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In Hindu society, the term gotra means clan. It broadly refers to people who are descendants in an unbroken male line from a common male ancestor. Pāṇini defines gotra for grammatical purposes as apatyam pautraprabhrti gotram (IV. 1. 162), which means "the word gotra denotes the progeny (of a sage) beginning with the son's son." When a person says "I am Kashypasa-gotra," he means that he traces his descent from the ancient sage Kashyapa by unbroken male descent. According to the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad 2.2.6, Gautama and Bharadvāja, Viśvāmitra and Jamadagni, Vasiṣṭha and Kaśyapa, and Atri are seven sages (also known as Saptarishi); the progeny of these eight sages is declared to be gotras. This enumeration of eight primary gotras seems to have been known to Pāṇini. The offspring (apatya) of these eight are gotras and others than these are called ' gotrâvayava '.
There are 49 established Hindu gotras. All members of a particular gotra are believed to possess certain common characteristics by way of nature or profession. Many theories have been propounded to explain this system. According to the brahminical theory, the Brahmins are the direct descendants of seven or eight sages who are believed to be the mind-born sons of Brahma. They are Gautama, Bharadvaja, Vishvamitra, Jamadagni, Vashista, Kashyapa and Atri. To this list, Agasthya is also sometimes added. These eight sages are called gotrakarins from whom all the 49 gotras (especially of the Brahmins) have evolved. For instance, from Atri sprang the Atreya and Gavisthiras gotras.
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 jati is allowed and even preferred.
Not only Brahmins, several other castes also follow them in marriages. For example, Baniyas and Rajputs follow the Gotra system.
In a court case "Madhavrao vs Raghavendrarao" which involved a Deshastha Brahmin couple, the German scholar Max Mueller's definition of gotra as descending from eight sages and then branching out to several families was thrown out by reputed judges of a Bombay High Court. The court called the idea of Brahmin families descending from an unbroken line of common ancestors as indicated by the names of their respective gotras "impossible to accept." The court consulted relevant Hindu texts and stressed the need for Hindu society and law to keep up with the times emphasizing that notions of good social behavior and the general ideology of the Hindu society had changed. The court also said that the mass of material in the Hindu texts is so vast and full of contradictions that it is almost an impossible task to reduce it to order and coherence.
As a Rigvedic term, gotra simply means "cow shelter" and more generally "stable, enclosure". The narrowed meaning "family, lineage kin" (as it were "herd within an enclosure") is younger, first recorded around the mid 1st millennium BCE (e.g., Chandogya Upanishad).
These "lineages" as they developed during that time meant patrilineal descent among Brahmins (the Brahmin gotra system), warriors and administrators in Kshatriyas and ancestral trademen in Vaisyas.
In present-day Hinduism, gotra is applied to all the lineage systems.
Marriages and gotras
In a patrilineal Hindu society (most common), the bride belongs to her father's gotra before the marriage, and to her husband's gotra after the marriage The groom on the other hand only belongs to his father's gotra throughout his life.
Marriages within the gotra ('sagotra' marriages) are not permitted under the rule of exogamy in the traditional matrimonial system. The word 'sagotra' is union the words 'sa' + gotra, where 'sa' means same or similar. People within the gotra are regarded as kin and marrying such a person would be thought of as incest. The Kannada words 'sahodara' (brother) and 'sahodari' (sister) derive their roots from the Sanskrit word 'saha udara' (सहोदर) meaning co-uterine or born of the same womb. In 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 Nairs 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.
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 do not allow marriage with some other communities on the lines that both the Communities are having brotherhood.
An acceptable social workaround for sagotra marriages is to perform a 'Dathu' (adoption) of the bride to a family of different gotra (usually dathu is given to the bride's maternal uncle who obviously belongs to different gotra by the same rule) and let them perform the 'kanniyadhanam' ('kanniya' (girl) + 'dhanam' (to donate)).
Khap panchayats in Haryana have been making a huge fuss over banning "same gotra marriages." Kadyan Khap International convener Naresh Kadyan had moved a petition seeking amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act (HMA) so as to legally prohibit marriages in the same gotra. However, the petition was dismissed as withdrawn after a vacation Bench of Justices S N Dhingra and A K Pathak of the Delhi High Court warned that a heavy cost would be imposed on the petitioner for wasting the time of the court. In course of the proceedings, the bench observed, “You don’t know what is a gotra. Which Hindu text prescribes banning of sagotra (same clan) marriage? Why are you wasting the time of the court? If you are not able to substantiate your words, then you should not have come before the court.” 
List of gotras
- Brahmin gotra system
- Ahir clans
- List of Gurjar clans
- Prajapati Clans
- Tuluva Malayali lineage system
- Hindu genealogy registers at Haridwar
- List of Brahmin gotras
- List of Kongu Vellalar Kootams
- Heer (clan)
- Brahmin, brahmana, caste, tribe, gotra, rishi, ritual, india, hindu, religion, Mana Sanskriti (Our Culture), Issue 69
- Sen, Ronojoy (May 15, 2010). "Same-gotra marriages okayed in ’45". TNN. Retrieved July 30, 2010.
- Anand, Pinky (May 18, 2010). "The paradox of the 21st century". The Hindu (Chennai, India). Retrieved July 30, 2010.
- Sen, Ronojoy (May 15, 2010). "Same-gotra marriage legal, court had ruled 65 years ago". TNN. Retrieved July 30, 2010.
- India - Marriage
- Sex and Marriage: Marriage Rules (Part 1)
- Haryana panchayat takes on govt over same-gotra marriage - Indian Express
- HC throws out plea to forbid same gotra marriages, June 2010
- Ruegg, D. Seyfort (1976). 'The Meanings of the Term "Gotra" and the Textual History of the "Ratnagotravibhāga"'. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 39, No. 2 (1976), pp. 341–363, Brihadaranyaka Upanisad 2.2.6