While lakhs of farmers march to India’s capital, the Central Bureau of Investigation is investigated and the ex-chief economic advisor to the government tells the media that demonetisation was a terrible idea, on our TV channels a furious debate raged over the controversial “gotra” of various political leaders. The basic concept of gotra has hybridised and mutated routinely through the centuries.
Today, it appears more and more as a dark tunnel with several exits. And as a system for transmitting learning or family samskaras, it has little to no relevance when AI and genetic engineering are leading to miraculous advances.
In the Rigveda (1500-1000 BCE), the word gotra simply means a shared cowshed. It is poetically visualised as a high mountain top that blockchains clouds heavy with water. According to P V Kane’s History of Dharmashastras, gotra in the Brahmanas (800-500 BCE) — the all in one mythological, philosophical and ritual commentaries on the Vedas — denotes a male descendant or a disciple (shishya) of a learned rishi. By the time we reach the Upanishads (660-200BCE), major empires are beginning to rise, and the teacher is overshadowed by the wielder of regal authority. In the Taittiriya Samhita (a collection of verses), a man conducting a royal fire sacrifice (Rajasuya Yagna) is identified as a Bhargava, the descendant of a celebrated sage Bhrigu. Clearly, for upwardly-mobile priests who wished to cosy up to the court, name dropping mattered. And proof of a close association with a learned and respected sage impressed the royal clients. Like the classical gharana musicians, the acolytes repeated certain mannerisms associated with the sage. Thus we have “Vasishthas (sons, disciples) of Vashishtha, raising their voice” in a certain way while chanting mantras.
Then we arrive at the period of the Sutras, the repositories of religious and social laws. We discover that even then mega-mergers happened between gotras. So, in the Asvalayana Srauta Sutra, there are references to men of the Bharadwaja gotra later claiming the Angiras gotra, making the case that former had been subsumed by the latter. In this era of mergers, one aged rishi, Jamadagni, was apparently much sought after by various generations as their gotra head. So his Jamadagneya gotra, says the Taittiriya Samhita, featured men from several generations, from the very rich to poor, very young to grey haired ones. As ever, there were also known scoundrels among even the best gotras, such as Aitashey and Abhyagni of the Bhargava Gotra, cursed even by their biological father for their misdeeds.
With rapid urbanisation and improvement in agrarian practices, we notice newer paths opening up. Gotra jobs could be performed by an eminent kshatriya such as the King Jabali who gave gyan to Shwetaketu. Then, of course, there was the famous Raikva, the greatest mind of his time, of whom it was said he could only be found in places where no Brahmins would ever step in. We have instances by the Dwapar Yuga of gotras being lied about even by those who were revered as Dharma personified. The Mahabharata tells us that when Yudhishthira, dressed as a Brahmin, to the court of king Virat with his four brothers, and was asked his gotra. He said they belonged to a gotra called Vaiyaghrapada. They were employed without further questioning.
How many gotras were there originally? According to Patanjali, there were thousands of rishis but most of them did not marry. The eight that did were thus claimed as the originators of all the gotras. The Baudhayana and Asvalayana Sutras name eight great rishis: Vishwamitra, Jamadagni, Bharadwaj, Gautama, Atri, Vasishtha, Kashyapa and Agatsya. But as the number of gotra members grew and grew, by the age of Kautilya and Vatsyayana, the author of the Kamasutra, many escape clauses had been invented and the Pravara Manjari numbers gotras at three crore! To meet the heavy traffic, the concept of pravara was created. The word literally means, “One worthy of being invited”.The pravaras, named after celebrities from a Gotra, however, remained 49 in number.
And wait! There is more to come. As the caste system hardened with Manu writing his much-contested Smriti, the Brahmins closed ranks. But even so, the powerful kshatriyas and the trading communities — the Vaishyas — remained the chief clients for ritual performers among the Brahmins. And they demanded a share in the gotra pie. Never at a loss for inventing a safe passage, the priests ruled that like all busy and rich folks, the kshatriyas and the traders must travel far and wide frequently. As such, they may not always remember their gotra when called upon to perform a ritual, or while (often impulsively) chose to take a(nother) wife and needed to present their cerebral credentials to the bride’s family. At such delicate moments, the (Aitareya) Brahmin text prescribes that the gotra and the pravara of the priest performing the marriage or the ritual automatically becomes the gotra and pravara of his Kshatriya or Vaishya clients.
Later, other circumventions were created. Thus, Apastamba Sraut Sutra rules that all Vaishyas have one pravara vatsapra, but are free to use their priest’s gotra. Then there were one-size-fits-all gotras. Two commentaries say if you forget your gotra, and do not know your guru’s gotra, simply say you are of Kashyapa gotra and be done with it!
Interestingly, the most militant upholders of the gotra system in India in recent years have been the Jat Khaps. Their concept of gotra dates back to 14th century, the time of Timur’s massive assault on north-western India. When the raiders’ sudden arrival exposed the vulnerability of the disunited landowning clans, they hastily cobbled together clusters of 84 villages on the basis of caste and geographical location and created newfangled gotra banks. All young boys and girls of such a Khap area were thereafter declared siblings who must not intermarry.
By the way, it is being said that the gotra as it was created and functions, remains a patrilineal prerogative. And that no woman can pass down her natal gotra to her children. When she marries, her gotra must change to her husband’s. The fact is all the eight original gotra heads (from sages Vashishtha to Gautama), came from what was a matrilineal society and were named after their mothers: Vashishtha was the son of Vasishthi, Gautama of Gotami and so on. Sorry gotra warriors, those are the facts!