By Swami Harshananda
Gotra literally means ‘that which protects the cows’, ‘a cow-shed’.
According to earliest etymological sense, ‘gotra’ means a cowshed (or a cowherd) where the cows of a group of people, most probably relatives, were kept together and protected. But, in course of time, the word acquired the meaning, ‘a common patriarchal ancestor from whom one has descended’.
Origin of Gotra
Gotra was of great importance in several fundamental matters of family affairs like inheritance, marriage and religious ceremonies like śrāddha. The original sages from whom the gotras are traced are eight in numbers. They are:
Gradually, the number of gotras increased enormously. When a person mentions his gotra by giving the name of one of these sages, it means that he traces his lineage from the ancient sage by unbroken male descent.
Another word which is closely connected with gotra is ‘pravara.’ Literally, it means ‘prārthanā’, ‘choosing or invoking’. Another synonym is ‘ārṣeya’. Pravara actually means the illustrious sages or the ancestors of the yajamāna who is now performing a Vedic sacrifice and had invoked Agni, the deity of fire, from the earlier days till now.
Classification of Gotra
Though the gotras can be almost unlimited, the pravaras have been fixed at 49. There are seven most important gotras. They have been classified into seven gaṇas or groups. The number of sages in each group varys from 3 to 10 and the total is 49. These gaṇas are subdivided into pakṣas and the pakṣas are further divided into gotras.
Difference between Gotra and Pravara
If gotra represents the original ancestor from whom the family tree was born and evolved, pravara stands for the more important ancient ancestors who had performed Vedic sacrifices. Generally the sages of pravara mentioned while performing religious rites are only three.
Solution for Unidentified Gotra
When a person does not know his gotra, he can adopt that of his priest or guru (teacher). If even that does not work out, he can then take Kāśyapa-gotra. Kaśyapa was the original Prajāpati from whom creation of living beings started.
When a boy is adopted by a childless couple, he will retain the gotra of his original father and also get the one of his foster father. Marriage between persons of the same gotra is prohibited.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore