The importance of Gotras

Gotra is one of the many considerations that exist during match making in the traditional manner. Janmakundalis (horoscopes) of the prospective bride and groom are compared to see if a match could he made.

Gotras have to be different while Matchmaking for a Marriage

While in matching Janmakundalis the consideration is for the common and symmetrical features, but surprisingly while comparing Gotras the requirement is that the bride and groom should belong to different Gotras. If their Gotras are identical a match cannot be made. Today most of us may not be aware as to what Gotra is. Its meaning is lost and it is doubtful whether even the astrologers who compare horoscopes can satisfy an inquisitive student as to the origin and meaning of Gotra and the reason why identical Gotras preclude a match in a traditional Hindu marriage.

Gotra Originated as the Common Cowpen or Cow Shed During the Tribal Aryan Past

The origin of this concept of Gotra also seems to lie in a tribal ethos and is linked to the system of common ownership of property. The word Gotra literally means cowpen or cowshed and is derived from “Go” meaning cow.

With the domestication of animals, cattle became an important source of meats and milk. With the rearing of cattle, hunting as the principal source of subsistence lost its importance and the lifestyle became less nomadic as compared to the earlier days when hunting was the main activity of sustenance. With the coming of a pastoral way of life it was possible to have individual ownership of the means of subsistence which was impossible during the days of hunting.

But the older practice of holding property in common could not die out abruptly. Even in a pastoral society the principle means of subsistence – cattle – continued to be held as common property. The members of a tribe had one object for solidarity and this was the cattle they held in common. While in a society of hunters, the prisoners of wars and other fellow travellers could either be sacrificed or absorbed into the tribe so as to increase the strength of the hunt party; the pastoral society ruled out such absorption of new members who would only be additional mouths to feed. The tribe henceforth became an endogamous clan which kept outsiders out and insiders in.

Sa-Gotra (Marriage Within a Gotra) was the Norm Originally

But the endogamous clan still retained some features of the tribal way of life like common ownership of property (and promiscuity). This new solidarity that emerged from the common ownership of cattle, acquired the name Gotra from its very nature. But then the Gotra which was the foundation of life and livelihood also became its limit. Sexual pairing was limited to member of a Gotra. This form of pairing was termed Sagotra. Our Present day prohibition on marriage within one Gotra is a later development.

The shift from pairing within a Gotra to prohibition on marriage between two members having the same Gotra must be a result of a variety of factors.

As long as promiscuity survived, society must have been matriarchal as the mother would have been the only identifiable parent. But with the rising productivity and gradual emergence of individual holding of property, this way of life had to make way for another.

The title to the increasing hoard of wealth was held by male members of a clan due to their being the physically dominant sex. It was the efforts of the more powerful males that won for the clan the property of other clans and also enabled defense of their own property from being grabbed by other clans. With the gradual increase in productive power, the acquisition of slaves etc. The title to property also changed from being collective to individual. This change in the title to property from communal to individual must have been the result of evolution over hundreds of years. But why did this change have to prohibit the established practice of marriage within a Gotra?

The answer perhaps lies in Human Social Evolution. Primitive promiscuity as it exists among the lower animals, also existed among humans to begin with. Later on came monogamous marriage. Simultaneously, with the rise in the productive power of human beings there came about accumulation of property initially in the form of cattle. The common ownership of this object of wealth made essential marriage only within members of the clan that held the wealth so as to prevents outsiders from claiming a share of it. But while this solidarity was based on the common ownership of wealth there still existed a commonality in the title to that wealth. And this commonality was first disturbed with the removal of promiscuous matriarchy which did take place with the passage of time. In matriarchy and its earlier form, promiscuity, there existed no bar on members of a clan (Gotra) whether they be the progeny of the same mother, the father not being an identifiable parent.

But with the eclipse of matriarchy and the coming of individual ownership and monogamy, the father became an identifiable parent and strains of patriarchy appeared. The ethic of matriarchal society that allowed marriage between the progeny of one mother or between paternal cousins now came to be frowned upon as these progeny were now the sons and daughters of one (identifiable) father or of one grandfather. This encouraged marriage outside the clan (Gotra). The prohibition on marriage outside a Gotra was made irrelevant by individual ownership of property and the custom of inheritance whereby property passed from father to son. As the title to property was individual and private and the transfer of this title to property was also fixed, there was no reason why a female member of one Gotra should not be tied in wedlock with a male member of another Gotra. Thus while formerly marriage within a Gotra was the rule, later marriage outside a Gotra became one.

Today it is difficult to imagine that marriage within one Gotra between members who were the progeny of one mother or were immediate maternal cousins by virtue of having the same grandmother could have once been a solemn custom. But the later rigid injunction against marriage within a Gotra itself implies that once the practice of marrying within one Gotra must have existed.

Thus as Sa-gotra marriage was once the norm, there arose the need for its prohibition. Something that has never existed need not be prohibited. Hence the existence of prohibition on Sagotra marriage itself is one evidence of its existence sometime in the past. With the disappearance of a pastoral society and also the clan ownership of cattle (Gotra as ‘cowpen’), the emergence of monogamy and ownership of property and later urban civilization and with it a much wider social unit of human existence, the Gotra as an institution and a consideration for matchmaking vanished and marriage outside one’s Gotra became the rule. But even afterwards the custom of prohibition on marriage within a Gotra continued. Today this prohibition is still observed as a matter of ritual and custom when even the original connotation of the term Gotra is generally not known.

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