Sri Aurobindo on lawyers

Ethical quandaries abound for those hardy souls who, shunning the sheltered existence of a remote hermitage, aspire to practice spiritual ideals  in the chiaroscuro of everyday life.   How does one make a living while surrounded by insecure people who are themselves struggling to secure their own financial and other physical comforts ?  Whom to trust and how much truth to disclose ? When should one take a principled stand and when should one just let go?  One can be forced into some pretty disappointing and unsavoury choices in this ambiguous battle of life.  In this article, we read the advice given by Sri Aurobindo to a disciple who was dismayed by the corrosive effect the legal profession was having on his soul.

T. Kodandarama Rao was drawn to Sri Aurobindo after discovering in his college hostel a few copies of the Arya (1914-1921), a philosophical monthly journal written by Sri Aurobindo.  He came to Pondicherry to meet Sri Aurobindo in 1920 and between 1921-1924 stayed there as a disciple.   Much to his dismay, he had to leave Pondicherry because he ran out of money.  Sri Aurobindo couldn’t help Kodandarama because he had no funds to maintain others.  He never appealed to the public for funds at any time.   If some devotee sent money, he would accept after considering the source[1].

Thrown back on the treacherous waters of life, Kodandarama now needed gainful employment.  He reluctantly became a pleader after his father-in-law financed his tuition for law college.   The rest of the story is best narrated in his words:

I joined the Bar in October 1925, and began to make headway slowly and steadily at the Bar.  I did not and do not have attraction for the profession of law which I took up by force of circumstances. The ideals of the legal profession, like other professions, are very good and ennobling, but they are more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Real “Karma Yoga” consists in upholding the ideals by sincerely following them in practice.  Mahatma Gandhi (himself a lawyer) has evolved and advocated an ethical code for the legal profession and he has followed his code. According to him, a lawyer has to take up only true cases and abandon the briefs whenever he comes to know of the falsity of the cause. According to the opposite view enunciated by other eminent lawyers, it is not the function of the lawyer to adjudge a case entrusted to him for advocacy, but only espouse the cause of the client as per the instructions given to him to the best of his ability, without regard to the truth of the facts of the case entrusted to him.

Unable to reconcile these two views and tossed between the high ideals preached and the malpractices indulged in by the members of the profession, I could not compose myself and wrote to the Master to extricate me from the dilemma and enlighten me as to the correct course of action. The words of advice given to me regarding the legal profession and other matters relating to my sadhana are to be found in the following letters of Sri Aurobindo.

24th May, 1933

T. Kodandaram,

It is true the lawyer’s profession as practised by many in India is full of things which are not what they should be but it is not a necessary character of the legal profession.  Even here many carry on the profession with a scrupulous honesty in all respects like Duraiswami (a prominent Madras lawyer) and succeed. A lawyer has to do his best for his client and make every point he legitimately can in his favour — to bring out the weak note of the case is the other party’s function, not his; but it is his best to which he is bound, he is not bound to do what the client demands as the best. It is a question of establishing an honourable but practical and commonsense standard for the profession

-Sri Aurobindo[1].

Unlike Dick the Butcher who utters the line “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” in Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Sri Aurobindo seems much more gracious towards the much-reviled legal profession.  In another letter dated 20th May, 1938, Sri Aurobindo wrote:

There is no harm in taking interest in your work as a lawyer, without that there can be no success. But both the work and the success should be inwardly offered to the Master of all works; so long as it has to continue[1].

The general professional predicament

It is the rare fortunate soul who finds wholesome work that he or she enjoys.  The rest have to labor grudgingly under constraints seemingly beyond their control.  The oppressive burden of life weighs down upon us – family responsibilities, social anomie, incompetent politicians and a volatile world at large.  But this is only an appearance.  The reality is that we do have the power of rising above our circumstances if we want to.  One has to work with equanimity and offer the fruits of the works to the Divine, as Sri Aurobindo indicates above.  If the work is blatantly unethical, one may have no choice but to quit and find some other line of work.  But when the work is demanding, one must not shirk but instead use it as an opportunity to conquer one’s psychological weaknesses.

The profession that we find ourselves in then becomes a field for resolving our internal psychological conflicts and manifesting our talents.  As the Mother said, “External circumstances are merely the reflection of who we are“.  If we gradually soften our responses to the cantankerous people around us, the internal conflicts also begin to evaporate, making our consciousness more serene.  When our consciousness changes, our Karma also changes.  Then we may miraculously find our destiny reshaping the world around us – either by making the people around us more congenial or by transporting us towards new people and new fields of experiential learning.

It is not easy to offer any specific guidelines for professional predicaments because they are essentially psychological problems, which are successfully solved only when the individual has a blazing soul-moment that resolves the conundrum.  This topic was covered in detail in an earlier article : Aspects of Karma-Yoga


  1. T. Kodandarama Rao. At the Feet of the Master, Pondicherry: SABDA 2007, pp. 47-50.

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8 thoughts on “Sri Aurobindo on lawyers

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Yes, that is what it is, isn’t it.

      Ultimately, lawyers and judges are just fallible instruments. The laws of Karma may seem tardy but they act inexorably to correct any mistakes made by the human justice system.

  1. ipi

    We are all lying
    Raymond Lloyd Richmond (Licensed Psychologist): One time when I was called to serve on a jury, the defense attorney, noting that I was a psychologist, asked me about the “black box” of the mind. So I explained my views of the unconscious and said that because we are all motivated by unconscious desires, no one can “tell the truth” as our legal system defines it. And then I said that I could never accept the testimony of a police officer at face value because even police officers will lie in order to protect themselves. A hush fell over the courtroom.

    I continued, staring at the prosecuting attorney, “Even lawyers will lie to further their careers.” Nervous giggles broke out.

    I looked at the judge. “Even judges will lie if it serves their interests.” The court fell silent.

    But the defense attorney smiled as he caught on to what I was saying. Still smiling, he asked me, “And so, even you are lying?”

    “Yes,” I admitted, “Even I am lying.”

    Of course, the prosecuting attorney threw me off the case.

    And that’s the point. We are all liars, and we all make excuses for our ignorance of the unconscious. In our legal and political systems, “truth” is nothing more than what we choose to believe in the moment. Our culture is all a fraud. But hardly anyone wants to admit it.

    Now, if you call someone a liar, you will get one of two responses. If the person is wise, he or she will say, “Yes, I know.” Being aware of the extent of his or her unconscious motivations, this person has the healing option of emptying the self of pride in order to find honesty and truth that surpasses social game-playing. But persons who are psychologically unaware and bristling with defenses will angrily blurt out, “How dare you! Take that back or else!” And the sad thing is that in defending themselves against the reality of their lies and hypocrisy, these persons become liars and hypocrites all the more.


  2. ipi

    Lawyer inside us.

    Our impure buddhi is like a lawyer: it can justify anything according to its liking, be it true or false, good or bad.

    –What to do then with the Lawyer inside us ?
    Even on finding an imperfection in the nature, it is very difficult to purify ourselves from it because in the traditional yoga of knowledge, the sadhak has to rely on his own strength and on his mind and pure reflection. But this mind and capacity of vichara is more or less impure in all of us because the vital and the heart’s impurity soils the buddhi very easily and renders it biased and divisive. Our impure buddhi is like a lawyer: it can justify anything according to its liking, be it true or false, good or bad. Therefore are great patience and perseverance required in our endeavour at purification of the buddhi. And we must rely on the Mother’s Force to accomplish it.


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  5. Sandeep Post author

    Sri Aurobindo’s guidance to another lawyer, Duraiswami Iyengar, who was briefly mentioned in the article above. These passages are from the memoirs of Minakshi Amma, Duraiswami’s wife.

    Appa (Duraiswami) first visited Sri Aurobindo here, Amma said, in 1911. Sri Aurobindo discouraged him from throwing himself wholly into the freedom struggle. Later, when Appa wanted to join Gandhi’s movement, he repeated the same advice stressing, “The Motherland does not need either my own or your services. She is destined to achieve freedom any way and very soon.” At the same time, he was against Appa giving up everything for solitary sadhana, and advised him to continue in his profession as the basis from which to contribute to all fields of his activities.


    After taking his law degree, Appa worked with S. Srinivasa Iyengar (later Advocate-General), and later under Sir P.S. Sivaswami Iyer. According to Sri Aurobindo, although, he began practice (around 1916-17) with only Rs.15-30 a month, his inborn gifts, his many-sidedness, uprightness, straightforwardness, nobility of character, helped him build an exceedingly successful practice. “He was never known to mislead the judge or overstate his client’s case or understate that of his opponent,” writes his ‘junior’ Rama Iyengar. “So much so, it became a regular practice for the presiding judge to ask the court stenographer to take down his opening address, and to reproduce it later verbatim, in the initial paragraphs of the judgement.” His ethical and professional standards won the esteem of judges to the extent that he was exempted from having to stand up when the judge entered.


    “Appa had a long-standing wish to give up his work before he was sixty and settle in the Ashram,” Amma once told me. “After he crossed fifty, every time he got a chance, he would ask Mother’s permission for it. Every time she assured him that he was doing excellent work for Sri Aurobindo in all that he was doing in Madras. Finally, one day I explained to Mother that he felt he might die around sixty because most members of his family had passed away in those years. And if that happened, wouldn’t he miss the rarest of opportunities of doing sadhana here, under Mother’s and Sri Aurobindo’s direct guidance? Ultimately, Mother granted his wish but asked him to provide for his children’s future before he wound up his affairs there.” Thus, Appa came away to the Ashram in 1938.[28] When he told his family that he was going to offer his share of the family’s moveable properties to the Mother, his sons added their share to it. Much of that vast pool of furniture is still in use in the Ashram.

    (Minakshi Amma, A Stream of Surrender)


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