The Indic Roots of Espionage: Lessons for International Security

In international scholarship, the enormous Indic legacy on formulating and categorizing spy networks is more or less forgotten. This analysis will address this void in scholarship by shedding light on the sophisticated Indic spy system.

Nilanthan Niruthan is a defense analyst, currently attached to the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies in Colombo. He is the author and editor of several publications on global security. He also teaches Low Intensity Warfare at the Defense Services Command and Staff College, the highest seat of military education in Sri Lanka. 


Espionage today is not only considered a tool but an integral foundation of warfare itself. Popular culture has been enamored with spies since the second half of the Twentieth Century, with terms like “sabotage” and “double agent” now common parlance. Yet, there has been surprisingly little academic attention paid to the strategic principles and construction of espionage frameworks, despite the vast literature available on other aspects of international security. The void is so large in the literature that Christopher Andrew, who is celebrated as the leading intelligence historian of our era[1], points out that the public understanding of espionage comes far more from fiction than non-fiction.[2] Although spying has often been referred to as the “second oldest profession”[3] our understanding of it is, at best, limited.

Within this already sparse field, research on the oldest known espionage framework, namely the structures found in Ancient India’s military doctrine, represents another serious lacuna. In international scholarship, the enormous Indic legacy on formulating and categorizing spy networks is more or less forgotten. Even the major works of military intelligence barely mention them.[4] This analysis will address this void in scholarship by shedding light on the sophisticated Indic spy system and juxtaposing it with modern concerns in international affairs like surveillance and assassination. This analysis will also attempt to demonstrate that the Indic approach to spycraft is evidence of a type of ‘realism’ that transcends the conventional understanding of the term, going beyond just pragmatic realpolitik.

Indic Thought

The birth of espionage took place in a starkly realist world. Even a cursory look into ancient espionage in India shows how the idea itself was created for realpolitik purposes, with no moral revulsion attached to it.[5] While the acts themselves were meant to be conducted in secret, it was the strategic imperative which made it so, not the ethical one. Departments for spying and assassination were always meant to serve as routine organs of the State, not as the grey area we see today.[6]  

The earliest records of spies come from the pre-historic period of Indic civilization, where knowledge had to be passed down from generation to generation in the oral tradition, roughly stretching from modern day Afghanistan to modern day Myanmar. The Vedas are the most sacred and ancient texts in traditional Indic thought.[7] The Rig Veda, the most influential ‘document’ in the Vedic cannon, contains references to spies, or ‘spasa’, being used by the god Varuna, even enunciating on their features such as wisdom and courage.[8] The Rig Veda is considered by modern historians to have been codified into an oral form around three thousand years ago,[9] while the origins of Vedic thought precede that by centuries or even millennia, with no reliable estimate of their antiquity. One can thus conclude with reasonable certainty that this is the oldest existing reference of espionage. Even in the ancient epics that remain revered to this day, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, there are multiple references not only to spies, but to an intricate spy network that functioned as an organ of the State.[10]

For scholarly purposes, however, it is two seminal texts on statehood and legality that shed the most light on spy craft in ancient Indic civilization, not the epics. They are the Manusmrithi, a compilation of legal codes that is usually dated back to the 2nd Century BCE[11] and the Arthashastra, the famous work of ancient realpolitik that most historians date back to the 3rd Century BCE.[12] Both reveal a highly formalized and professional spy system that was present during the period in which they were compiled. While both discuss justice and morality at great length, there is a strong realist undercurrent running through the texts. As with all other ancient Indic schools of thought, the emphasis was always on dharma or duty, a concept which, for most people, underpinned daily life at the time. Directly stemming from this concept of dharma or duty, a widely accepted norm was that the security of the State triumphs over all other concerns and the State was seen as having a cosmic duty to protect its citizens. Thus, the State itself was expected to adhere to a moral (or dharmic) code of conduct, much like the individual.

Western Realism vs Indic Realism

While the terms “realism” and “realpolitik” have thus far been used to describe Indic espionage doctrine, a more expansive conception of these terms than is typical of traditional Western definitions is necessary to properly understand them in the Indic context. In “The Legitimacy of Spying Among Nations”, Raphael Bitton describes the conventional realist position: “realists do not argue that espionage is morally justified but rather that states do not need to morally justify it in the first place.”[13] This succinctly captures the modern realist position that the State has a ‘right’ to spy on its enemies.

In contrast to this rights-based conceptualization, Indic realism’s justification for spy craft is duty-based. Whether the State has the right to spy on its enemies or even its own people, never arises. The debate is over whether or not the State has a ‘duty’ to spy on them. Both the Manusmriti and the Arthashastra firmly conclude that it does. In their methodized codes of duty that a king must follow, strict instructions are given on how this duty is to be met, instructing the king to meet with spymasters in the morning and the evening, as well as granting them an audience whenever necessary. Thus, the State is obligated to do it, even if the ruler harbors moral reservations. This is radically different from how States approach espionage today, wherein spy craft is treated as a transgressive activity that diplomatic and political rhetoric must tip-toe around. In Indic realism, the State must actively work to gather any knowledge necessary for stable governance, with the individual’s right to privacy overshadowed by collective quality of life. Espionage, by ensuring the security of the State, was thus integral to facilitating the State’s ability to carry out its dharmic duty. States that engaged in espionage were, by that logic, considered virtuous. 

Kautilyan Classification of Spies

The Arthashastra is taught prolifically around the world today.[14]  Kautilyan doctrine, a core component of the Arthashastra, has experienced a particularly notable resurgence in popularity. In the one hundred and fifty parts that make up this document, over 50 of them have references to espionage and the use of spies. In the work, ancient Indian thinker Kautilya lays out the precise ways in which a king is to rule, including modes of administration, means of warfare, diplomatic strategy and economic policies. He provides what is perhaps the first ever professional classification for spies.

There are two primary types of spies in his framework, both of whom directly report to the king. They are the Samstha,[15] or stationary spies, and the Sanchara,[16] or roaming spies. The Samstha are usually stationed in other kingdoms, suspicious areas and forest lands. Intelligence gathering seems to be their primary objective, having infiltrated into critical areas under the guise of civilians. They send reports and updates to their home base on the capabilities of rival States and internal suspects. The Sanchara, on the other hand, were used for more violent purposes. They were meant to be adept in science, the use of poisons, combat, and disguise. The Sanchara class of spies would be more akin to the ‘James Bond’ stereotype and the glamorized version of spies found in fiction.

The categorization does not end there however. Kautilya meticulously describes the various sub-types that fall under each class of spy, as well as their functions. These go even further in helping us understand the genesis of spy networks. Under the Samstha, classifications derive from the segments of society the spies were recruited from: Kapatika (students), Udashita (recluses), Grihapatika (landlords), Vaideheka (merchants) and Tapasa (ascetics). The Sanchara, or roaming spies, on the other hand, were categorized based on their specialties: Satri (secret agents), Tikshna (mercenaries), Rasada (poisoners) and Bhiksuki (nuns).[17]

Seamless Intelligence

Less than two months before the U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003, then President George W. Bush announced an initiative in his State of the Union Address to mend the gap that existed between the FBI and CIA by creating an integration center.[18] This is interesting to note, given the well-known tendency in modern espionage for such organs of the State to clash. In modern frameworks, States distinguish between external and internal security, using different structures to deal with each, and these bodies do not always work in harmony. Many have noted that this tension has been gravely counterproductive to U.S. security.[19] In the ancient system, this problem was avoided as spy networks were seen as an organ to be used by the king to deal with both domestic and foreign threats alike, with nothing to separate the two lines of work. While a modern State would have separate entities to oversee law enforcement, homeland security, and external security, in the Indic context a singular institution would have existed to serve the king regardless of which side of the border threats arose from.

The Kapatika, for example, were bright students or disciples trained by the State to become intelligence officers.[20] They swore fealty to the king and functioned as general informants, keeping an eye on the movements and motives of adversarial interests. There are instances where they are used for both domestic law enforcement–such as for covert investigations–and for dealing with external threats. This meant that the same institution was responsible for intelligence across domains, thereby preventing the inter-agency discordance President Bush addressed in 2003.  

“Manufacturing Consent” with Religion

One of the forgotten stories of the Cold War in the Twentieth Century is the role played by religious institutions and religious figures in the outcome of global events. There is well-documented scholarship that shows, for example, just how pivotal a role Pope John Paul II played in countering the rise of Soviet power in Eastern Europe.[21] What is interesting to note in the research is that even though he was the political leader of the Vatican, it was his role as the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church that gave him such influence.[22] Kautilya was well aware of how such power worked and created an elaborate system for using religious figures to achieve strategic objectives.

There are no less than three separate categories that deal with spies disguised as religious figures in the Arthashastra. The Tapsa were ascetics who would travel with an entourage of disciples under the pretense of being great spiritual leaders. Tapsa would establish their spiritual credentials by leading a spartan lifestyle and eating very little in public (although the cunning doctrine allows them to eat in secret any time they wish), two qualities that the citizenry took as embodying piousness. Meanwhile, Vaideheka, or merchant spies, would arrive with lavish gifts to create a buzz and spread the word that a new mystic had arrived. With the help of other spies, Kautilya lists out a variety of ways in which the Tapsa could make pre-planned prophecies, reveal hidden information or predict royal decrees in order to convince the populace of his powers.[23]

The intention of this form of spy craft was threefold. First, the spy was to gather information, since the wealthy and powerful were likely to seek his aid. Second, the spy was to be a recruiter of sorts, recommending the brightest of the visitors for royal blessings, effectively offering him or her a public service position within the State. The third, and most important, intention was to spread propaganda. After carefully establishing him or herself as a credible religious leader, the spy can be used to plant ideas or quell dissent among the people, effectively manufacturing consent, without overt involvement from the State.

Diplomats as Spies

The tricky balance between diplomacy and espionage remains an issue even in contemporary politics. In March 2019, diplomatic tensions arose between Iran and the Netherlands when two Dutch diplomats were expelled from Tehran following allegations that Iranian intelligence agencies were responsible for political killings in the Netherlands. Local media sources in Iran reportedly pushed the idea that the expelled diplomats were spies.[24] This is not an isolated event, with countries from rival power blocs often making such accusations against each other.

In the Manusmriti, the legal compendium of ancient Indic thought, diplomats are not just given permission to engage in intelligence gathering, it is listed out as one of their core duties. According to the Manusmriti, the inherent role of a diplomat was to observe the rival king, both in terms of policy and personal reputation. The diplomat is to then pre-empt and guess what the next moves made by antagonistic States would be, sending back regular updates.[25] 

Once again, this is quite a departure from modern thinking on espionage activities. While it is an open secret that diplomatic missions today do participate in intelligence work, there is still a clearly established dichotomy between diplomacy and spying.[26]  While there may be a select few individuals in a diplomatic team engaged in espionage-related work, it is still an activity that is overtly frowned upon, with States immediately denying responsibility if such allegations are made.

Thus, one could say that the common practice today is to have a diplomatic staff, some of whom might be involved in such work. In the Manusmiriti however, this principle is turned on its head by the realpolitik being advocated. According to the doctrine here, it is one of the fundamental duties of every diplomat to behave like a spy. If diplomats are to fulfill their dharmic duty, they MUST function as intelligence gatherers and spies for the king; so says ancient Indian law.

Ancient Big Brothers

State surveillance is another prominent topic in the discourse on international affairs that diverges widely when Indic and modern conceptions are compared. Today, a number of countries are increasingly utilizing technologies that elicit concern over whether the world is set on an Orwellian path where the State monitors everything.[27] In the United States, for instance, allegations of mass surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency led to a major debate on the balance between privacy and security.[28] There has also been rising concern in countries like Australia, where surveillance technology is increasingly being used by law enforcement for predictive and preventive measures; average citizens are recorded on the roads with traditional CCTV, mobile CCTV, body-cameras by the police, and even miniature drones. Interestingly, law enforcement officers in such countries are now required to wear body cameras, with their duty to protect being precedence over the individual’s right to privacy.[29]

Conversely, non-Western societies, such as in the Indic tradition, do not always see the ever watchful eye of the state as a bad thing; some even embrace state surveillance.[30] Indeed, the latter is strongly reinforced in most of Ancient Indian thought, particularly the Manusmriti, where the law requires the king to conduct secret surveillance on his own people. In duty-based societies, where public order is maintained by appealing to one’s responsibilities rather than rights, it is important that the State has as much information as possible in order to enforce its laws, as the entire social order is based on getting people to behave in line with a collective morality. Spying as a method of achieving this is so pervasive that the king is even instructed to spy on his own staff, including high-ranking government officials.[31]

Indic realism incorporates a cultural ethos that demands that the State create what modern analysts might call a ‘Big Brother’ society. For the king to fulfill his dharmic duty, he has to protect the people. In order for him to protect his people and maintain social order, he requires information about criminal elements, heretical ideologies and budding revolts. Therefore the king is merely performing his cosmic duty–which is the objective of every human being in Indic philosophy–by engaging in a mass campaign to spy on his own citizens.


Hidden wars that represent the underbelly of world politics often make headlines all over the globe, with relatively little insight offered on how all of it fits into the larger picture of international affairs. Our liberal (neo-liberal to some)[32] world order has tremendous difficulty reconciling the idea of espionage, which might go some way to explaining the popular fascination with it. For modern societies, spy craft and espionage are a thing of mystique rather than the more mundane administrative tasks they were considered to be in ancient Indic accounts.

As the 21st century unfolds, and ideological paradigms continue to be formed, it is important to consider and reflect upon these Indic alternatives to 20th century thinking. The model of Indic realism, where security is a duty and not just a right, is already being emulated in China, for example, where the justification provided for mass internal surveillance is not based on a compromise between the state’s right to collect information and the individual’s right to privacy. Rather, it is based on the idea that the Chinese government has a duty to monitor its citizens in order to fulfill its obligation to provide stable governance.[33] Espionage in ancient India thus not only highlights a forgotten tradition of complex spying and surveillance, but raises questions about how strategic practices that evolved from now-defunct political orders are, once again, finding a place in contemporary societies.


[1] Goulden, Joseph. “Looking Back at Spycraft over times New and Ancient.” Washington Times, September 19, 2018. <>

[2] Attar, R. (2019). Spies through the ages [podcast] History Extra. <>

[3] Knightley, Phillip 1987. The Second Oldest Profession: Spies and Spying in the Twentieth Century. New York: W.W. Norton. 436 Pp. USD 19.95.” Journal of Peace Research 24, no. 4 (December 1987): 419–419.

[4] Examples include “SPYING: The Secret History of History” by Denis Collins, “The Secret World: A History of Intelligence” by Christopher Andrews and “The Enemy Within: A History of Spies, Spymasters, and Espionage” by Terry Crowdy.

[5] Patrick Olivelle, and Suman Olivelle. Manus Code of Law a Critical Edition and Translation of the Mānava-Dharmaśāstra. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. – Espionage is seen as the duty of a moral king.

[6] Lyod, J. (2018). Secrets and spies: can espionage ever be justified?. Financial Times. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Aug. 2019].

[7] Thomas, F.W. “The Vedas and Upanishads.” The Journal of Theological Studies Os-XXXI, no. 3 (April 1, 1930): 247-58.

[8] Siqueira, T. N. “Sin and Salvation in the Early Rig-Veda.” Anthropos 28, no. 1/2 (1933): 179-88.

[9] “Rigveda.” Encyclopedia Britannica. July 21, 2017.

[10] Sen, Sailendra Nath. Ancient Indian History and Civilization. New Delhi: New Age International, 1999.

[11] Patrick Olivelle, and Suman Olivelle. Manus Code of Law a Critical Edition and Translation of the Mānava-Dharmaśāstra. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

[12] Waldauer, Charles, William J. Zahka, and Surendra Pal. “Kautilya’s Arthashastra: A Neglected Precursor to Classical Economics.” Indian Economic Review, New Series, 31, no. 1 (1996): 101-08.

[13] Bitton, Raphael. “The Legitimacy of Spying Among Nations.” American University International Law Review 29, no. 5 (2014)

[14] Goodson, L. and Whitt, J. (2019). Kaultilya, The Arthashastra And Ancient Realism – Great Strategists. [podcast] War Room. <>

[15] Davies, Philip H. J. Intelligence Elsewhere: Spies and Espionage outside the Anglosphere. Washington, DC: Georgetown Univ. Press, 2013

[16] Mookerji, Radhakumud. Chandragupta Maurya and His times. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1999.

[17] Ohja, Sumedha Verma. “Learning From Chanakya: Methods Of The Artist-Spies.” Swarajya, September 30, 2016. <>

[18] Slick, Steve. “The Intelligence Studies Essay: CTIIC—Learning from the Choices and Challenges That Shaped the National Counterterrorism Center.” Lawfare Blog, March 4, 2015. <>

[19] Riebling, Mark. Wedge: The Secret War between the FBI and CIA. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1994.

[20] Scharfe, Hartmut. Investigations in Kauṭalyas Manual of Political Science. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1993.

[21] Kirby, Dianne. Religion and the Cold War. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

[22] Zagacki, Kenneth S. “Pope John Paul II and the Crusade against Communism: A Case Study in Secular and Sacred Time.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 4, no. 4 (2001): 689-710.

[23] Kautilya, Arthashastra, trans L.N Rangarajan, Motilal Uk Books Of India, 2016.

[24] Frantzman, Seth. “Iranian Media Pushes Dutch, Jewish Spy Conspiracy.” Jerusalem Post, March 19, 2019.

[25] Patrick Olivelle, and Suman Olivelle. Manus Code of Law a Critical Edition and Translation of the Mānava-Dharmaśāstra. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

[26] Matthew Lee and Josh Lederman. The Long History of Spies Posing as Diplomats Abroad. Bloomberg. March 26, 2018.

[27] Bernal, Paul. “Data Gathering, Surveillance and Human Rights: Recasting the Debate.” Journal of Cyber Policy 1, no. 2 (August 22, 2016): 243-64.

[28] Lyon, David. “Surveillance, Snowden, and Big Data: Capacities, Consequences, Critique.” Big Data & Society, (July 2014).

[29] Goldsworthy, T. (2019). Big brother is watching: how new technologies are changing police surveillance. The Conversation. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Aug. 2019].

[30] Qian, Jianan. “Feeling Safe in the Surveillance State.” The New York Times, April 10, 2019. <>

[31] Patrick Olivelle, and Suman Olivelle. Manus Code of Law a Critical Edition and Translation of the Mānava-Dharmaśāstra. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

[32] Michael Rustin and Doreen Massey. “Rethinking the neoliberal world order: How neoliberalism disorganises the world.” Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture 58 (2014): 116-135. <>

[33] Shepherd, Christian. “China Activists Fear Increased Surveillance with New Security Law.” Reuters, May 26, 2017. <>

Nilanthan Niruthan
Nilanthan Niruthan

Nilanthan Niruthan is a defense analyst, currently attached to the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies in Colombo. He is the author and editor of several publications on global security. He also teaches Low Intensity Warfare at the Defense Services Command and Staff College, the highest seat of military education in Sri Lanka.