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Reincarnation, re-embodiment, rebirth or palingenesis (composed of Greekπάλιν pálin "again" and γένεσις génesis "generation, birth") means that man as an individual spiritual being descends several times in the course of its development to physical forms of existence, between which there is a purely spiritual existence. The destiny (SanskritKarma) in later earthly incarnations is essentially determined by the deeds in earlier earthly lives. According to the anthroposophical view, it is the immortal individual spirit, the I of man, that reincarnates and, apart from exceptional cases[1], not the largely perishable soul, which after death scatters to an imperishable remnant in the general astral world and has to be rebuilt anew and with different qualities for the next earthly incarnation. The personal immortality - the consciousness of the personality that lasts beyond death - was only attained by man through the consciousness soul, insofar as it is already directed towards the spiritual and thus already forms a unity with the immortal spirit self (Manas). The doctrine of the reincarnation of the spirit must therefore be strictly distinguished from the transmigration of the soul or metempsychosis. The body is subject to heredity, the soul to self-created destiny and the spirit continues to develop through successive incarnations.


According to Rudolf Steiner, a clear awareness of reincarnation only existed until about 1860 B.C. After that, it was only present as an increasingly dull, instinctive feeling that eventually disappeared completely into the darkness of the subconscious for large parts of humanity, namely Europe. To reawaken the consciousness of reincarnation was one, if not the central task of Rudolf Steiner's life. (Lit.: Meyer, Preface to the new edition, II)

„In pre-Christian times reincarnation existed as a feeling, for it was a realisation only before the year 1860 before Christianity; after the year 1860 it was only an instinctive feeling throughout Egypt, in Near Eastern, Roman times. Now, however, the time is coming when the conception of man as a spiritual being undergoing a development between death and a new birth will become a living feeling, a living sensation, when one must live in the conception of the supernatural significance of human souls. For without this conception the culture of the earth will be killed. One will not be able to develop a practical activity in the future without looking up to the spiritual significance of the fact that every human being is a spiritual being.“ (Lit.:GA 196, p. 161f)

In the essay «Reinkarnation und Karma, vom Standpunkte der modernen Naturwissenschaft notwendige Vorstellungen» ("Reincarnation and Karma, from the standpoint of modern natural science necessary conceptions") (Lit.:GA 34, p. 67ff), written in 1903, Rudolf Steiner makes it clear that the doctrine of reincarnation necessarily arises if the natural scientific doctrine of evolution is consistently continued and also applied to the soul sphere.

„One either drops the whole natural-scientific theory of evolution, or one admits that it must be extended to soul evolution. There are only two possibilities: either every soul is created by a miracle, as the animal species must have been created by miracles, if they have not developed apart; or the soul has developed and has existed in a different form before, as the animal species existed in a different form.“ (Lit.:GA 34, p. 85)

The individuality of man, his I, which manifests itself through his unique, unmistakable biography, can be explained neither by heredity nor by external influences, such as education.

„As a physical human being, I am descended from other physical human beings, for I have the same form as the whole human species. The characteristics of the species could therefore be acquired within the species through heredity. As a spiritual human being, I have my own form, just as I have my own biography. I can therefore have this form from no one else but myself. And since I did not enter the world with indeterminate but with determinate mental endowments, since my path through life, as expressed in my biography, is determined by these endowments, my work on myself cannot have begun at my birth. I must have existed as a spiritual human being before my birth. I certainly did not exist in my ancestors, for they are different from me as spiritual human beings. My biography cannot be explained from theirs. Rather, as a spiritual being, I must be the repetition of one from whose biography mine can be explained. The other conceivable case would be that I owe the development of what is the content of my biography only to a spiritual life before birth (or conception). But one would only be justified in this idea if one wanted to assume that what affects the human soul from the physical environment is the same as what the soul has from a purely spiritual world. Such an assumption contradicts really exact observation. For what is determinative for the human soul from this physical environment is such that it acts like something experienced later in physical life on something experienced in the same way earlier. In order to observe these conditions correctly, one must acquire a view of how there are effective impressions in human life which affect the soul's dispositions in the same way as standing before a deed to be performed in relation to what one has already practised in physical life; only that such impressions do not meet with what has already been practised in this immediate life, but with soul dispositions which allow themselves to be impressed in the same way as the abilities acquired through practice. He who sees through these things comes to the idea of earth-lives which must have preceded the present one. He cannot stop thinking with purely spiritual experiences before this earth-life. - The physical form that Schiller carried with him, he inherited from his ancestors. But as little as this physical form can have grown out of the Earth, so little can Schiller's spiritual being be. He must be the repetition of another spiritual entity, from whose biography his own can be explained, just as Schiller's physical human form can be explained through human reproduction. - Just as the physical human form is again and again a repetition, a re-embodiment of the human species, so the spiritual man must be a re-embodiment of the same spiritual man. For as a spiritual human being, each one is a species of his own.

One may object to what has been said here: these are mere statements of thought; and one may demand external proofs, as one is accustomed to in ordinary natural science. On the other hand, it must be said that the re-embodiment of the spiritual man is a process which does not belong to the field of external physical facts, but one which takes place entirely in the spiritual field. And no other of our ordinary spiritual powers has access to this field than thinking alone. He who does not trust the power of thought cannot enlighten himself about higher spiritual facts. - To him whose spiritual eye is opened, the above trains of thought act with exactly the same force as a process which takes place before his physical eye. He who grants more persuasive power to a so-called "proof" constructed according to the method of ordinary scientific knowledge than to the above remarks on the significance of biography, may be a great scientist in the ordinary sense of the word: but he is very far away from the paths of genuine spiritual research.“ (Lit.:GA 9, p. 72ff)

The time between earthly incarnations

As a rule of thumb for the time between two successive incarnations, a human being incarnates about twice, once as a man and once as a woman, in each cultural epoch, each lasting 2160 years (see → Platonic World Year), i.e. about every 1000 years. This is also indicated in the Psalms:

„3 Thou that sufferest men to die, and sayest, Come again, children of men. 4 For a thousand years are before thee / As the day that passed yesterday, and as a night watch.“

This rule, however, is not an iron law, but is often broken. Male and female incarnations do not always alternate in strict succession; however, never more than seven same-sex re-embodiments follow each other. The time between two incarnations also varies considerably. Today, there are often only a few decades between the individual earth lives, which is probably connected, among other things, with the rapid transformation of the outer earth through the results of the newer technology and the progress of natural science in general.

Reincarnation as a temporally limited phenomenon within human evolution

Beginning and end of the earthly incarnations of man

The fact that man undergoes repeated earthly lives is only valid for a certain period of earthly development. The sequence of reincarnations began in Lemurian times and will cease again at the beginning of the sixth root race. Man will then pass into a more spiritual existence and will no longer be directly bound to a physical body.

„Reincarnation began in Lemurian times and will cease again at the beginning of the sixth race. It is only a certain period of time in earthly development within which man reincarnates. It was preceded by an exceedingly spiritual state, which did not necessitate re-embodiment, and will again be followed by a spiritual state, which also does not necessitate re-embodiment.“ (Lit.:GA 93, p. 25)

End of earthly incarnations around the year 5700

In later lectures, Rudolf Steiner specified even more precisely the time at which the earthly embodiments of man will end. In the 6th millennium, around the year 5700, man will no longer reach sexual maturity through his natural body-bound development - a phenomenon which, according to Rudolf Steiner, is connected with the constant becoming younger of humanity. Human beings will then become infertile and will no longer be able to embody themselves in physical bodies. The time of earthly incarnations will then be over.

„The present human being remains capable of development until the twenty-seventh year. He then begins, as it were, to emancipate himself completely in his soul-spirit from the physical-spiritual. Emancipation from the physical-fleshly is therefore something that moves in more and more. You see from this that the time will come when human beings will only be capable of development up to their fourteenth year, when the age of sexual maturity will cease to have any significance in human development. That is a period which will quite certainly occur. Geologists may calculate long periods for the development of humanity on earth, for the development of the physical humanity of earth; this physical humanity on earth will not develop any longer than up to the moment when this upper age limit is lowered to the fourteenth, thirteenth year of life. For from this time on physical humanity on earth will no longer be able to develop. Women will no longer bear children. Then physical humanity on earth will have come to an end.“ (Lit.:GA 196, p. 59f)

Man will then be in a much freer relationship to the physical earth; he will, as it were, "rumble in the clouds, in the rain, in thunder and lightning" (see quotation below), as Rudolf Steiner puts it. The relationship of man to the earth will then be similar to the state in which man now finds himself in life between death and new birth. This regular development could, however, be disturbed by the influence of Ahriman and the human being could thereby be tied to the physical embodiment for longer. A progressive animalisation of the human being would be the consequence:

„There will come a year in the physical evolution of the earth, this year will be, let us say, about the year 5700 and some, in this year, or around this year, man, if he carries out his correct evolution over the earth, will no longer enter the earth in such a way that he embodies himself in bodies descended from physical parents. I have often said that women will become barren in this age. The children of men will then no longer be born in the present way, if the development over the earth proceeds normally.

There must be no misunderstanding about such a fact. For example, the following could also happen: The Ahrimanic powers, which become very strong under the influence of the present human impulses, could pervert the development of the earth in a certain sense. In this way it would be possible to maintain humanity in the same physical life beyond these years in the sixth millennium - not at all for the benefit of mankind. It would only degenerate very much; but it would be able to be preserved in this physical life. This is one of the endeavours of the Ahrimanic powers, to tie humanity to the earth longer, in order to divert it from its normal evolution. But if humanity really takes hold of what lies within its best possibilities of development, then in the sixth millennium this humanity will simply enter into a relationship with the earth which will be such for another two and a half millennia that man will still have a relationship with the earth, but a relationship which will no longer be expressed in the birth of physical children. Man will, so to speak, as a spirit-soul being - to express it vividly, I will say: in the clouds, in the rain, in lightning and thunder, rumble in earthly affairs. He will, so to speak, vibrate through the phenomena of nature; and in a still later time the relationship to the earthly will become even more spiritual.

All these things can only be told today if one has a concept of what happens between death and a new birth. Although there is not complete equality between the way man relates to earthly conditions between death and a new birth, and the way he will relate to them when he is no longer physically embodied, there is nevertheless a similarity. If we understand how to give real meaning to the development of the earth, we shall, to a certain extent, come permanently into such a relation to earthly affairs as we now stand to them merely when we live between death and a new birth. The present life between death and a new birth is only somewhat, I would say, more spiritual than it will be when man will be permanently in these relations.“ (Lit.:GA 196, p. 90f)

Individual and Folk Soul

Only rarely does the human being appear in several successive incarnations within the same folk community. The Central European peoples are a certain exception. If the human being is attached to a pronounced nationalism and directs a very special hatred against another people in his earthly life, it is because subconsciously his higher self has already very decidedly connected itself with just this people and will reincarnate there.

Reincarnation as a Cosmic Phenomenon

The law of reincarnation does not only apply to human beings, but the planets are also subject to reincarnation in the broadest sense; each planetary chain develops through seven successive stages of planetary world evolution. Soul beings that do not have an individual spirit but belong to a group soul, such as animals, are not subject to reincarnation.


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
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Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English.
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Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.