Gotra is the lineage or clan assigned to a Hindu at birth. In most cases, the system is patrilineal and the gotra assigned is that of the person’s father. Other terms for it are vansh, vanshaj, bedagu, purvik, purvajan, and pitru. An individual may decide to identify his lineage by a different gotra, or combination of gotras.
According to strict Hindu tradition, the term gotra is used only for the lineages of Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya varnas. Brahminical gotra relates directly to the original seven or eight rishis of the Vedas. Later, the term gotra was expanded beyond Brahmin.
A gotra must be distinguished from a kula. A kula is a set of people following similar cultural rituals, often worshiping the same divinity (the Kula-Devata, god of the clan). Kula does not relate to lineage or caste. In fact, it is possible to change one’s kula, based on one’s faith or Iṣṭa-devatā.
It is common practice in preparation for Hindu marriage to inquire about the kula-gotra (meaning clan lineage) of the bride and groom before approving the marriage. In almost all Hindu families, marriage within the same gotra is prohibited, since people with same gotra are considered to be siblings. But marriage within the kula is allowed and even preferred.
Shudras also have gotras, and follow them in marriages. For example a weaver falls under Markandeya gotra. Markandeya was known be a Maharishi and had 60 sons. Marriages are held within Markandeya but never in same family name. So, every weaver falls under one of these gotra. The family name is given by the Brahmin or Guru’s name.
Origin of gotra
In Vedic Sanskrit, the word “gotra” originally meant “cow-pen.” Cows were at the time the most valuable possession of a family group, so with time, the term “gotra” began to refer to the family group who owned a particular pen of cows. The term was associated eventually with just the family group and its lineage.
Gotra is the Sanskrit term for a much older system of tribal clans. The Sanskrit term “Gotra” was initially used by the Vedic people for the identification of the lineages. Generally, these lineages mean patrilineal descent from the sages or rishis in Brahmins, warriors and administrators in Kshatriyas and ancestral trademen in Vaisyas.
The lineage system, either patrilineal or matrilineal, was followed by the South Asian people. In present-day Hinduism, Gotra is applied to all the lineage systems. Many Hindu castes have lineages that do not follow Vedic classification.
Basically a Brahmin is not supposed to claim Brahmin status by birth. He must be reborn by learning and attain Brahminical status through the achievement of a mental and cultural status befitting a Brahmin. Any one born low could become a Brahmin by elevating his learning and conduct and similarly one who had achieved Brahmanical status could be pushed to a lower strata if his conduct came to demand such relegation. A Brahmin must be “Re-born” and that is why he is called “Dwija- twice born”.
The case of sage Vishwamitra is the example. Thus the gotra must have been of the lineage of the learning one chose rather than the lineage of one’s birth. Rama is stated to be the descendant of Ikshwaku, but the lineage was broken when Kalmashpada got his son through Niyoga of Vasishta with Kalmashapad’s wife Madayanthi, and not through a biological liaison. Yet Rama is said to be Ikshwaku’s descendant and not of Vasishta. Some claim of a continuous biological linkage with the moola purusha [or most significant personality] of the Gothra, where as it need not be the case. Some times, a Gotra is based on the Guru for the family or one of the ancestors. Many of the Niyogi Brahmins have descended from a Niyoga liaison, but not a marital liaison.
Marriages and gotras
Marriages within the gotra (“swagotra” marriages) are banned under the rule of exogamy in the traditional matrimonial system. People within the gotra are regarded as kin and marrying such a person would be thought of as incest. In some communities, where gotra membership passed from father to children, marriages were allowed between maternal uncle and niece, while such marriages were forbidden in matrilineal communities, like Malayalis and Tuluvas, where gotra membership was passed down from the mother.
A much more common characteristic of south Indian Hindu society is permission for marriage between cross-cousins (children of brother and sister). Thus, a man is allowed to marry his maternal uncle’s daughter or his paternal aunt’s daughter, but is not allowed to marry his father’s brother’s daughter. She would be considered a parallel cousin who is treated as a sister. This dubious explanation of gotra-based marriages has long been a source of discontentment and criticism amongst present-day iyers.
North Indian Hindu society not only follows the rules of gotra for marriages, but also had many regulations which went beyond the basic definition of gotra and had a broader definition of incestuousness. Some communities in North India donot allow marriage with some other communities on the lines that both the Communities are having brotherhood.