The name Kulkarni is believed to be a combination of two words (kula and karani). Kula means the root of the family, and Karanika means one who maintains records or accounts. Traditionally, Kulkarni was a title used for people who used to maintain the accounts and records of the villages and used to collect taxes. The title of the Kulkarni was later replaced by the Talati. The Pargana and Kulkarni Watans were abolished in 1950 and salaried officials from all castes were appointed to the new office of the Talati. In some cases, the Talatis were the oppressed castes and the abolishing of the Kulkarni Watan system was viewed as a progressive move.
Most Kulkarnis belong to the oldest Brahmin caste of Maharashtra and Karnataka, the Deshastha Brahmins. The surname is also found amongst Karhade Brahmin, and the CKP, GSB and Daivajna communities of Maharashtra. In Karnataka Kulkarni is common surname among Vaisnavas/Madhwa & Smartha(Shaiva) Brahmins.
Kulkarni families who hail from Maharastra and Madhya Pradesh speak Marathi, Northern Karnataka families speak Marathi and Kannada. Most Kulkarni families originate from Maharashtra or northern Karnataka but in more recent times migrated and settled all over the world.
Many prominent landmarks and roads in several cities are named after well known Kulkarnis. Some examples are the Kulkarni Garden in Nashik, G. A. Kulkarni road in Pune and Kulkarni Galli in Belgaum. In the mathematical field of differential geometry the Kulkarni–Nomizu product is also well known.
In former times, many Kulkarni saints were pioneers of social revival. Some examples are: Sant Dnyaneshwar who is widely credited as the founder of Marathi literature, Sant Ramdas, Shri BrahmaChaitanya Gondavalekar Maharaj and Sant Eknath.
In the 17th century many Kulkarnis played important roles and contributed to the formation and expansion of the Maratha Empire. Some of the prominent personalities were Ramchandra Pant Amatya and Parshuram Trimbak Kulkarni. Dadoji Konndeo, the guru of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj was from a Marathi Deshastha Brahmin of the Kulkarni family from the Daund area in Maharashtra.
In more recent times, many Kulkarnis have made immense contributions to society and left their mark in a wide variety of fields including entertainment, literature, and academia.
- Sant Dnyaneshwar: Pre-sainthood name: Dnyāneshwar Kulkarni: 1275 - 1296
- Sant Eknath: Pre-sainthood name: Eknāth Kulkarni : 1533 - 1599
- Samarth Ramdas: Pre-sainthood name: Narayan Kulkarni (Thosar): 1608 - 1681
- Nivruttinath: Pre-sainthood name: Nivrutti Kulkarni : Elder brother and GURU of Dnyaneshwar, was first saint of Varkari Panth and an authority on philosophy of the Nath sect.
- Sopan: Pre-sainthood name: Sopan Kulkarni : Wrote a book "Sopandevi" based on the Bhagvadgita's Marathi interpretation along with 50 or so abhangas.
- Muktabai: Pre-sainthood name: Mukta Kulkarni : She is considered as one of the first poetesses in Marathi with around 40 abhangas attributed to her. She was also GURU of Changdev Maharaj.
- Atul Kulkarni: Marathi Film and Theater actor and has won "Best Actor In A Supporting Role" in 2000 and 2002.
- Dhondutai Kulkarni: Last living icon of the Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana and awarded the Sangeet Natak Academy Award.
- Girish Kulkarni: National award winning actor from Deool
- Jaywant Kulkarni: Singer of many well known songs. Many of his works were released under Dada Kondke's "Kamakshi Pictures"
- Mamta Kulkarni: Bollywood actress
- Mrinal Dev-Kulkarni: popular Marathi television actress.
- Neena Kulkarni: popular Bollywood and Marathi television actress.
- Patthe Bapurao: (Shridhar Krishna Kulkarni) Singer-poet known for writing Tamasha and Lawanis 1868–1941
- Salil Kulkarni: Popular Marathi singer Ayushawar Bolu Kahi' , judge on Marathi TV talent show SaReGaMaPa Marathi
- Sameep Kulkarni: Sitarist 
- Sandeep Kulkarni: Marathi Actor featured in Shwaas and Dombivli Fast
- Sangeetha Katti Kulkarni: Kannada Singer and Hindustani Classical Musician & Vocalist
- Sonali Kulkarni: Bollywood actress noted for her role in Dil Chahta Hai and winner of the best actress award at the Milan Film Festival
- Sonalee Kulkarni: Noted for her role in the acclaimed 2009 Marathi film Natarang. She received the Zee Gaurav for the movie Bakula Namdev Ghotale.
- Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni: Director of acclaimed Marathi films like Deool, Vihir and Valu.
- Nilesh Kulkarni: Indian cricketer and only Indian bowler to take a wicket with first ball he bowled in Test cricket.
- Raju Kulkarni: Former Indian cricketer.
- Umesh Kulkarni: Former Indian cricketer.
- Shubhangi Kulkarni: Indian women cricketer, was the secretary of the Women's Cricket Association of India.
- Dhawal Kulkarni: Indian Cricket Player, Currently playing for Mumbai Indians (IPL).
- Vineet Kulkarni: Indian cricket umpire. He is member of the International Cricket Council's International Panel of Umpires and Referees.
- Sudha Kulkarni Murty: Kannada writer, first woman employee of Tata Motors and Founder of Sudha Murty Foundation. Notably wife of Narayan Murthy co-founder Infosys.
- Shrinivas Kulkarni : Professor, Astrophysics, California Institute of Technology
- Sudheendra Kulkarni : Indian politician and columnist credited with initiatives such as Delhi–Lahore Bus and India Shining.
- Vaibhav V Kulkarni : One of the youngest businessman of the India Currently working in Green Planet Bio Products pvt. ltd.
- "The Bombay Paragana and Kulkarni Watans' (Abolition) Act 1950". Bombay High Court. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
- Naqvi, K. A. (1978). The Indian economic and social history review 15. HighWire Press. p. 15.
- "Saregama music Listing for Jayawant Kulkarni". Retrieved 30 June 2013.
- Vivek Sabnis. "Sitar-on ki mehfil". Mid day. Retrieved 19 November 2009.
- Swati Shinde. "Pune group to perform at world dance fest in Japan". Times of India. Retrieved 18 July 2012.