Nani Palkhivala’s Life Was A Journey For Spiritual Quest: Dinesh Vyas

NA Palhivala

Eminent Jurist Dinesh Vyas had the good fortune of working with Nani Palhivala for several decades. He explains that there was in Nani Palkhivala something unfathomable, something unexplainable, something extraordinarily radiant, with an element of divinity. This quality, coupled with the ability to do extreme hard work, single-pointed determination to succeed and acute concentration made him a legendary lawyer

I had a great fortune and a proud privilege of being associated with Mr. Nani Palkhivala and his younger brother Mr. Behram Palkhivala as a Junior in the legal profession for a long period exceeding over three decades. This gave me an opportunity to watch Mr. Nani Palkhivala very closely from vintage positions. I have no doubt in my mind that more than a practitioner of man-made laws, Mr. Palkhivala was a greater practitioner of god-made laws. If his life is to be summed up in one sentence, the most appropriate statement is that “his life was a journey for spiritual quest.

The ultimate realisation of the Supreme Divine requires as a condition precedent, an experimentation in the material and mundane life, a churning process, from which alone the nectar can come out. The material and mundane world is the reception area passing through which alone can one enter the spiritual world – the sanctum sanctorum. Mr. Palkhivala’s life was broadly divided in two phases the mundane phase and the spiritual phase.

Mundane phase

In the mundane phase, Mr. Palkhivala went through the experiences of an ordinary mortal which leads one to be a spiritual leader. He worked hard to make a good living, to educate himself and to raise himself to better living standards. He worshipped work and engaged himself in various worldly gainful activities. As a young boy, he sold race tickets at the Turf Club and played for a professional Music Band. He taught as a tutor to carry on his own education further and thereafter, became a Professor himself to teach several generations of students at the Government Law College, many of whom are country’s eminent lawyers today. He practised law to earn his living but more importantly he knew that he had to do many more things to accomplish his ultimate mission. In the process, he came in contact with businessmen and industrialists of all sorts, principled and honest as also unscrupulous and dishonest. He knew too well that a pure and beautiful lotus can come out only from muddy waters of a lake. To carry on his ongoing march, he also came in contact with political leaders of the country. At important times he remained in centre of political developments, but never joined a political party. In the field of international displomacy, he rubbed shoulders with the best of the ambassadors and diplomats while he was an Indian Ambassador to the U.S. This phase gave him the material to reach the higher planes of human existence and find out the Ultimate Truth; the Ultimate Force which could push him to the spiritual phase of the life.

Spiritual phase

His foray in the spiritual world was multi-dimensional. Early on in his life, he was most fascinated by the philosophy and writings of Sri Aurobindo. The Holy Mother of Pondicherry Ashram was forever ready and willing to give him an audience as per his wish. He visited Pondicherry frequently and after an address in the Ashram, the unanimous opinion of the Ashramites was that here is a man who has read, understood and implemented Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy much more than each one of them. Kanchi Paramacharya noted Mr. Palkhivala’s deep study of Hindu scriptures and hailed him as a “Brahman”, the truly learned wise noble man. Mr. Palkhivala closely associated himself with Sri Sathya Sai Baba and participated in various activities launched by the revered Baba. Mr. Palkhivala also closely interacted with Swami Ranganathanada of Sri Ramakrishna Math. In the pursuit of his spiritual goals, Mr. Palkhivala involved himself in the spiritual activities of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and ended up as being its Vice President. He used the Bhavan as a launching pad for achieving spiritual heights and under its banner wrote “India’s Priceless Heritage” and “Essential Unity of all Religions.” This to Mr. Palkhivala was an experimentation and exposure and the churning process in the spiritual phase.

NA Palhivala Legend

Divine qualities

Mr. Nani Palkhivala had within himself in his life time an element of divinity which now has merged totally into the divine. There was in Mr. Palkhivala something unfathomable, something unexplainable, something extraordinarily radiant and that was an element of divinity. All the three Goddesses had showered their choicest of blessings on him. Deep knowledge, not just of law but of many more subjects under the sun was the bounty received by him from Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge. He could earn any amount of wealth at his will and his command over the wealthiest of wealthy businessman and industrialists was an ability that he received from Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth. That in any confrontation he could vanquish any foe is the energy he received from Kali, the Goddess of Energy. A personality endowed with such spiritual qualities is rare indeed.

Magnetic personality

The divine elements in him made him a magnetic personality. Anyone who came in contact with him was instantaneously deeply drawn to him. Those who worked for him virtually surrendered themselves before him and exhausted their capabilities to present a perfect work before him. For a common man to go to his annual budgets speeches, year after year, was like making an annual pilgrimage to a holy shrine.

Five Ideals Of Nani Palkhivala

This divine quality was matched with an outstanding brilliant mind giving him a complete control of the situation in which he found himself. The unending stream of energy, both physical and mental, coupled with the above attributes enabled him to achieve magical wonders. After a deep and intensive study, analysis, experience and exposures of both the material and the spiritual world, Mr. Palkhivala culled out five immortal ideals which could easily be regarded as his religion. These are Satya, Dharma, Shanti, Prem and Ahimsa. If a book is to be published with a title “Thus Spake Nani Palkhivala” it would just contain these five ideals.

“Satya” means truth but to Mr. Palkhivala more importantly it meant intellectual integrity.

“Dharma” connotes nobility and righteousness. But Mr. Palkhivala desired to flow his Dharma and equally respect Dharma of others.

“Shanti” connotes peace. But to Mr. Palkhivala the deeper meaning of this term is calmness of mind. In a hall with pin-drop silence, there can be a man with a most turbulent mind and at the busiest noisy airport you could find Mr. Palkhivala reading a book or a brief with total calm of his mind.

“Prem” is not just the love you see in the Indian movies, the pyar, ishq and mohabbat. To Mr. Palkhivala, love encompasses compassion and understanding of others.

“Ahimsa” is non-violence. To Mr. Palkhivala it also involved a feeling of oneness with all life, the fellowmen, animals, birds and nature.

These realizations can be had only if one travels on a spiritual road and this is exactly what Mr. Palkhivala did. He was fortunate to have been born in a pious and noble Parsi community. The nobility and goodness of an average Parsi is much higher than any other individual from the rest of the communities. For a gifted man such as Mr. Palkhivala who was ordained by destiny to rise spiritually higher and higher, Parsi birth was a divine design and not an accident. The noble soul flourished more in a noble body in a noble family in a noble community. He was proud to be a Parsi. At a function held by the Bombay Parsi Punchayet to honour him upon his appointment as an Indian Ambassador to the U.S. in 1978, he completed his speech by observing that in his next birth too he would wish and desire to be born a Parsi.

Law was the life line of this multifaceted man, Mr. Palkhivala; with his in-born brilliance, razor-sharp intellect and sheer hard work, he rose to become one of the most distinguished lawyers of all times; he sat in boardrooms with the wealthiest of industrialists and businessmen to advise them; he dabbled in hardcore politics barring joining a political party or standing in an election; he had a short but effective stint in international diplomacy; he himself taught in colleges and supported educational endeavours; though he ran several charities founded by others, he was himself a great philanthropist in his own life-time; he was a champion of fundamental freedoms and a leading social activist; his prolific writings and speeches have moulded public opinion amongst intelligent and educated Indians to an extent that very few can emulate and for all this he remained the most quoted and referred to non-political Indian in the last quarter of the last century.

But all this said and done, tax law was the main turf and the pitch where he played the game of his life. It was not only his passion but also his bread and butter. It was tax law with which he made his beginning and his big name; it is his magnum opus “Kanga and Palkhivala’s The Law and Practice of Income Tax” that has taught and guided a long line of generations of tax professionals. Next to his home and office the maximum time of his life was spent in the courtrooms and corridors of the I.T.A.T. in Mumbai. It is for his contribution to the growth and development of tax laws that he will be remembered the most in India; in short, tax laws was his Karma Bhoomi.

I had the great fortune and the proud privilege of being associated as a junior to Mr. Palkhivala for a long period extending over three decades. However, the relations dated back to the early nineteen forties when he and my father studied law in the same college at the same time. Interestingly, Mr. Palkhivala and my father-in-law as his instructing Attorney were together booked on a Delhil-Bombay flight on 8th May, 1953 and since Mr. Palkhivala decided not to go to Delhi for the case, my father-in-law changed his flight to the next day and this saved him from the air crash of the 8th May flight in which there were no survivors.

My long association with Mr. Palkhivala and also his younger brother Mr. Behram Palkhivala gave me an opportunity to watch him from very close quarters. This was a great learning and an education in itself. For the benefit of the young professionals, let me recall some of his extraordinary qualities which made him one of the most successful lawyers of our times.

Single-pointed determination to succeed

The foundation of Mr. Palkhivala’s personality was his single-pointed determination to succeed in life in achieving noble objectives. He knew early on in his life that he was not ordinary mortal and that he had to achieve great heights to leave behind the fruits of success for the future generations. He had his own set of ideals and objectives. To preserve a good society for Indians to live in, he was determined to protest a sound and solid legal framework. He defended human freedoms in all their facets. To meet these objectives he fought several legal battles including the Fundamental Rights case, the bank Nationalisation case, the Privy Purses case, the Minorities case and several others. Most of the tax cases he fought were driven by the desire to oppose unauthorized deprivation of property.

Extreme hard work

Extensive reading and ever-expanding knowledge are the prerequisites of a successful lawyer and Mr. Palkhivala implemented this principle in its totality. He extensively read not only tax law and constitutional law, but also several other laws on a regular basis. He mastered the fundamental laws such as jurisprudence and interpretation of statutes. He once advised me that tax cases are better won with non-tax legal material and not just with tax material and I have followed this advice with significant benefit in my practice. Mr. Palkhivala never studied a statutory enactment in isolation on a stand alone basis but as a part of a broad legal network and this brought out much wider and deeper meaning and understanding of that particular enactment. A substantial part of his library and books which he gifted me over the past few years included law books from virtually every branch of law. The wide range of his law books display the width of his mental horizon and the depth of his brilliant mind.

Hard work is the hallmark of a successful lawyer and continuous hard work was Mr. Palkhivala’s second nature. The man had struggled and toiled all through his life constantly trying to achieve precious worthwhile. He had enormous inner energy to keep his crusade on all the time. Reading books and watching some finer elements of nature and its beauty rejuvenated his vigour and further motivated him to carry on his hard work. I have never seen in my life any other man who valued the importance of time as much as Mr. Palkhivala did. To him waste of time was a big crime. For frequent fliers on Mumbai-Delhi- Mumbai flights, Mr. Palkhivala glued to a chair at the airport or to his seat on the plane reading books or briefs was a frequent sight. Some clients will vouch for holding conferences with him in the car during the drive to or from the airport. During the busiest days of his legal practice, his conferences with his clients were absolutely to the point and very brief and still the client went back with the right advice and satisfaction.

Amazing photographic memory

Mr. Palkhivala had an amazing photographic memory and made continuous effort to sharpen and preserve it. A brief read by him virtually got printed in his mind. I realized this in the very early days of my association with him. The case of Indian Oil Corporation vs. Rajagopalan (92 ITR 241) before the Bombay High Court is an ideal illustration on the point. Since I.O.C. was being denied the claim of development rebate, it proposed to file a Writ Petition on the Bombay High Court. The conference to discuss the matter was held and he advised the filing of a Writ Petition in the Bombay High Court. The Petition was drafted and filed, the brief was sent to Mr. Palkhivala, the Petition was soon moved and the admission and stay were obtained from the Court. Then, Mr. Palkhivala returned the brief which he had read with clear instructions that I should give back to him that very brief at the time of the final hearing before the High Court. The matter came up for final hearing some months thereafter on a day which he was to return from Delhi on the morning flight by about 9 a.m. I checked up with him whether I should send the brief so that he can carry it with him to Delhi for reading but he declined. He told me that I should send the brief to his home only on the day prior to the hearing day and that he will be in the court by 10.55 a.m. sharp, five minutes before the court hour on the day of the hearing. We all were a worried lot. When will he read the brief and how will he argue the matter after so many months? On the D-Day, the matter was called out for hearing at 11.00 a.m. in the court of Hon’ble Justices Nain and Kania. Mr. Palkhivala took off in the fourth gear, presented briefly the issue before the Court, set out all the facts in great details, argued the law extensively with the support of case laws kept ready in the Court and wound up the whole case just before the Court rose for the day in the evening. It was a stunning and amazing performance. For me, it was just the beginning of witnessing such outstanding displays of brilliance; many more followed later on during our association.

Clear and consistent strategy

In all his legal battles, Mr. Palkhivala had a clear and consistent strategy. He would deeply analyse the facts, compartmentalize the legal issues and on that basis would formulate the proposition that he wanted the Court to accept. This intellectual ability with gifted and persuasive advocacy worked as magic and did wonders year after year; whether it be the Supreme Court or the High Courts or Tribunals all over India. His advocacy was extremely convincing, based on respect for the Court and devoid of any arrogance and more importantly, administered firmly but with humility. Many times during the replies of the other side, he would give me precious hints on Court craft, chief among them being never to offened the Judges and lose temper in the Courts. To hear him in Court was an intellectual treat in itself. Juniors flocked the Courts whenever he argued and on occasions, Judges took pride in the fact that none other than Mr. Palkhivala was appearing before them.

Full concentration

In the all-powerful legal armoury of Mr. Palkhivala, full presence of mind coupled with fastest reflexes resulting in complete control over the on goings in Court constituted the main weapons. In the Courts, he was ‘full concentration’ in the ultimate and detested any intervention unless he himself asked a question. He never forgot to mention any point or argument that needed to be made. He always remembered to ornament his legal propositions with fine literary gems and illustrative examples which easily made obvious what he said.

Kanga and Palkhivala’s The Law and Practice of Income Tax is a masterpiece, a monumental work, and an extraordinary performance and ranks as a classic in the entire English-speaking legal world. That the actual writing was done by Mr. Palkhivala is not at all a secret, as acknowledged by the legal doyen Sir J. B. Kanga himself. That after a long pause “the book” is being revised is a matter of delight. That I have been assigned the task of writing the ninth edition of the book is to me the rarest of rare opportunities. That in spite of his keen desire, I could not show the ninth edition to Mr. Palkhivala in his lifetime will be one of my greatest regrets. The new edition to come out in the near future, however, will be the Junior’s real tribute.

Bliss was it always to have lived and learnt in the shadow of this towering personality.

Reproduced with permission from the “A TRIBUTE TO THE STALWARTS OF THE TAX BAR” published by AIFTP
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5 comments on “Nani Palkhivala’s Life Was A Journey For Spiritual Quest: Dinesh Vyas
  1. very useful and inspiring truth

  2. Nayan Parikh says:

    indeed a well deserved tribute to a legendary none other than Nani Palkhivala. Dineshbhai, you were indeed fortunate to associate yourself with Nani Palkhivala for over three decades.there can not be two opinion for Plakhivala’s depth, expertise and knowledge of the subject dealt and his towering personality. very interesting reading.

  3. Dear Dinesh Sir

    Rich tributes to Shri Palkiwala who’s writings have been my bible since my student days.

    You were blessed to be his juniour but he must have also felt blessed to have you.

    I also in my early professional life around 1980 had the oppurtunity on learning from your opinion on definition of manufacture in context of dams and owe my incometax knowledge to both of you sir,

    With best regards




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