Doval was born in 1945 in Ghiri Banelsyun village in Pauri Garhwal in the erstwhile United Provinces, now in Uttarakhand. Doval's father was an officer in the Indian Army.
He received his early education at the Ajmer Military School (formerly King George's Royal Indian Military School) in Ajmer, Rajasthan. He graduated with a master's degree in economics from the University of Agra in 1967, obtaining first position.
Doval joined the IPS in 1968 in the Kerala cadre. He was actively involved in anti-insurgency operations in Mizoram and Punjab. Doval was one of three negotiators who negotiated the release of passengers from IC-814 in Kandahar in 1999. Uniquely, he has the experience of being involved in the termination of all 15 hijackings of Indian Airlines aircraft from 1971–1999. In the Headquarters, he headed IB's operations wing for over a decade and was founder Chairman of the Multi Agency Centre (MAC), as well as of the Joint Task Force on Intelligence (JTFI).
During the Mizo National Front (MNF) insurgency, Doval won over six of Laldenga's seven commanders. He spent long periods of time incognito with the Mizo National Army in the Arakan in Burma and inside Chinese territory. From Mizoram, Doval went to Sikkim where he played a role during the merger of the state with India.
He was trained under M K Narayanan,the 3rd National Security Adviser of India for a brief period in counterterrorism operations.
In Punjab he was behind the rescue of Romanian diplomat Liviu Radu.. He was inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1988 before Operation Black Thunder to collect critical information.
Doval spent six years in Indian High Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan. He went to Kashmir in 1990 and persuaded militants (like Kuka Parray) to become counter-insurgents targeting hardline anti-India terrorists. This set the way for state elections in Jammu and Kashmir in 1996.
Doval retired in January 2005 as Director, Intelligence Bureau. In December 2009, he was the founder Director of the Vivekananda International Foundation, a public policy think tank set up by the Vivekananda Kendra.Doval has remained actively involved in the discourse on national security in India. Besides writing editorial pieces for several leading newspapers and journals, he has delivered lectures on India's security challenges and foreign policy objectives at several renowned government and non-governmental institutions, security think-tanks in India and abroad.
In 2009 and 2011 he co-wrote two reports on Indian Black Money Abroad In Secret Banks and Tax Havens ,with others,leading in the field as a part of Task Force constituted by BJP.In recent years, he has delivered guest lectures on strategic issues at IISS, London, Capitol Hill, Washington DC, Australia-India Institute, University of Melbourne, National Defence College, New Delhi and the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie. Doval has also spoken internationally at global events, citing the ever-increasing need of co-operation between the major established and emerging powers of the world.
On 30 May 2014, Doval was appointed as India's fifth National Security Adviser.
In June 2014, Doval played a crucial role in ensuring secure return of 46 Indian nurses who were trapped in a hospital in Tikrit, Iraq. After the family members lost all contacts from these nurses, following the capture of Mosul by ISIS. Doval, on a top secret mission flew to Iraq on 25 June 2014 to understand the position on the ground and make high-level contacts in the Iraqi government.
Although, the exact circumstances of their release are unclear, on 5 July 2014, ISIS militants handed the nurses to authorities at Erbil city and two specially arranged planes by Indian Government brought them back home to Kochi.
Along with Army Chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag, Doval planned a military operation against Indian militants operating out of Myanmar. The mission was said to be a success with 50 militant casualties.
He is widely credited for the doctrinal shift in Indian security policy in relation to Pakistan, from 'Defensive' to 'Defensive Offensive' and 'Double Squeeze Strategy'.It is speculated that India's surgical strikes in Pakistan in September 2016 were his brain child, which were extremely effective in neutralizing targets,targeting India.
Doval is widely credited along with Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar and Indian Ambassador to China Vijay Keshav Gokhale, for resolving Doklam Standoff through diplomatic channels and negotiations.Doval was the youngest police officer ever to get the Police Medal for meritorious service. He got it after six years in the police (the norm is at least 17 years' service).
He was later awarded the President's Police Medal.
In 1988, Doval was awarded one of the highest gallantry awards, the Kirti Chakra, becoming the first police officer to receive a medal previously given only as a military honour.
Doval is perceived as second most powerful person in India after PM Narendra Modi.