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 Talathi. The Pargana and Kulkarni Watans were abolished in 1950.
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 Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu, Goud Saraswat Brahmin and Daivajna communities. Also Kulkarni is a common surname among Vaisnavas, Madhwa Brahmins & Shivalli Smarta Brahmins.
Kulkarni families who hail from Maharashtra speak Marathi and Konkani. In Northern Karnataka families speak Kannada and Konkani. 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 Jñāneśvar, who is widely credited as the founder of Marathi literature, Samarth Ramdas, Brahma Chaitanya and 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 Shivaji 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.
- Jñāneśvar 1275 - 1296
- 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 teacher of Dnyaneshwar
- Sopan: Pre-sainthood name: Sopan Kulkarni
- Muktabai: Pre-sainthood name: Mukta Kulkarni
- G. A. Kulkarni (1923–1987): Short story writer
- Atul Kulkarni: Marathi film and theater actor
- Dhondutai Kulkarni: Vocalist of the Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana
- Girish Kulkarni: Marathi film actor
- Mamta Kulkarni: Bollywood actress
- Mrinal Dev-Kulkarni: Marathi television actress.
- Saleel Kulkarni: Marathi singer and composer
- Sameep Kulkarni: Indian Classical and Fusion Sitarist 
- Sandeep Kulkarni: Marathi actor
- Sonali Kulkarni: Bollywood actress
- Sonalee Kulkarni: Bollywood actress
- Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni: Film Director
- Nilesh Kulkarni: Indian cricketer
- Raju Kulkarni: Former Indian cricketer
- Umesh Kulkarni: Former Indian cricketer
- Shubhangi Kulkarni: Indian woman cricketer and secretary of the Women's Cricket Association of India
- Dhawal Kulkarni: Indian Cricketer
- Vineet Kulkarni: Indian cricket umpire and member of the International Cricket Council's International Panel of Umpires and Referees
- Ravi S. Kulkarni (born 1942): Indian mathematician
- Sudha Kulkarni Murty: Kannada writer, Founder of Sudha Murty Foundation and wife of Narayan Murthy
- Sudheendra Kulkarni : Indian politician and columnist
- "Kulkarni Family History". Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press. Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press. 2013. Retrieved 27 July 2016.
- "The Bombay Paragana and Kulkarni Watans' (Abolition) Act 1950" (PDF). Bombay High Court. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
- 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.