In Atharva Ved, it referred to a clan. All are believed to have descended from one or the other of the Rishis who lent their names to the various Gotras. Thus, Gotra signifies one family or one’s lineage.
The term “Gotra” was used in its present sense for the first time in the Brahmans. The word “Gotra” is formed from the two Sanskrit words “Gau” (meaning Cow) and “Trahi” (meaning Shed). So Gotra means Cowshed, where in the context is that Gotra is like the Cowshed protecting a particular male lineage.
Another meaning of the word “Gotra” means “ray.” In Brahmin tradition, it is the duty of the Brahmin to keep his particular ray alive by doing daily rituals that he may transmit the power of that ray to others for the benefit of mankind.
Gotras have their orgination to Saptarshis who change with Manvantara.
According to the Baudhâyanas’rauta-sûtra Vishvâmitra, Jamadagni, Bharadvâja, Gautama, Atri, Vasishtha, Kashyapa and Agastya are 8 sages; the progeny of these eight sages is declared to be Gotras.
The offspring (Apatya) of these eight are Gotras and others than these are called ‘ Gotrâvayava ‘. The Gotras are arranged in groups, e.g. there are according to the Âsvalâyana-srautasûtra four subdivisions of the Vasishtha Gana, viz. Upamanyu, Parâshara, Kundina and Vasishtha (other than the first three). Each of these four again has numerous subsections, each being called Gotra. So the arrangement is first into Ganas, then into Pakshas, then into individual Gotras.
The Gotra is a system which associates a person with his most ancient or root ancestor in an unbroken male lineage. For instance if a person says that he belongs to the Bharadwaja Gotra then it means that he traces back his male ancestry to the ancient Rishi Bharadwaj. So Gotra refers to the Root Person in a person’s male lineage.
Brahmins identify their male lineage by considering themselves to be the descendants of the 8 great Rishis ie Saptarshis (The Seven Sacred Saints) + Bharadwaj Rishi. So the list of root Brahmin Gotras is as follows :
These 8 Rishis are called Gotrakarin meaning roots of Gotras. All other Brahmin Gotras evolved from one of the above Gotras. What this means is that the descendants of these Rishis over time started their own Gotras.
The Rishis :
Yaskacharya in his Nirukta 2.11 defines Rishi as “Rishi Darsanaath” – one who is the seer of Vedic Mantras (Mantra Drshta).
Since the rishi has also supra-physical visions of the Truth, he/she is also called a seer (drashtara). Being a son or a daughter of a rishi does not automatically give the person the powers of a rishi. A person performs intense spiritual practices including askesis (tapas) to become a rishi. There is no specific procedure for becoming a rishi. One becomes a rishi by grace of the cosmic powers or devatas. Rig Ved 1.31.16 and 9.96.18 describe Rishi as one who lights the flame of knowledge, one who stimulates thinking.
In Rig Ved (1.31.16) deva Agni is said to create or form a rishi :
इमामग्ने शरणिं मीम्र्षो न इममध्वानं यमगाम दूरात |
आपिः पिता परमतिः सोम्यानां भर्मिरस्य रषिक्र्न मर्त्यानाम ||
Similarly Rig Ved ( 9.96.18 ) declares that soma, the Lord of Delight, creates seers :
तर्तीयं धाम महिषः सिषासन सोमो विराजमनुराजति षटुप ||
चमूषच्छ्येनः शकुनो विभ्र्त्वा गोविन्दुर्द्रप्स आयुधानिबिभ्रत |
Rig Ved (9.96.6) declares the deity Soma as the rishi among sages (“Rishir Vipranam”) :
बरह्मा देवानां पदवीः कवीनां रषिर्विप्राणां महिषोम्र्गाणाम |
शयेनो गर्ध्राणां सवधितिर्वनानां सोमः पवित्रमत्येति रेभन ||
Rig Ved (9.87.3) declares that the seer (rishi) among the sages (Vipra) leads the people (“Rishiviprah purayeta jananam”) :
रषिर्विप्रः पुरेता जनानां रभुर्धीर उशना काव्येन |
स चिद विवेद निहितं यदासामपीच्यं गुह्यं नाम गोनाम ||
A rishi is identified by two names, his own name and that of his lineage or teacher. The first Sukta of Rig Ved Samhita was revealed to Madhuchchhandah Vaishvamitra , a disciple or son of Vishvamitra. The famous Gayatri Mantra ( Rig Ved 3.62.10) was revealed to Vishvamitra Gathin, i.e., Vishvamitra , son of Gatha.
Panini in his Vachaspati kosam defines Rishi as “Rishati jnanena samsaraparam”-
“one who crosses and reaches the other shore of the Sea of Samsara.”
It is clear from the above that the Rishis took elaborate efforts to discover the Veda, Vedangas and all branches of knowledge to make our life on earth enjoyable while at the same time showing the way to salvation in the after-life scenario.
It is therefore, our duty to remember them for their invaluable contributions towards our well being and pay our respects and gratitude to them.
The Rishis seem somehow to be closely associated with element of fire (Agni). In fact, Krishna Yajur Ved, 2nd Khanda 5th Prasna, 8th Anuvaka calls a Rishi as “Saamitheni” which means one who can kindle fire properly for performing Homa.
Different Kinds of Rishis :
Rishis were classified into several categories. Apart from ordinary Rishis, there were Vipra Rishis, Brahma Rishis, Deva Rishis, Daanava Rishis and Raaja Rishis.
Those who were priests by virtue of their birth as Brahmins were called Vipra Rishis (e.g) Sage Uthanga.
Those who had realized Brahman through intense Tapas were known as Brahma Rishis (e.g.) Vasishtha, Atri, and Aaangirasa.
Sage Naarada is known as Deva Rishi.
Sukracharya is known as Daanava Rishi due to his alignment with Asuras.
Though generally Rishis were Brahmins, there were a number of Kshatriyas or rulers who also achieved the status of Rishi by their Tapas. And, they were known as Raaja Rishis. (e.g.) Sage Vishwamitra, Ambareesha, Trasadayu, Sibi and Mandhata were in this category. We know that King Janaka was a Raaja Rishi.
In Uttara Raama Charitra, the essential characteristics of a Rishi are brought out beautifully in the following sloka:
Priyapraayaa vrittir vinaya maduro vaachi niyama
Prakrutyaa kalyaanee matiranavageetah parichayah ।
Puro vaa paschaad vaa tadidama viparyaasitara rasam
Rahasyam sadoonaam anupadhi visuddham vijayate ।।
Universal love and affection, extreme sweetness in speech, utter humility, genuine consideration for the common good, an elegant dignity in demeanor. These are not adopted virtues but spring naturally from within and last forever as the greatest wealth for the Rishis.
The Gotra system is practiced amongst most Hindus. Here is a list of some Hindu Gotras practiced by different sections of the Hindu Society :-
Section I) 1. Gouthama Gothra 2. Garga Gothra 3. Agasthia Gothra 4. Bhargava Gothra 5. Bharadwaja & 6. Atri Gothra.
Section II) 1. Haritha Gothra. 2. viswamithra Gothra 3. Vasistha Gothra 4. Vadula Gothra 5. Upamanyu Gothra 6. Shounaka Gothra & 7. Sankrithi Gothra.
Section III) 1. Moudgalya Gothra 2. Sandilya Gothra 3. Salakhyana Gothra 4. Raivata Gothra 5. Koundinya Gothra 6. Mandaya Gothra 7. Maitreya Gothra & 8. Katayana Gothra.
Section IV) 1. Dhanwantari Gothra 2. Jamadagni Gothra 3. Kanva Gothra & 4. Kātyāyana Gothra.
Bhargaus,Sankritas, Gargs (Chandras), Bhrigus and Saunaks follow the Rig Ved; TheKasyaps, Kaasyaps, Vatsas, Sandilas and Dhananjays follow the Sama Ved. The Bharadwajs, Angirahs, Gautams and Upamanyus observe the Yajur Ved ; the Kaushikas, Gritakaushikas, Mudhgalas, Galawas and Vashishts follow the Atharva Ved. All others follow the Yajur Ved.
Importance of Son in the Gotra System :
This Gotra system helps one identify his male lineage and is passed down automatically from Father to Son. But the Gotra system does not get automatically passed down from Father to Daughter. Suppose a person with Gotra Angirasa has a Son. Now suppose the Son gets married to a girl whose father belongs to Gotra Kashyapa. The Gotra of the girl automatically is said to become Angirasa after her marriage even though her father belonged to Gotra Kashyapa.
So the rule of the Gotra system is that the Gotra of men remains the same, while the Gotra of the woman becomes the Gotra of their husband after marriage. Now suppose a person has only daughters and no sons. In that case his Gotra will end with him in that lineage because his daughters will belong to the Gotras of their husbands after their marriage!
This was probably the reason why in the ancient Vedic or hindu societies it was preferred to have atleast one Son along with any number of daughters, so that the Gotra of the father could continue.
Pravaras and the Gotras :
Pravara is a list of most excellent Rishis in a Gotra lineage. As we saw earlier, some of the descendants of the most ancient Gotras started their own Gotras, however they maintained a list of Pravaras while doing so and attached the list of their most excellent Ancestors with this derived Gotras.
For instance the Vatsa Gotra has Bhargava, Chyavana, Jamadagnya , Apnavana as their Pravaras. What this means is that Vatsa Gotra has in its lineage all these Gotras and traces back its root to Bhrigu Rishi in the list of Gotrakarins.
The idea behind this Pravara system is probably to ensure that the derived Gotras still maintain track of their root Gotras, and this in turn is used to ensure that Bride and Bridegroom from no two derived Gotras coming from the same root Gotra marry each other. Every Gotra which is a derived Gotra maintains a list of Pravaras attached to it.
This is because, the essence of the Gotra system is finally to prevent marriages within the same Gotra. Now consider two derived Gotras which came from the same Gotra, then it might happen that over time people might forget that both these Gotras came from the same root Gotra, and may allow marriages within these Gotras since their names are different. To prevent this, the derived Gotras maintained a list of Pravaras (which were the prominent junctions where the derived Gotras got created), and the additional rule in the Gotra system is that, even if the Bride and Bridegroom belong to different Gotras, they still cannot get married even if just one of their Gotra Pravara matches.
So some define pravara as the group of sages that distinguishes the founder (lit. the starter) of one gotra from another.
There are two kinds of pravaras, 1) sishya-prasishya-rishiparampara, and 2) putrparampara.
Gotrapravaras can be ekarsheya, dwarsheya, triarsheya, pancharsheya, saptarsheya, and up to 19 rishis .
This makes sense as this prevents marriages between derived Gotras which belong to the same root Gotra. This reminds me of a similar logic in the modern Object Oriented Programming in Software Systems.
Scriptures require us to pronounce the name of the Rishi of one’s Gotra as also those of the Rishis of one’s Pravara. We do this in all our domestic rituals like Sandhyaavandana, Upanayana, Abhivaadana, Vivaaha etc.
It is therefore, necessary to know about the Gotras and Rishis because it is these Rishis who discovered the Mantras in the first place. Being Mantra Drshtas, Rishis becomes the principal Gurus of the respective Mantras and the founded the Gotras bearing their names.
(Arsheya Brahmana 1.1.6, Brihad-yoga Yaagjnavalkya 1.27, Bharadwaj 5.43, Brahma Sutra 1.1.39 Shankar Bhashya, Brihad Devata 1.2.)
They emphasize that –
The remembrance of the Seer of a Mantra becomes an integral part of any recitation. Arshanukramani is a work that gives a list of hymns, the authors etc. to familiarize us in this regard.
In daily worship, one mentions not only the name of the specific founder of one’s gotra and the Rishi who founded it but also the Pravara, consisting of a group of Rishis who constitute a triumvirate (3) or pentagon (5) of remote ancestors of one’s family.
Gotra is the latest ancestor or one of the latest ancestors of a person by whose name his family has been known for generations; while Pravara is constituted by the sage or sages who lived in the remotest past, who were most illustrious and who are generally the ancestors of the Gotra Sages or in some cases the remotest ancestor alone.