“[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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Upwardly evolving humans reincarnate on the Earth on a fairly fixed schedule:
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:
Abnormal people reincarnate much faster than average people:
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 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.
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.
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:
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 —
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.]
Belief in karma is fundamental
to Waldorf education.
An item from the Waldorf Watch "news" page:
Bullying and karma are intertwined issues often discussed by critics and defenders of Waldorf education. Critics contend that Waldorf teachers allow bullying among their students — in Waldorf belief, the children must be allowed to work out their karmas. Defenders of Waldorf education generally deny that Waldorf teachers look away when bullying occurs or fights break out, although they acknowledge that karma is a key concept in the ideology underlying Waldorf schooling: Anthroposophy.
Here are excerpts from a recent exchange on these matters. The participants were Eugene Schwartz, a leading proponent of Waldorf education, and Dan Dugan, a prominent Waldorf critic. I have edited and trimmed for length and clarity. So see the entire exchange. go to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/waldorf-critics/message/25717.
Eugene Schwartz: “I, too, have often heard people say that Rudolf Steiner said that children need to ‘work out their karma’ in the classroom and on the playground. However, I must tell you that I have never seen that quote in print or heard of its provenance from any experienced Waldorf teacher. To the best of my knowledge, this is one of those apocryphal ‘Steiner said’ statements that have circulated through the Waldorf movement without any substantiation.”
Dan Dugan: “I agree, I think it's mainly a post-Steiner Waldorf school tradition, based on study of Steiner. An otherwise sensible presentation on bullying to the faculty of Alan Howard Waldorf School by Cynthia Kennedy and Betty Robertson, May 13, 1999, includes the following waffling language:
"This way of thinking can only be traced to studies of Steiner's books and lectures about karma. I can't imagine where else it would come from. For non-Anthroposophists, there is no question about the responsibility of adults when they see children bullying."
Schwartz: "To my understanding, Steiner was certainly trying to find an alternative to the strict and harsh Prussian model of education that was endemic in his day ... [He was] a man of his time, sharing a fresh and vital educational impulse in common with many others."
Dugan: "Sure, Waldorf was progressive in its day ... [But] it got stuck in the 1920s forever. And Steiner wasn't altogether opposed to the Prussian model:
'If a child is ten minutes late, keep him standing for thirty minutes. Make them stand uncomfortably! ... [M]ake them stand in an especially uncomfortable place ... You could buy a number of small stocks ... The stocks could also be made in Woodwork lessons.' [Rudolf Steiner, CONFERENCES WITH THE TEACHERS OF THE WALDORF SCHOOL IN STUTTGART 1919 to 1920, Vol. 1 (Steiner Schools Fellowship Publications, 1986), p. 91.]"
Schwartz: "...Steiner...was never in favor of a free-for-all, and he never spoke about children working out their karma through unsupervised Summerhill-like chaos* masquerading as 'play.' Waldorf teachers are held to a very high degree of responsibility by Steiner in terms of looking after the children's behavior with one another in and out of the classroom."
Dugan: "If someone today was holding them 'to a very high degree of responsibility' things would be a lot better."
Schwartz: "A teacher who has been negligent in the playground, and allowed bullying or roughhousing to go on to the point where someone was emotionally or physically hurt, may want to justify his negligence and talk about 'karma' in the same way that teachers in a non-Waldorf school might misuse any number of psychological or sociological terms ... However, this is not the way that Rudolf Steiner spoke about karma, nor is it a foundational principle of Waldorf education to let things just happen."
Dugan: "Not a 'foundational principle,' but certainly a tradition, it keeps popping up year after year...."
Schwartz: "Steiner, indeed, rarely spoke about karma without also speaking about the moral wakefulness that his teaching should evoke ... On the playing field, as in the classroom, the Waldorf teacher is meant to carry a deep sense of responsibility, and not justify his nonchalance by misquoting Steiner.
"I have no question that you will continue to hear from parents who feel that their child's school is not paying enough attention to the bullying issue."
Dugan: "Sounds like denial to me. It's not a matter of 'not paying enough attention.' It's deliberately refusing to intervene when children are fighting, based on principles that someone taught them.
"There are times when you may need to say no? That's a clue as to who's maintaining this pernicious tradition — the Waldorf teacher trainers.
"There was at least one college chair teaching the tradition.
"Margaret Meyerkort wrote: 'I want to remind us of another suggestion of Steiner's. In fact for me it is an admonition, and that is: "Do not interfere with the will of the child." Why? Because in his will, in his unconscious, lies his karma and because in karma freedom must reign.' [A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING OF THE WALDORF KINDERGARTEN, Vol. 2, edited by Joan Almon (Waldorf Kindergarten Association of North America, Inc., 1993), p. 78.]
"That's getting close to a smoking gun."
Schwartz: "I don't imagine that the growing number of parents who are gratified by the way in which Waldorf schools are now dealing with bullying are likely to call you ... Waldorf schools have accomplished a lot in terms of raising the consciousness of children, teachers, and parents concerning bullying and its antidotes."
Dugan: " Neither of us has done a real study ... [Y]ou can make fun of parents who are upset*** by the policy of many Waldorf schools, and...we can report that bullying happens in many Waldorf schools in a special way endemic to Waldorf: tolerated as a matter of policy.
"And you can say to me that there is a great deal more to be done and I don't disagree."
What did Steiner say about karma? Here is a summary. As you read, ask yourself whether what Steiner said is plausible, coherent, or rational.
Steiner said we create our own karma. And, he added, karma is consistent with an apparently antithetical condition, freedom:
We are "free," yet we are generally bound by karma (which we create through our own actions). We may alter our karma, and someday we may wholly free ourselves from it. But in the meantime, we live with the constraints of karma in our earthly lives.
Karma especially binds souls that have chosen the dark path.
Should we ever intervene in another person's karma? Should a teacher ever intervene in a child's karma? Yes, Steiner said; sometimes; but only if we are sure we know what we are doing. (Here we will return to some quotations we've seen previously.)
On the other hand, Steiner said, cruel karmas must often be accepted; karma must play out, even if the result is fatal for a child. Thus, for instance, a child who is crushed to death by an overturning van has gotten what s/he wanted or deserved, spiritually.
So, things are complicated. We are free, or we are moving toward freedom; but we are also obliged to let karma be fulfilled, usually; we should let a child be killed, if this is the child's karmic fate; but we should intervene in karma, sometimes. So what's a teacher to do? Standing back and respecting kids' karmic needs would seem to be the default position for a Waldorf faculty member; intervening in karma would be a very serious step, and potentially a seriously wrong step; although intervening sometime might be right.
Generally, speaking, karma must be fulfilled. Our souls yearn for their proper karmic fulfillment, and this should be respected.
Intervening in a child's karma might prevent her/him from becoming more perfect — that is, it could prevent the child from moving forward in spiritual development, a terrible thing to do to the child. So, in general, it is best to stand back and let karma play itself out. In general.
Does any of this make sense? In what sense are we free if "karma must be fulfilled," if "karma must be worked out," if "these things are necessary"? Steiner was not always consistent or logical, on this or any other subject. Reconciling karma and freedom requires intellectual gymnastics, if it can be done at all. We can sidestep the problem, partially, by defining freedom very narrowly, accepting limitations that drain away much of freedom's essence. [See "Freedom".] But sidestepping a problem is far different from squarely facing and solving it. Return to the first quotation in this section ("[K]arma must not be conceived..."). If we are truly free now, then karma cannot restrict us; indeed, "laws" cannot restrict us. If, on the other hand, we are restricted by karma and laws now, then our "freedom" is diminished if not completely eliminated. In that case, true freedom becomes only a distant goal, not a present reality. Karma is not "absolutely compatible with freedom" — we will be truly free only if/when we pass beyond the constraints of karma. Steiner foresaw such a development in mankind's future, but because his knowledge of the future (like his knowledge of karma) was based on clairvoyance, which is a delusion, such "knowledge" is null and void.
* Summerhill School is an experimental academy founded on the educational theories of A.S. Neill; it is not a Waldorf or Steiner school.
** The central governing committee at many Waldorf schools is called the college of teachers. The chairperson of this committee is, then, the "college chair."
*** This is a reference to a video created by Schwartz. See http://player.vimeo.com/video/56109384.
- 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 ◊◊◊