being contradictory to the general validity of this law. We must realize that this intellect is schooled by our physical world, and that, in general, it is accustomed to admit only what it has learned in this world. The laws of karma, however, belong to higher worlds. Therefore, if we try to understand an event which meets the human being as being brought about by karma in the same way in which justice is applied in the purely earthly-physical life, then we must of necessity run up against contradictions. We must realize that a common experience which several people undergo in the physical world may, in the higher world, mean something completely different for each individual person among them. Naturally, the opposite may also be true: common interrelations may become effective in common earthly experiences. Only one gifted with clear vision in the higher worlds can give information about particular cases. If the karmic interrelations of five hundred people become effective in the common death of these people in a theater fire, the following instances may be possible:
First: Not a single one of the five hundred people need be karmicly linked to the other victims. The common disaster is related in the same way to the karmas of each single person as the shadow-image of fifty people on a wall is related to the worlds of thought and feeling of these persons. These people had nothing in common an hour ago; nor will they have anything in common an hour hence. What they experienced when they met at the same place will have a special effect for each one of them. Their association is expressed in the above-mentioned common shadow-image. Whoever were to attempt to conclude from this shadow-image that a common bond united these people would be decidedly in error.
Second: It is possible that the common experience of the five hundred people has nothing whatsoever to do with their karmic past, but that, just through this common experience, something is prepared which will unite them karmicly in the future. Perhaps these five hundred people will, in future ages, carry out a common undertaking, and through the disaster have been united for the sake of higher worlds. The experienced spiritual-scientist is thoroughly acquainted with the fact that many societies, formed today, owe their origin to the circumstance of a common disaster experienced in a more distant past by the people who join together today.
Third: The case in question may actually be the effect of former common guilt of the persons concerned. There are, however, still countless other possibilities. For instance, a combination of all three possibilities described might occur.
It is not unjustifiable to speak of “chance” in the physical world. And however true it is to say: there is no “chance” if we take into consideration all the worlds, yet it would be unjustifiable to eradicate the word “chance” if we are merely speaking of the interlinking of things in the physical world. Chance in the physical world is brought about through the fact that things take place in this world within sensible space. They must, in as far as they occur within this space, also obey the laws of this space. Within this space, things may outwardly meet which have inwardly nothing to do with each other. The causes which let a brick fall from a roof, injuring me as I pass by, do not necessarily have anything to do with my karma which stems from my past. Many people commit here the error of imagining karmic relations in too simple a fashion. They presume, for instance, that if a brick has injured a person, he must have deserved this injury karmicly. But this is not necessarily so. In the life of every human being events constantly take place which have nothing at all to do with his merits or his guilt in the past. Such events find their karmic adjustment in the future. If something happens to me today without being my fault, I shall be compensated for it in the future. One thing is certain: nothing remains without karmic adjustment. However, whether an experience of the human being is the effect of his karmic past or the cause of his karmic future will have to be determined in every individual instance. And this cannot be decided by the intellect accustomed to dealing with the physical world, but solely by occult experience and observation.
Question: “Is it possible to understand, according to the law of reincarnation and karma, how a highly developed human soul can be reborn in a helpless, undeveloped child? To many a person the thought that we have to begin over and over again at the childhood stage is unbearable and illogical.”
Answer: How the human being can act in the physical world depends entirely upon the physical instrumentality of his body. Higher ideas, for instance, can come to expression in this world only if there is a fully developed brain. Just as the pianist must wait until the piano builder has made a piano on which he can express his musical ideas, so does the soul have to wait with its faculties acquired in the previous life until the forces of the physical world have built up the bodily organs to the point where they can express these faculties. The nature forces have to go their way, the soul, also, has to go its way. To be sure, from the very beginning of human life a cooperation exists between soul and body forces. The soul works in the flexible and supple body of the child until it is made ready to become a bearer of the forces acquired in former life periods. For it is absolutely necessary that the reborn human being adjust himself to the new life conditions.
Were he simply to appear in a new life with all he has acquired previously, he would not fit into the surrounding world. For he has acquired his faculties and forces under quite different circumstances in completely different surroundings. Were he simply to enter the world in his former state he would be a stranger in it. The period of childhood is gone through in order to bring about harmony between the old and the new conditions. How would one of the cleverest ancient Romans appear in our present world, were he simply born into our world with his acquired powers? A power can only be employed when it is in harmony with the surrounding world. For instance, if a genius is born, the power of genius lies in the innermost being of this man which may be called the causal-body. The lower spirit-body and the body of feeling and sensation are adaptable, and in a certain sense not completely determined. These two parts of the human being are now elaborated. In this work the causal-body acts from within and the surroundings from without. With the completion of this work, these two parts may become the instruments of the acquired forces. — The thought that we have to be born as a child is, therefore, neither illogical nor unbearable. On the contrary, it would be unbearable were we born as a fully developed man into a world in which we are a stranger.
Question: “Are two successive incarnations of a human being similar to one another? Will an architect, for instance, become again an architect, a musician again a musician?”
Answer: This might be the case, but not necessarily so. Such similarities occur, but are by no means the rule. It is easy in this field to arrive at false conceptions because we form thoughts concerning the laws of reincarnation which cling too much to externalities. Someone loves the south, for instance, and therefore believes he must have been a southerner in a former incarnation. Such inclinations, however, do not reach up to the causal-body. They have a direct significance only for the one life. Whatever sends its effects over from one incarnation into another must be deeply seated in the central being of man. Let us assume, for instance, that someone is a musician in his present life. The spiritual harmonies and rhythms which express themselves in tones reach into the causal-body. The tones themselves belong to the outer physical life. They sit in the parts of the human being which come into existence and pass away. The lower ego or spirit-body, which is, at one time, the proper vehicle for tones may, in a subsequent life, be the vehicle for the perception of number and space relations. And the musician may now become a mathematician. Just through this fact the human being develops, in the course of his incarnations, into an all-comprehensive being by passing through the most manifold life activities. As has been stated, there are exceptions to this rule. And these are explicable by the great laws of the spiritual world.
Question: “What are the karmic facts in the case of a human being who is condemned to idiocy because of a defective brain?”
Answer: A case like this ought not to be dealt with by speculation and
hypotheses, but only by means of spiritual-scientific experience.
Therefore, the question here will be answered by quoting an example
which has really occurred.
In a previous life a certain person had been doomed to an existence of mental torpor because of an undeveloped brain. During the time between his death and a new birth he was able to work over in himself all the depressing experiences of such a life, such as his having been pushed around, subjected to the unkindness of people, and he was reborn as a veritable genius of benevolence. Such a case shows clearly how wrong we can be if we refer everything in life karmicly back to the past. We cannot say in every instance: this destiny is the result of this or that guilt in the past. It is very well possible that an event has no relation whatsoever to the past but is only the cause for a karmic compensation in the future. An idiot need not have deserved his destiny through his deeds in the past. But the karmic consequence of his destiny for the future will not fail to appear. Just as a businessman's balance account is determined by the figures of his ledger, while he is free to have new receipts and expenses, so new deeds and blows of destiny may enter the life of a human being in spite of his book of life showing a definite balance at every given moment. Therefore, karma must not be conceived of as an immutable fate: it is absolutely compatible with the freedom, the will of man. Karma does not demand surrender to an unalterable fate; on the contrary, it affords us the certainty that no deed, no experience of the human being remains without effect or runs its course outside of the laws of the world. It affords us the certainty that every deed or experience is joined to just and compensating law. Moreover, if there were no karma, arbitrariness would rule in the world. As it is, I may know that every one of my actions, every one of my experiences is inserted in a lawful interrelationship. My deed is free; its effect follows definite laws. It is the free deed of a businessman when he makes a good deal; its result, however, shows up in the balance sheet of his ledger in accordance with definite laws.