Espionage in ancient India

In Indian history, spying on citizens is as old as Rigveda

Recorded human history is full of examples of effective and efficient use of intelligence apparatus by rulers to maintain, perpetuate and expand their rule over their subjects and exercise their pervasive writ on the subjugated citizens and communities. The writings of ancient Chinese and Indian strategists and counsellors like Sun-Tzu and Chanakya Kautilya contain plenty of information on deception, subversion and methods to guard against these.

Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya Dynasty in north India, made extensive use of an espionage system — as suggested by Chanakya in his book Arthashastra — to govern the territories under him. Likewise, ancient Egyptians had developed a well-knit system for the acquisition of intelligence. The Hebrews, too, used spies. Spies were also used by the Greeks and the Romans to gather information.

In Indian history, spying on citizens is as old as Rigveda. The system had developed as an intricate and sophisticated administrative science. Aphorisms like “spies are kings’ eyes” reflect an Indian tradition going back many centuries.

In ancient India, spies were used in large number to ascertain the validity or lack of it in the statements of parties to litigation and witnesses and to collect correct and reliable information regarding any mass movement, rebellion or insurgency. The espionage system, in other words, was a mechanism to ensure smooth and uninterrupted governance and a check on any inimical tendencies. This spy network, moreover, worked to maintain and enforce the foreign policy. The difference between the spies and the ambassadors was that the spies were sent secretly, whereas the ambassadors were sent openly. Kautilya, the author of the classical text, Arthashastra, proposed a detailed hierarchical network for an espionage system. The ancient Indian espionage system was so detailed and practical that it remains a source of inspiration till today.

The Arthashastra broadly describes two types of espionage, i.e. sansthah or stationary spies and sancharah or roaming spies. The stationary spies included false disciples (kapatikas), recluses (udasthitas), house-holders (grihapatika), merchants (vaidehakas), and ascetics (tapas). The wandering spies included students (satris), desperados (tikashnas), and poisoners (rasadas). Women were recommended as spies in the wandering group. They were deployed as mendicants (bhikshukis), wandering nuns (parivrajikas), shavelings (mundas), and courtesans (vrishalis).

Kautilya suggested the employment of spies in the guise of persons endowed with supernatural powers, persons engaged in penance, ascetics, globetrotters (chakrachara), bards, buffoons, mystics (prachhandaka), astrologers, prophets foretelling the future, persons capable of reading good or bad times, physicians, lunatics, the dumb, the deaf, idiots, the blind, traders, painters, carpenters, musicians, dancers, vintners, bakers, chefs, meat sellers to be sent abroad for espionage.

The spies were deployed not only against enemies within and without but also to ascertain the loyalty of the citizens and the allegiance of high officials and dignitaries.

Spies were used, in ancient India, in large numbers to ascertain the validity or lack of it in the statements of parties to litigation and witnesses and to collect correct and reliable information regarding any movements of rebellion and insurgency.

Manu described five classes of spies with their various guises. In his system, the spies were responsible for the detection of crimes, keeping watch over the conduct of officials, and ascertaining the strength of a king and that of his enemies.

In the epic and post-epic literature, spies were declared the eyes of the king. The Udyogaparva of the Mahabharata aptly remarks that the cows see by smell, priests by knowledge, kings by spies, and other men through eyes.

During the Mauryan times, the military was also aided by spies called gudporsh. The intelligence system was based on three objectives: reporting, covert operations and ensuring the loyalty of civil servants. The organisational structure of the spy system had stationed agents headed by intelligence officers, mobile agents including assassins and executing agents, double agents (they provoked people to get information from them), and counter agents to monitor hostile spies and collectors of financial intelligence.

Spies that infiltrated caravans, posing as merchants were meant to assist customs and tax collectors. In Book XI of the Arthashastra, Kautilya recommends methods to penetrate the taxation system:

Spies, gaining access to businesses and finding out jealousy, hatred and other causes of quarrel among them, should sow the seeds of well-planned dissension among them and tell one of them: “This man decries you.” Spies under the guise of teachers (acharya) should cause childish brawls among those of mutual enmity on occasions of disputations about certain points of science, arts, gambling or sports. Fiery spies may occasion quarrel among the leaders of corporations by praising inferior leaders in taverns and theatres.

Spies under the guise of astrologers and others used to bring to the notice of the corporations the characteristics of royal authority. The leaders of corporations were induced in this way to bring about the desired deeds. The leaders of the corporations who were won over used to be sent with the money to win over many others.

The espionage system, it can safely be concluded, was an extensive network permeating almost all administration departments: through this network, the kings in ancient India sought to gather information, and by acting upon such information, smooth and effective governance was ensured. The state employed spies, counterspies, and double agents. They used to be busy gathering intelligence throughout the empire. This intelligence was then interpreted. The intelligence gatherers and interpreters were kept separate so that they may not know one another. Thus, the spy system was highly developed and extensively used in ancient India. It surpassed all its contemporaries including Egyptians, Chinese and Japanese.


Mazhar Abbas has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at  [email protected] 

He tweets at @MazharGondal87


Muhammad Abrar Zahoor has a PhD in history from Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad and is Head of History Department at Sargodha University. He can be reached at     [email protected] 

He tweets at @AbrarZahoor1

Espionage in ancient India