A comment from Purushotham Puthran rather innocently enquires: “May I also Know what to say when the Temple priest ask us for the GOTRA.”
Many of us who piously follow Hindu traditional worship patterns and customs, like Purushotham , may have encountered certain degree of embarrassment, especially if you are from non-brahmin lineages , when the temple priest asks you the name of your Gotra,.
The ‘Gotra’ is an ancient system (origin ca. 1700 BC or older) of identifying and classifying the individual. Then there were no genome studies. The individual hymns in the Vedas were said to have been composed by a set of (twelve or so) sages independently and then collated together as a consensus after presenting them in a like- minded group discussion forum or seminar.
Yadava : cow lineage
It seems the Vedic sages adopted a scheme of identification of families earlier used and adopted by pre-Vedic Yadava group (Idiya, Yedava etc equivalents) that specialized in cattle-herding. Or it could be that Yadava cattle camps in the due course adopted a Vedic sage or Guru for guiding them in various physical and metaphysical aspects of life. In other words ancient families were attached to specific cowsheds, since dairy products were one of the primary source of wealth in those days. It was designated Gotra system (go=cow, tra=line), since the classification was based on the name of the cowshed to which joint families were attached at that time.
One of the possibility is that the ‘tra’ (tra=thread; tara,dhara=flow) or lineage system was in vogue among civilized people and the Yadava tribes specially formulated a ’go-tra’ (cow- lineage) system to identify and distinguish persons from their community. The Vedic poet-sages were associated with or sponsored by camps of cattle-herders (Yadava) who depended on dairy products for their livelihood. With passage of time, when families in each camp grew in size, persons were identified by the cow-pen which was named after the priest (Guru) of the camp.
Thus then it was a convenient general practice to identify individuals based on the name of their camps. Subsequently, post-Vedic people of dominant communities (brahmin, kshatriya and vaishya groups) had also the option of joining or adopting any of the pre-existing set of ‘ gotra’ camps, and the opted ‘gotra’ tag was continued in their progeny from father to son.
Thus the gotra tag during the timeline was either innate or acquired. Some of the common ancient gotra were named after sages Agashtya, Angirasa, Athri, Brighu, Bharadwaja, Kashyapa, Vasishta, Vishwamitra etc. (The gotra system obviously evolved over a period of long time. For example Bhardwaja was said to be a descendant of Angirasa. Jamadagni was said to be a descendant of Bhrighu and so on).These sages were scholars of that time and it should be remembered that many of the sages like Valmiki, Vyasa and Markandeya during the history originated from so called backward classes.
Since the ‘gotra’ system was like an identity tag for individual that was perpetuated over the years for the purpose of matrimonial alliances etc, there are inheritors of this ‘gotra’ system even today. The temple priest who asks the name of your ‘gotra’ is only trying to identify you in terms of the original Vedic camps your forefathers possibly belonged to!
However, it should be remembered that were also other people in the antiquity who did not belong to any of these gotra camps or subscribed to their theories.
However, there were similar wise systems of identifying persons from different groups was in vogue at that time in the subcontinent. Tulu-Dravida ancestors, for example, had adopted the ‘Bari’ system or the ‘Bali ‘system.
The word ‘bari’ specifically means a side or a flank. In an early civilized human settlement, there were several families residing in a colony and each house was designated specifically based on the origin of the senior persons/parents in the house.
The word ‘bali’ is said to be a variant of the word ‘bari’. However the word ‘bali’ specifically means a forest creeper that was used as thread or rope in the olden days. Therefore the word ‘bali’ means lineage, like the suffix ‘tra’ in gotra. Obviously in the later system there is no mention of 'gow' or the cow, which leads us to surmise that in the beginning this system probably was originally designed by non- Yadava sects and subsequently adopted by Yadavas as gotra system.
Therefore we can conclude that lineage (bali) or side (bari) system was probably prevalent in (at least) north-western India during pre-Vedic (ca. 1700 BC) and ensuing periods. The concept spread to other regions later along with migrating people.
Gotra or Bari
Now back to the dilemma posed by Purushottam Puthran. What to say when your priest asks the name of your Gotra? The answer basically depends on your convictions and beliefs. If you feel that following a ‘gotra’ of Vedic to post Vedic period elevates you, please select (adopt as many have done traditionally) a ’gotra’ name and utter it. Many priests spontaneously classify you as ‘Kashyapa’, ‘Viswamitra’ or ‘Markandeya’, when you are unable to tell your gotra.
Or if you are scientific in your temper, tell the Priest your actual ‘bari ‘. Note that Brahmin families in Tulunadu have adopted surnames based on the names of their family houses such as Kakkilaya, Pejathaya, Kalluraya etc. If the ancient ‘gotra’ system was ever enduring and satisfactory this kind of subsequent adoption of family names was not required.
If you are a ‘Puthran’ in terms of ’bari’ system, I suggest that you should adopt ‘Puthran’ tag as your both ‘bari’ and ‘gotra’.It would be more meaningful than adopting some unknown or unrelated genetic tags.
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