A Lawyer in Pursuit of Truth and Unity: Mohandas Gandhi and the Private Practice of Law

Article excerpt

I. Introduction: Gandhi's "Special Views" of Lawyers and the Truth

Before he was known around the world as Mahatma (or "great soul"), Mohandas K. Gandhi was known as esquire. He was an attorney. In fact, after being called to the bar in England in 1891, Gandhi practiced law as a private attorney in South Africa and India for over twenty years. (2) He eventually gave up his practice so that he could devote all of his remarkable energies towards public service and independence for India. (3)

During his time as a practicing attorney, Gandhi developed "special," even "peculiar views" of lawyers and the practice of law. (4) These views are interwoven with his religious and political thinking and are evident in how he practiced both law and his nonviolent action campaigns or satyagrahas. Gandhi's views are founded upon his unquenchable and unshakeable search for truth, as he understood it. For Gandhi, truth is God. (5) To seek truth, therefore, is to seek God. A deeply religious but also practical man, Gandhi exhorted everyone to seek truth in all things as a means not only for salvation but also for ethical living and happiness. For lawyers, this means putting the pursuit of truth above the more narrow interest of clients, and putting societal interest above self-interest. It means rethinking a lawyer's duties and functions. This is not an idealist's flight of fancy. Gandhi was a practical reformer: he dubbed his autobiography "the story of my experiments with truth" because he tested his ideas by applying them to real life situations. In the practice of law, Gandhi endeavored to show readers in his writings and by his example that it is "not impossible to practice law without compromising truth." (6) At the same time, Gandhi expressed a deep ambivalence about the practice of law, at times denouncing the practice as immoral and even calling upon lawyers to give up their profession. (7)

To examine these special views in depth, and to discern what value they may hold for lawyers practicing today in the United States, this article will compare current legal practice in the United States with three fundamental aspects of Gandhi's practice of law: his legal education, especially the connection with equity and religion; his representation of individual clients in private practice; and the role of alternative dispute resolution methods, especially arbitration. (8) As shown below, Gandhi's views on these subjects remain important to lawyers today because they offer an alternative perspective to the prevailing adversarial system. By emphasizing a lawyer's duty to pursue the truth, Gandhi's insights and examples offer the possibility of more meaningful representation of clients, greater personal and professional fulfillment for attorneys, and a less confrontational society.

Appended at the end of this article are twelve principles for the ethical practice of law as Gandhi viewed it.


As remains true for most lawyers, Gandhi's primary reason for joining the bar was to earn a living. It was the goal of Gandhi's family for him to succeed his father as the dewan, a kind of prime minister, serving the rulers of the princely state of Porbandar and receiving a substantial salary. (9) However, having withdrawn from Samaldas College in Bhavnagar, India, after only one term, Gandhi needed another means to qualify for Dewanship. (10) A local Brahmin friend, Mavji Dave, advised Gandhi's family to send the young student to England to join the bar. (11) Dave explained that it was comparatively easy and inexpensive to become a barrister in England, after which Gandhi "could get the Dewanship for the asking." (12) From that point, Gandhi wrestled, as many lawyers do, with striking the right balance between earning profits and performing public service. Gandhi believed he had found a way to do so, and lose "nothing thereby--not even money, certainly not my soul. …