Gotra is the term applied to a clan, a group of families, or a lineage - exogamous and patrilineal - whose members trace their descent to a common ancestor, usually a sage of ancient times.

A gotra is of immense importance to a Hindu for it shores up his identity. All Hindu ceremonies require a statement of the gotra. A devout Hindu speaks out his gotra and pravara every day in the morning. Gotra also comes of use during the performance of the rites of passage or sanskaras. People of the same gotra (sagotra) are not allowed to marry, to prevent inbreeding. At weddings, the gotra of the bride and the groom are proclaimed aloud to establish that they are not breaking this socially ordained genetic precaution. Marriages between certain gotras are also not allowed; for instance, marriages between those of the Vasishtha and Vishvamitra gotras are not permitted. This is because these two sages were opponents and their descendants are traditional foes.

In olden times, every gotra had a definite task to perform. Thus every Veda had priests of specific gotras for their narration and teaching. Certain sacrifices require priests of a specific gotra only.

There are 49 established Hindu gotras. All members of a particular gotra are believed to possess certain common characteristics by way of nature or profession. Many theories have been propounded to explain this system. According to the brahminical theory, the Brahmins are the direct descendants of seven or eight sages who are believed to be the mind-born sons of Brahma. They are Gautama, Bharadvaja, Vishvamitra, Jamadagni, Vasishtha, Kashyapa and Atri. To this list, Agastya is also sometimes added. These eight sages are called gotrakarins from whom all the 49 gotras (especially of the Brahmins) have evolved. For instance, from Atri sprang the Atreya and Gavisthiras gotras. According to this theory, the Kshatriyas and Vaishyas do not have a gotra and are to Gotraspeak out the gotras of their Purohita during the various ceremonies. However according to some Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, they are also descendants of these sages. Because of this, many a time a Brahmin, Kshatriya and a Vaishya claim the same gotra. The members of a gotra however need not necessarily be blood relations, but could be spiritual inheritors or descendants of a guru's pupils

Among the Kshatriyas, Rajputs claim to be the direct descendants of the Sun (Suryavanshi), the moon (Chandravanshi) or the fire (Agnikula). They are also divided into numerous clans, each bearing the name of some great ancestor. Similarly every caste and class of the Hindus is divided into many clans.

In olden times the members of the brahminical gotras had certain characteristic features distinguishing them from the others: the Bhargavas had their heads shaven, the Angirasas wore five braids and so on.

Gotra closely connected with the concept of gotra is that of pravara which is the invocation of Agni by the name of the ancestral sage of whichever Brahmin consecrates the sacrificial fire. As a rule, there are not more than four or five sages in one pravara. Two gotras having a common pravara are not allowed to marry. For instance those of the Kashyapa and Shandilya gotras cannot intermarry because they share the same sage, Asita, in their pravaras.

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Abhivada, the formal proclamation of one's ancestry, is only enjoined upon 'twice-born' males. It includes not just the gotra and pravara but, for a Brahmin, the Veda to which he 'belongs', the Sutra or Vedic interpretation favored by his gotra and finally his own name. It is said with the thumb behind the ears, in the traditional gesture of invoking ancestors. Today's great classical musicians invoke their gurus similarly before beginning a concert.

Vasishtha, Maitra - Varuna, Kaundinya Trayarishiya gotre, Apastambha sutra, Yajushtagadhyayi, Sri Parashuraman Sharmana aham asmiboho. In the Rig-Veda, the word gotra means a 'cowpen'. In the Vedic period, marriage within the family was a common occurrence. The term gotra was used in its present sense for the first time in the Brahmanas. It was systematised by about the 4th century BC to accommodate changed social rules and laws and by the time of the Sutras, it was a well-established system. Even today almost all families abide by its rules.