“[T]he purpose of [Waldorf] education is to help the individual fulfill his karma.”
— Waldorf teacher Roy Wilkinson
Karma is central to Steiner’s doctrines. We lead many lives, alternating between the spirit realm and the physical realm. During these lives, we evolve, either upward toward perfection or downward toward error, evil, and loss. The process of birth, death, and rebirth is called reincarnation, and it works through karma, the fate we create for ourselves. If we live virtuously and wisely, we create happy karma for upward movement in our next incarnation; if we live otherwise, we create a karma that takes us lower. Through karma, we create ourselves and our futures.
Karma thus holds the key to many riddles:
"[T]he law of karma answers the great human question: why are children born into such widely differing conditions? For instance, we see one child born to wealth, perhaps endowed also with great talents and surrounded by the most loving care. And we see another child born to poverty and misery, perhaps with few talents or abilities, and so apparently predestined to failure — or a child may have great abilities but no chance to develop them. These are serious problems, and only Theosophy gives an answer to them. If we are to face life with strength and hope we must find an answer. How then does the law of karma answer these riddles?
"We have seen that a man passes through repeated lives on Earth, and that when a child is born, it is not for the first time: he has been on Earth many times before. Now in the external world the rule of cause and effect prevails, as everyone recognises, and it is this great natural law of cause and effect which we see, carried over into the spiritual realm, as the law of karma." — Rudolf Steiner, AT THE GATES OF SPIRITUAL SCIENCE (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1986), p. 55.
Karma makes sense of things. Events don’t simply happen, they are produced by previous events. There is an explanation for everything. So, for instance, impoverished children deserve their poverty — it results from their own actions in previous lives. A certain callousness may be glimpsed behind this idea. You get what you deserve, and in each life you need to work through your karma in order to create a better karma next time around. An impoverished child needs to be impoverished in this life so that s/he can atone for previous errors and lay a foundation for future improvement.
Karma has similar meaning in other spheres of life:
"Now when we are considering karma we must speak of connections of events which came into human life in former times, and how they manifest themselves later in their after-effects on the same human being. If we speak of health and disease from the standpoint of karma we must ask: ‘Can we connect the healthy and diseased condition with the former deeds and experiences of this person, and how will his present condition of health or disease later react upon him?’ ... Spiritual investigation shows us that in the form of a human body which enters into existence by birth, we are able to see approximately what deeds a person did in a previous life. In the case of an animal we cannot say that at its birth it brings with it a reincarnated individuality from a previous earth life. Only the common astral body of this species of animal is active, and this will limit the healing power of the etheric body of this animal. In man we find that not only his astral body but also his etheric body is impregnated with the results of the deeds of his previous life: and as the etheric body has within itself the power to bring forth what it formerly had, we shall also understand that this etheric body will also build into the new organism that which it brings with it from previous incarnations. We shall now understand how our deeds in one life can work over into our conditions of health in the next life, and how in our state of health we have often to seek a karmic effect of deeds of a previous life." — Rudolf Steiner, MANIFESTATIONS OF KARMA (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1984), pp. 61- 72.
If you have a disease, you are meant to have it — its is what you need in this incarnation. Steiner did not rule out treating diseases any more than he ruled out charity to the poor. But “helping” the ill or the poor needs to be done with full consciousness of the possible karmic harm that may be inflicted. If a person needs to experience a certain illness in this life, we probably should not thwart this cosmic, karmic need. Trying to balance benign neglect with compassion gets complicated, of course.
Little or nothing happens entirely by accident:
"[L]et us examine in detail how such accidents, that is to say those events that are generally called ‘accidents,’ come about ... [A] man would not out of his ordinary consciousness place himself where he may be struck by lightning; with his ordinary consciousness he would do anything to avoid standing where the lightning may strike him. But there may be a consciousness active within him, which lies much deeper than the ordinary consciousness, and which from a foresight which is not possessed by the ordinary consciousness leads him to the very place where the lightning may strike him — and wills that he should be so struck. The man really seeks out the accident." — MANIFESTATIONS OF KARMA, p. 146.
If, let us say, you are driving your child home from school, and a truck suddenly emerges from a side street and smashes into your car, and you are gravely injured, and your young child is killed — well, you and your child got what you deserve. You sought these outcomes; your spirit wanted these results. It was your karma.
Steiner’s explanations for human tragedy are not always entirely convincing or comforting:
"What is the karmic explanation of children born dead? In such cases the astral body may well have already united itself with the physical body, and the two lower members may be properly constituted. But the astral body withdraws, and so the child is born dead. But why does the astral body withdraw? The explanation lies in the fact that certain members of man's higher nature are related to certain physical organs. For instance, no being can have an etheric body unless it possesses cells. A stone has no cells or vessels, and so it cannot have an etheric body. Equally, an astral body needs a nervous system: a plant has no nervous system and therefore cannot have an astral body. In fact, if a plant were to be permeated by an astral body it would no longer be a plant, but would have to be provided with cells if it were to be permeated by an etheric body." — AT THE GATES OF SPIRITUAL SCIENCE, p. 76.
Karma means that evil people deserve their fate just as much as good people deserve theirs. Evil actions and thoughts produce evil consequences, which show up in future incarnations. We are supposed to be evolving upward. Evil delays us, sending us backward to lower stations in our future lives. This postpones our upward progress and may even sidetrack us into communities of wickedness:
"Souls whose development has been delayed will have accumulated so much error, ugliness, and evil in their karma that they temporarily form a distinct union of evil and aberrant human beings who vehemently oppose the community of good human beings." — Rudolf Steiner, AN OUTLINE OF ESOTERIC SCIENCE (Anthroposophic Press, 1997), p. 393.
The stations we occupy in our Earthly lives are defined, in broad terms, by race. According to Steiner, inferior races consist of delayed, immature, and/or evil souls; superior races consist of prompt, mature, good souls. Individuals may rescue themselves from membership in a low race: Through proper actions and thoughts, they can enter higher races in future incarnations. But people who fail to set their feet on the upward path may descend to the very bottom: Falling through the floor of the lowest race, they cease to be human and lose the power to reincarnate:
"Such souls lose the possibility of incarnation and find no other opportunity ... [T]here are no more bodies bad enough [to house them] ... Beings that stay behind at such stages appear in a later epoch as subordinate nature spirits." — Rudolf Steiner, NATURE SPIRITS (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1995), p. 70. Nature spirits are subhuman beings that lack true spiritual essence.
Upwardly evolving humans reincarnate on the Earth on a fairly fixed schedule:
"The time span between two incarnations corresponds to the period needed for the cultural life on earth to have changed completely. We do not return to an incarnation until the conditions on the earth have changed so that there is virtually no similarity to the conditions of our previous incarnation.
"What I have described refers to the average person. For example, in one case consciousness after death might be dimmed earlier than in another, or the condition of sleep might set in more quickly, as you will have understood from what was said previously. But a cosmic law operates so that the cosmic sleep shortens the period that we spend in the spiritual world after death. The one who enters the condition of unconsciousness earlier experiences it more rapidly. Time passes at a quicker rate for him than for one whose consciousness extends farther. Investigations of life between death and rebirth do indeed reveal that unspiritual people reincarnate relatively more quickly than others. A person who only indulges in sensual pleasures and passions, who lives strongly in what we might call his animal nature, will spend but a short time between incarnations. This is due to the fact that such a person will fall comparatively rapidly into a condition of unconsciousness, of sleep. Hence he will travel quickly between the period of death and rebirth." — Rudolf Steiner, LIFE BETWEEN DEATH AND REBIRTH (Anthroposophic Press, 1968). pp. 26-27.
For the average person, the schedule for reincarnation is, roughly, one new life on Earth every 2,160 years or so. This is the time it takes for the signs of the zodiac to advance one position in the sky (a movement called “precession of the equinoxes” — see, e.g., http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/190813/precession-of-the-equinoxes). It is also, according to Steiner, roughly the time it takes for humanity to evolve from one cultural epoch to another. One of Steiner’s advocates puts the matter like this:
“[T]he vernal point (where the sun rises on 21 March) stands in Pisces from AD 215 to 2965 and this influences our present age which extends from 1415 to 3575.” — Richard Seddon, THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY AND OF THE EARTH AS FORESEEN BY RUDOLF STEINER (Temple Lodge Publishing, 2002), p. 12. Prior to the present age, we lived through the Greco-Roman Age, and before that the Egypto-Chaldean, and so on. After the present age, we will proceed to the Russian Age followed by the American Age. All of this is astrological and historical nonsense (did the Greeks and Romans really represent a single culture, for example?), but there it is.
Abnormal people reincarnate much faster than average people:
"Such things are really shocking to people. I caused enough shock when I needed to say that a very famous university professor, after a very short period between death and rebirth, was reincarnated as a black scientist." — Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), pp. 649-650. By Steiner’s lights, being both black and a materialistic scientist is awfully low, hardly higher than subhuman nature spirits.
Steiner rarely tried to support his doctrines with logical reasoning. He did try sometimes, however. For instance, to show that karma really exists, he argued that karma is merely the logical, spiritual extension of the well-known law of cause and effect:
"We have seen that a man passes through repeated lives on Earth, and that when a child is born, it is not for the first time: he has been on Earth many times before. Now in the external world the rule of cause and effect prevails, as everyone recognises, and it is this great natural law of cause and effect which we see, carried over into the spiritual realm, as the law of karma.
"How does the law work in the external world? Take a metal ball, heat it and put it on a wooden board. It will burn a hole in the wood. Take another ball, heat it but throw it into water before you put it on the board, and then it will not burn a hole. The fact that the ball was thrown into the water is significant for its later behaviour. The ball goes through a sort of experience, and its behaviour will vary accordingly. Thus the effect depends on the cause. This is an example from the inanimate world, but the same law holds everywhere. Animals gradually lose their eyesight if they go to live in dark caves. Now suppose that in a later generation such an animal were able to reflect: why have I no eyes? It would have to conclude that the cause of its fate was that its ancestors had gone to live in caves. Thus an earlier experience shapes a later destiny, and so the rule of cause and effect holds.
"The higher we move in the scale of nature towards man, the more individual does destiny become. Animals have a group-soul, and the destiny of a group of animals is bound up with the group-soul. A man has his own Ego, and the individual Ego undergoes its destiny just as the group-soul of animals does. A whole species of animal may change over the generations, but with man it is the individual Ego that changes from one life to another. Cause and effect go on working from life to life: what I experience today has its cause in a previous life, and what I do today shapes my destiny in my next life. The cause of different circumstances at birth is not to be found in this life; nothing immediate is responsible for it. The cause lies in earlier lives. In a previous life a man has prepared his present destiny." — AT THE GATES OF SPIRITUAL SCIENCE, pp. 55-56.
We can make a few quick observations before letting this nonsense drop. Note, for example, that Steiner offers no evidence of any kind to support his statements. He makes a “logical” connection between the “law of cause and effect” and the “law of karma,” but that is all. And his reasoning is quite deficient. In discussing evolution (why cave-dwelling animals gradually lose their eyes), Steiner suddenly asserts the concept of “destiny.” True, scientific evolution is a matter of cause and effect, but “destiny” or fate does not exist in the scientific account. Changes occur randomly, which is precisely the opposite of "karma." Note, similarly, how Steiner suddenly asserts the concept of “group-souls,” providing no evidence or reasoning. Ditto “Ego,” which in Steiner’s doctrines is a nonphysical human body, the “I.” No evidence, no logic — just a claim.
What Steiner says may strike some people as reasonable (cause and effect in the physical world is paralleled in the spiritual world), but all he really does is to offer us a series of assertions. At best, he makes some of his doctrines seem plausible, but he does not really show or prove anything. Of course, we can’t expect Steiner to stop and present reams of evidence and full step-by-step explanations at every point in every lecture, but go back and read the beginning of this lecture, and prior lectures, and as many of Steiner’s lectures and books as you can tolerate: You will find the same emptiness throughout. Some people are persuaded by Steiner; we need not be; Steiner gives us no real reason to be.
The doctrine of karma is really quite horrid. It tells us that the low, the afflicted, the ill, the impoverished — all these souls chose their fate, it is their karma, we really should not interfere. They get what they deserve or asked for.
"[W]e see...groups of human souls in their descent from pre-earthly into earthly existence wander to regions situated, for example, in the vicinity of volcanoes, or to districts where earthquakes are liable to occur ... [S]uch places are deliberately chosen by the souls thus karmically connected, in order that they may experience this very destiny ... [They think] 'I choose a great disaster on earth in order to become more perfect....'" — Rudolf Steiner, KARMIC RELATIONSHIPS, Vol. 2 (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1974), pp. 226-227.
So the victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for instance, chose to be victims; it was good for them. We should certainly not interfere in their karma.
This, of course, is utter, horrid, inhumane nonsense.
Even Steiner, when he stopped to think things through, realized that his teachings about karma must not be taken to such extremes.
“[I]n educating handicapped children we are intervening in a process which in the normal course of development — were there no intervention, or were there misguided intervention — would find its fulfillment only when the child had passed through the gate of death and come to birth again in the next life. We are making, that is to say, a deep intervention in karma. Whenever we give treatment to a handicapped child, we are intervening in karma [sic]. And it goes without saying, we must intervene in karma this way.” — Rudolf Steiner, EDUCATION FOR SPECIAL NEEDS (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1998), p. 47.
Yes, we must help those who need our help. Kudos to Steiner for grasping this.
What he also should have grasped — or what we must grasp, anyway — is that the imperative to be humane, to help those who need our help, shows the depravity of the doctrine of karma. Steiner should have renounced the doctrine. He didn't. But we must. It is a fantasy, an idea for which we have no solid evidence — and it is a destructive fantasy, a fantasy that urges us to passively accept things that, in reality, we should strenuously oppose.
Here is Steiner discoursing on the karma of a child he knew:
"In the autumn we experienced the death of a member's child, a child seven years of age. The death of this child occurred in a strange way. He was a good boy, mentally very much alive already within the limits set for a seven-year-old; a good, well-behaved and mentally active child. He came to die because he happened to be on the very spot where a furniture van overturned, crushing the boy so that he died of suffocation. This was a spot where probably no van went past before nor will go past again, but one did pass just that moment. It is also possible to show in an outer way that all kinds of circumstances caused the child to be in that place at the time the van overturned, circumstances considered chance if the materialistic view is taken ... Studying the case in the light of spiritual science [i.e., Anthroposophy] and of karma it will be seen to demonstrate very clearly that external logic, quite properly used in external life, proves flimsy in this case and does not apply ... [T]he karma of this child was such that the ego, to put it bluntly, had ordered the van and the van overturned to fulfil the child's karma." — Rudolf Steiner, THE DESTINIES OF INDIVIDUALS AND OF NATIONS (SteinerBooks, 1987), pp. 125-126.
So, you see, being crushed to death was good for this child. Indeed, his own ego willed it. In other words, he got want he deserved — his horrible death fulfilled his karma, which he created by his own actions in past lives. So he brought this hideous death on himself.
Let's think this through. Imagine that Steiner had been standing three feet from the boy and could easily have saved him. Would he have done so? Presumably not, if he believed his own teachings about karma. Saving the boy would have prevented the boy from fulfilling his karma, so Steiner should not have saved him.
But is this credible? Wouldn't Steiner have reached out to save the boy, despite the concept of karma? Wouldn't anyone have done so, out of simple human compassion? I'd certainly like to think so. Steiner did say that sometimes we should interfere in karma. But how can we decide when and how to interfere and when and how to stand aside?
Consider. Maybe it was Seiner's karma to save the boy, and maybe the boy's real karma was to be saved by Steiner. So, according to the doctrine of karma, the boy was fated either to be crushed to death or not to be crushed to death. Well, which was it? Here we see the emptiness of the concept of karma. People embrace the concept because they want life to make sense — they hate the idea that something like the death of a child can be a totally random, meaningless event. So they impose pseudo meaning on the event: It was his karma. But if the boy had been saved, then that was his karma. In other words, everything that ever happens to anyone or that might possibly happen to anyone can be attributed to karma. Which means that karma is a theory that explains absolutely nothing. If everything is karma, and if every possible alternative to everything is karma, then karma has no definition, no content, no meaning. Clearly, it is just a word that people use when they don't have anything sensible to say. Oh, the poor boy was crushed. Too bad. Karma. But wait, the boy was saved! That's nice. Karma.
Karma is a cruel concept, an excuse for inaction and fatalism. Because they believe in karma, Waldorf teachers will often stand back and let a child be hurt in a fight or in a playground accident. Karma, they say. The child who ends up with a bloody nose was karmically required to be hurt, and we mustn't interfere with karma, or so Waldorf teachers may reason. But judged by anyone else, inaction in such situation is clearly indecent, it is immoral. Teachers who stand back in such circumstances are morally delinquent. In addition, they are intellectually lazy. How do they know that their own karma at that moment is not to prevent the fight or accident? How do they know that none of the children they are watching is karmically required to be hurt at that moment? If a particular Waldorf teacher does not stop a particular schoolyard brawl, then according to Waldorf "logic" that was presumably her/his karma. But if that same Waldorf teacher does stop that same brawl, then presumably that was his/her karma.
Besides being an indecent and immoral concept, karma is a vapid and stupid concept. It tells us nothing about the universe or ourselves. It is just an empty tag. It is nothing. (And you can't wish that I had not written this, because it was my karma to write these words and your karma to read them. Right? Although, of course, if I had not written these words, then that would have been my karma. And if you had not read these words...)
"That's clever logic-chopping," you might respond. "But it doesn't change the objective fact that our lives are deeply influenced by karma."
To which I might respond: How do you know? Do you, for instance, know what actions the child committed in a past life that made it right for him to be crushed to death in this life? Do you know who the child was in his prior life? Do you actually know for certain that the boy had a prior life? Do you know for certain that anyone has had a prior life? On what factual basis do you believe in reincarnation? What faculties do you use, aside from clairvoyance (which does not exist), to gain the truth about such matters?
No, I'm sorry. The Anthroposophical version of karma is a fantasy wrapped up in another fantasy (reincarnation) wrapped up in yet another fantasy (clairvoyance). None of it is true or real.
What, in the end, does all this boil down to? Simply this: The next time you find yourself standing beside a child who is in mortal danger, save the child! Don't muddle yourself with fantastical occult conceptions; don't hesitate, consulting a strange set of beliefs. Get real. Save the child.
[Anthroposophic Press, 2001]
For more on the passivity of Waldorf teachers in the face of childhood suffering
— particularly bullying by other children — see "Slaps".
From the Ethereal Kiosk:
"While browsing my documents I found a helpful little guide for teachers. It’s written by Robin Bacchus (PhD!). He is (or was) a program director at a Steiner teacher training program. The document is called ‘Karma and Reincarnation for Teachers’...." [3-19-2012 http://zooey.wordpress.com/]
[With thanks to Alicia Hamberg.
"Karma and Reincarnation for Teachers" by Robin Bacchus
is available at http://beepdf.com/tag/karma.html.]
• “[T]he purpose of [Waldorf] education is to help the individual fulfill his karma.”
— Roy Wilkinson, THE SPIRITUAL BASIS OF STEINER EDUCATION (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1996), p. 52.
• "[T]he role of the teachers [is] to take primary responsibility for the incarnation of the child.”
— Robert Schiappacasse, essay in ADMINISTRATIVE EXPLORATIONS (Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, 2000), p. 7.
• “The teacher needs to provide a steady, well-balance middle realm, so that children who are still in a dreamy state and not yet incarnated, as well as those who are too densely incarnated can find a right relationship to their own, individual incarnation.”
— Report on a presentation by Clause-Peter Röh at the Bay Area Center for Waldorf Teacher Training.
- Compilation and commentary by Roger Rawlings
To visit other pages in this section of Waldorf Watch, use the underlined links, below.
◊◊◊ 14. PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER ◊◊◊
If you'd like more information about any of the topics discussed here,
you might begin by consulting the following resources:
THE SEMI-STEINER DICTIONARY
THE BRIEF WALDORF / STEINER ENCYCLOPEDIA
WALDORF WATCH INDEX
WALDORF WATCH TABLE OF CONTENTS