Word ‘Gotra’ is a combination of two Sanskrit words ‘Gau’ (Cow) and ‘Trahi’ (Shed). Cows have a great prominence in Hinduism for ages. Thus Gotra should mean ‘A shed that gives shelter to cows’. Our ancestors took utmost care of cows and treated them so sacred, as well in order to protect the best breeds for future lineage, they have always sheltered them in sheds.
Thus another meaning of gotra is lineage. However Rig Veda defines Gotra as “herd of cows”. Gotra remains the same for males but it changes for a female after her marriage. She would be adopting the Gotra of her husband. In generic terms it refers to those who have descended in an uninterrupted male line from a common male ancestor or progenitor.
Irrespective of any caste, a gotra has significant importance for any Hindu as it elevates his identity. Every ceremonial ritual, small or big, or for that matter, even a small prayer at temple demands assertion of gotra. And at weddings the gotras of bride and bridegroom are announced loud in order to justify that they are not breaking the age-old genetic precaution.
The origin and history of ‘gotras’ (clans) in Indian caste system vary from caste to caste. For instance, in Brahmins ‘gotras’ are said to be derived from their gurus. ‘Bharadwaja’ gotra is quite eminent in Brahmins, and those having that gotra claim they to be the followers or descendants of Bharadwaja Maharishi. This seems to be partially true as people of different castes have this gotra after Maharishi Bharadwaja, which indicates that they are all the followers of the sage but from different social strata. It is said all those Gotras used by Bhramins are derived from the old 8 gotras, that originated after 8 rishis including Angirasa, Atri, Gautam, Kashyapa, Bhrigu, Vasishta, Kutsa, and Bharadwaja. And these 8 rishis are known as ‘Roots of Gotras’.
Another theory that explains the system of ‘gotras’, says ‘gotras’ (clans) are created after their profession and not by birth. This proves the standard argument that all those in a caste having same ‘gotra’, might have descended from a common progenitor. It is technically impossible to go back and structure a family tree beyond 5-6 generations. And tracking the family tree till the point of origin is just a fancy idea.
Nevertheless, a gotra is different from caste. While the latter is a horde of people following similar ethnic and social rituals, it doesn’t connect to lineage. People of certain castes also worship same god or goddess. Marriages between two belonging to same Gothra are strictly prohibited in India as the belief that two having same gothra might have descended from the same progenitor and they would be parallel cousins (i.e. brother and sister).
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