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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 or patriline. Gotra can be used as surname but it is different from surname and is strictly maintained because of its importance in marriages among Hindus and especially among high Hindu-castes. 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 Kashyapa-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, Vashishtha and Kaśhyapa and shandilya 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 exists another theory about gotra: sons of rishi and disciples of the gurukul would have same gotra. It is believed that they possess similar thought and philosophy. People of same gotra can be found in different castes.
As a Rigvedic term, gotra simply means "cow shelter" or "herd of cows". 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).
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, Bharadwaja, 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.
Marriages and gotras
In a patri-lineal Hindu society (most common), bride and groom both belong to their father's gotra. The children of couple would have their father's gotra throughout his life[clarification needed].
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. 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. People within the gotra are regarded as kin and marrying such a person would be thought of as incest. In almost all Hindu families, marriage within the same gotra is prohibited, since people with same gotra are considered to be siblings or cousins. But marriage within the jaati is allowed and even preferred. In Jatt and Gujjar caste marriage within people from same gotra as self, mother and grandmother is not practiced. Also, if two persons whose mothers are from same gotra don't prefer to marry because they consider themselves maternal cousins because their mothers are siblings/cousins because of same gotra.
For example, Jats and Rajputs have 3000 Gotras and Mudirajas of Andhra Pradesh & Tamil Nadu have 2600 Gotras. Gotra is always passed on from father to children among most Hindus. However, among Malayalis and Tulus it is passed on from mother to children.
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) as they are of different gotras. 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 as she would be of same gotra.
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 brotherhoods.
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 belongs to different gotra by the same rule) and let them perform the 'kanniyadhanam' ('kanniya' (girl) + 'dhanam' (to donate)).
Khap panchayats in Haryana have campaigned to ban marriages within the same gotra. The convener of the Kadyan Khap, Naresh Kadyan, petitioned the courts to seek amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act to legally prohibit such marriages. However, the petition was dismissed as withdrawn after a vacation, with the Delhi High Court warning that Khap would face heavy costs 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.
In the court case Madhavrao vs Raghavendrarao which involved a Deshastha Brahmin couple, the definition of gotra as descending from eight sages and then branching out to several families was thrown out by the 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, emphasising that notions of good social behaviour 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.
List of gotras
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