Secret Agencies in Ancient India

Secret Agencies in Ancient India

Espionage, euphemistically called the second oldest profession of the world finds a mention in the Indian Vedas, one of the most – if not the most – ancient of the human texts. References to espionage are also discernible in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Greece and China. The Chinese sage Sun Tzu is considered by European scholars to be the first to study and analyse the whole question of espionage on scientific lines, and to set it down in a text book Ping Fa, The Art of War. This view is, however, not substantiated by cogent facts since there is ample proof of the greater antiquity and soundness of the system of Secret Services enunciated by the early Indians.

Varuna, one of the chief gods of the Vedic pantheon is considered to be a forerunner of Secret Services. Magha, one of the most erudite and lucid poets and pragmatic thinkers, unequivocally asserted that statecraft cannot exist without the assistance of espionage. He writes:-

The statecraft in which even a single step is not taken in contravention of the science of dandaniti {(i.e. the law of danda (the rod)} which provides decent living (to the officers) and in which liberal grants are given in recognition of services rendered, does not shine to advantage without (the employment of ) spies, just as the science of grammar does not shine without Papasa Bhasya (the introductory portion of Patanjali’s Mahabhasya), though it is provided with Nyasa (a commentary of that name) which strictly follows the words of the Sutras (of Panini), a good vrtti (explanatory work) and an excellent Bhasya (advance work of explanation, discussion and criticism)’.

– (Sisupala – vadha, 2.112)

Secret Agencies in ancient India were not conceived of as an instrument of oppression but as a tool of governance. Secret agents were considered as ‘eyes of the king’.

Indian history illustrates that ancient Indians had gained great expertise in this secret art. The techniques and operational methods adopted by them were highly advanced, and can be usefully emulated today. From the spasas of Varuna, the fore-runners of the modern globe-trotting spies (the etymological affinity of the two terms is noticeable) to Chanakya’s final manifestation of this art in the Arthasastra which is in fact a systematic codification of a wide variety of scattered information copiously found in the Epics, – the Mahabharata and the Ramayana – the Puranas and literary works of Bhasa, Kalidasa, Magha and Bana; and the Tamil Sangam literature, transcends unprecedented heights in this discipline.

The vision of the Arthashastra, is truly breath taking, its practical utility timeless and the clarity of its exposition unique. The techniques of manipulating public opinion and creating disinformation, propounded by Chanakya anticipated modern intelligence systems by several centuries. No wonder then that the nearly 2500 years old lessons in deceit, guile, hypocrisy, machination, and gore taught by that Master strategist, Chanakya alias Kautilya (literally meaning ‘crooked’) was adopted in toto by India and its chief intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).

While laying the foundation stone of RAW, India’s late Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi approvingly quoted Louis F Hallis, when she said that its objectives should be the ‘Ability to get what one wants by whatever means: eloquence, reasoned arguments, bluff, tirade, threat or coercion, as well as, by arousing pity, annoying others, or making them uneasy’.

RAW is basically a Secret Service established to perform clandestine operations based on the Chanakyan principles of deceit and guile. It has successfully destabilised neighbouring countries, disintegrated independent states and backed the most notorious guerrilla organizations to achieve its ends. If it is compared to other intelligence agencies of the region, it emerges as an aggressive, cold-blooded and ruthless institution, engaged in the most macabre deeds.

The organization and structure of RAW will be discussed in the second part of this paper. But to appreciate its working we must, first examine the origin and organization of India’s ancient secret agencies.

Origin and Organization of  Secret Agencies in Ancient India

The origin and development of Secret Agencies in ancient India is linked to the geopolitical conditions of the times when India was dotted with small states attempting to grab each other’s territory and wealth. The art of espionage was thoroughly mastered, and almost all ancient Indian literary sources exhaustively dealt with this system. Spying came to be regarded as an indispensable feature and integral part of an efficient administration and of a sound foreign policy. It kept the rulers posted with the activities, afflictions, and operations of political adversaries: their disloyal and disgruntled elements, fifth columnists and foreign agents in their midst, also the strength and intentions of all foreign power. Espionage was considered to be as important an institution as diplomacy, and was sought to be governed by certain definite rules and usages. In Chanakya, the secret service department became a permanent feature of the state and was organised in the most ‘uninhibited manner’.

While Chanakya presents a highly developed and complicated system of governance including an all-pervasive espionage system, references to it are found in pre-Mauryan literature, too. The Mahabharata refers to a mythological tradition on the origin of the dandaniti and the art of espionage, which was handed down from the past. It expounds ‘Brahma, the creator, himself composed a work comprising 1,00,000 chapters relating to dharma (religion), artha (economy), kama (sexual desire) and moksa (spiritual salvation) – the four aspects of life.’ Brahma’s compilation, according to the Great Epic, included subjects of behaviour towards counsellors, of spies, the indication of princes, of secret agents possessed of diverse means, of envoys, and agents of other kinds, conciliation, fomenting discord, gifts and chastisement; deliberations including counsels for producing disunion; the three kinds of victory, first, that which served righteously, secondly, which was won by wealth, and, thirdly, the one obtained by deceitful ways; chastisement of two kinds, namely, open and secret; the disorder created in the hostile troops; inspiring the enemy with fear; the means of winning over persons residing in the enemy territory; and finally, the chastisement and destruction of those that are strong.’

No other civilization can claim such an antiquity for the techniques of war, diplomacy, intrigue and espionage and on such compulsive terms.

In short, Varuna and other deities of the Vedic pantheon heavily depended on their secret agents. Manu, Kamandaka, Yajnavalkya and Chanakya, besides the later digest writers, deliberated on the art of espionage, while Chanakya perfected the art and recommended the organisation of secret agencies in the most unabashed manner. Professor Ghoshal suggests that the Mauryas followed the Arthasastra tradition in four respects, i.e. precautions in recruiting spies, countrywide espionage, safeguards against false reports by secret agents and enlistment of the services of loose women.


The modest origin of secret agents in the form of Varuna’s spasas brought about the imperative need for effective and vigorous espionage in an institutionalized form. The blue-print on espionage prepared by Chanakya has remained a model for successive generations. Various aspects of the organization of a secret agency as discussed in complete detail in the Arthasastra are briefly touched upon here.

Category of Agents:
The Arthasastra mentions two wings of ‘secret service’, viz. ‘samstha’ and ‘sancara’. The agents belonging to ‘samstha’ were stationed in the Establishment financed by the State, whereas the ‘sancaras’ moved from place to place depending on professional requirements. The spymasters of the two wings headed their respective cadre of agents, and controlled their operations. The members of one group were not aware of the existence of the other. This classification of Chanakya has been followed in India throughout the successive centuries.

Recruitment of Secret Agents:
A study of Arthasastra, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Manusmriti, Kamandaka and Sukra reveals that there was no fixed source of recruitment of secret agents. Modern intelligence services generally resort to three main sources of recruitment, the academic world, the armed services and the under-world. This was also the pattern followed in ancient India.

After recruitment, the secret agents were put through a rigorous training in the techniques of adopting disguises, changing appearances, science of signalling, secret writing, detection and identification of criminals, manipulating public opinion and creating dissensions in the enemy ranks.

Control and Supervision:
The complicated, comprehensive, all-pervasive and ubiquitous institution of spies in ancient India necessitated very close and personal supervision of the ruler or his most reliable officers. It must have been difficult for the king to personally handle the comprehensive and complicated department of intelligence. According to the Arthasastra, the department of external affairs, which was covering military intelligence was managed by the king with the help of his foreign minister and the Commander-in-Chief. The agents detailed to cover the senior officers of the central government certainly reported to the king directly. In the far-flung areas of extensive kingdoms and in view of poor means of communication, the action specially in times of war had to be taken by men on the spot and not by the king who may be at a place far distant from the field of action. In foreign countries the spies were kept under the control and supervision of ambassadors who scrutinised their reports and directed intelligence operations. According to Chanakya, the institution of spies as an organization did not function under a unified command. The spies and secret agents worked under their respective heads of department, and also directly under the king.

Techniques of Espionage

Before discussing the working of RAW, it would be worthwhile to briefly examine some of the techniques of espionage employed by the ancient secret agencies of India.

Motivation and Recruitment of Sources:
Motivation of persons to cater intelligence is directly proportionate to their weakness for sex and money, besides the burning desire of revenge or insatiable hunger for power. The Spymasters of ancient India exploited these weaknesses to their fullest advantage, and even the modern intelligence agencies heavily depend on these considerations. Chanakya advocated that the weak should be subjugated by means of conciliation and gifts, the strong by means of dissension and force.

Selection and Infiltration of Targets:
Chanakya, in a very subtle manner and with an intimate knowledge of human psychology, selected his targets in foreign lands depending on their weaknesses and motivation. He advised secret agents to concentrate on targets:-

  • Among those who are dissatisfied with the rulers or had been humiliated or exiled;
  • Who have not been compensated for their expenditure;
  • Those who have been deprived of their rightful inheritance to office;
  • Whose women have been molested by force;
  • Who were wrongly imprisoned;
  • Whose property had been confiscated;
  • Who are prone to blackmail due to some weakness.

Double-Agent Operation:
A ‘Double-Agent’ is a spy who works for the opposition while pretending loyalty to those who employ him. this technique is an indispensable facet of agent-running and was extensively practised in ancient India. Chanakya suggested that secret agents should not refuse pay from the targets for working with them as their employees. This was to allay the misgivings on the part of the targets. ‘Double-Agents’ were used for creating dissensions and confusion among the confederates of the enemy. They floated false documents, got them seized from the possession of the enemy’s army chiefs, and thus weakened the enemy. ‘Double-Agents’ were used to winning over the confidence of their adopted masters by sacrificing a few exposed, treacherous, disaffected or inefficient spies.

Payment of Sources:
Encouragement of secret agents with money and honour was considered an imperative necessity. The sources were paid both in cash and kind, besides receiving extraordinary courtesies and favours. It was also recommended that secret agents not only be rewarded for the job done by them but, also, in the event of repeated mistakes, silent punishment-death-be awarded to them.

Communication of Intelligence:
Intelligence not properly and promptly conveyed and which cannot be acted upon loses its value and validity. Besides this, the Arthasastra, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Kamandaka and Kathasaritasagara all recommend the use of coded language and signals.

Interception of Mail:
Interception of messages, signals and letters by postal censorship; monitoring and tapping telephones; and breaking codes is the standard practice of modern intelligence agencies. In the ancient period, since intelligence was communicated through pre-determined signals and with the assistance of pigeons, secret agents must have made elaborate arrangements to intercept these messages.

Assessment of Information:
The Arthasastra cautions against the placing of reliance on agents without proper corroboration. It is repeatedly emphasised that all aspects of a report must be gone through, including the source of information, the mode of its collection and the past performance of a source before it is accepted. Briefing and debriefing of secret agents was an elaborate exercise, and they were trained to be precise, accurate and truthful in reporting.

Working Under ‘Cover’:
The institution of espionage in ancient India, like modern times, required secret agents to work under some kind of ‘cover’ to preserve secrecy. Chanakya institutionalized the art of working under the most ingenious ‘covers’. The most common disguises recommended by him were those of ascetic, mendicant, merchant, artisan, wandering minstrel, artiste, cook, barber and shampooer, bath and toilet attendant, deaf, dumb, eunuch and prostitute. Chanakya recommends the use of women as effective tools of espionage particularly those who were engaged in harlotry.

A counter-intelligence operation is directed at discovering the identities and methods of foreign spies and intelligence officers working for the opposition. One of the most important duties of the Secret Service in ancient India was to counteract the activities of such agents operating within the country. Chanakya recommends that secret agents should discover foreign spies by operating at the places of entertainment, conclaves of people, among beggars, in gardens and public places, and the houses of prominent citizens.

Disinformation and Dissension:
Manipulation of public opinion is as important an object of the State today as it was in ancient India. It is used to create disharmony and distrust among the enemy’s friends, ill-will among his allies, loss of confidence in their leadership and disruption by psychological means his capacity and will to fight. Chanakya had perfected the technique of disinformation and highly eulogised the use of dissension in enemy’s ranks for winning a battle without any military action. His winning an extensive empire for his student Chandragupta Maurya without fighting any mentionable battle is aweÑ, and one may be excused to add: admirationÑ, inspiring feat, unparalleled in history. The Sanskrit Classical drama Mudrakshasa has tried to depict it dramatically but, at best, has only partially succeeded.

The technique of sabotage, which the political strategists consider as the penultimate means to vanquish an adversary, had been greatly perfected in ancient India. Secret practices for sabotage were advocated by Chanakya to ensure victory. As a preface to sabotage, he suggests the creation of an atmosphere congenial to arousing terror, fear, demoralization, disappointment and loss of confidence among the enemy ranks. Prior to launching a full-scale assault on the enemy fort, Chanakya suggests implementation of secret measures to weaken its defences not only physically but in all respects. These include prevention of sowing the fields, destruction of the standing crops and cutting of the enemy’s supply lines.

He also advises free and uninhibited use of poison in the articles used by the enemy. His detailed and scientifically valid knowledge of the subject has earned for him a place in Arabic medical literature, that knows him as Ibn Shanaq (son of Chanak). Some of the secret stratagems advocated by Chanakya include the use of smoke with properties seriously affecting the vision, and, arson or setting fires within the enemy fort.

The employment of Visakanyas (Poison-damsels):
Secret Agencies in ancient India had perfected very ingenious techniques to subserve the interests of their monarchs. Besides using the nascent technological advancement available to them, they exploited human weakness for sex to achieve royal objectives. Visakanya is a unique feature of the Indian genius to poison the monarch. These venomous beauties can be classified, as follows:-

  • A damsel whose body is saturated with gradual doses of poison, and who is likely to transmit poison from her body to another person coming in contact with her;
  • A woman who treacherously captivates the heart of a person, and then mixes poison in his food or drink;
  • A girl who is, one way or the other, so much poisoned or infected with disease that she is likely to convey her poison or disease to the person coming in contact with her. A woman suffering from Venereal disease or, in the latest situation one suffering from Aids is a Visakanya of this kind.