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What will you learn about Gotra system by reading this article?
Hindu Gotra system is a very important part of the 2500 year old Hindu culture. It’s 21st century now, and science is our light-house. And today science often finds itself at loggerheads with such traditional practices as Gotra system. But it is also true that, as science is advancing, it is smiling back at our ancestors acknowledging the depth of their knowledge which is now being rediscovered by us.
So, is it possible that there is a deep thorough science that exists behind the practice of this age-old traditional Gotra system?
Love is a beautiful feeling and one of the strongest known emotion that drives human race. To marry someone you love is nothing less than an ideal marriage. This is what every boy or a girl dream! This is what is the lead storyline in majority of the movies!
While love is not forbidden, and in fact encouraged in Hindu culture- there are some boundaries. One such boundary is the rule of Gotra. As per this rule, Hindu tradition forbids marriage if the girl and the boy belong to the same Gotra.
Modern society has slowly garnered traction from majority in driving the notion that such traditions as Gotra, Varna etc are irrelevant in today’s era and such outdated rules now do more harm than anything else. Still, there are scores out there who staunchly defend these traditional Hindu rules and swear by them.
In this article, I will attempt to demystify the Hindu Gotra system by explaining the real science behind its origins and practice. I will also try to explain if it’s still relevant in 21st century. Please feel free to disagree to my views and debate. But, I promise, this article will be unbiased and hopefully a handy guide for the confused souls on this topic.
Why is Gotra System a hotbed of debate and conflict?
Time and again cultural practices do get challenged as younger generations fail to get convinced with the “illogical” nature of religious cultures and traditions which tend to infringe on “individual freedom”. The reason why I have marked the terms “illogical” and “individual freedom” is because both are subjective terminologies and cannot have uniform definition for everyone. It will be “illogical” for a patient if his/her doctor prescribes Viagra for treating breathlessness (For few who might not have heard- Viagra is a popular aphrodisiac used to enhance sexual performance in males). But those who know the science behind “phosdiesterase- 5 inhibitors”, will understand the logic. The recent imposition of use of masks and social distancing to combat spread of Covid-19 definitely infringed on “individual freedom”.
However, no one can deny that this clash of “modern mindset” with age- old Hindu culture has resulted in immense disturbance in our society.
One such matter of conflict is the traditional Hindu rule- two persons from same Gotra cannot marry. When two young hearts fall in love, their unity is not influenced by any Gotra or caste or creed. And when such young hearts fall outside the realms of religious norms, it’s a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.
When age old customs and traditions are challenged their gatekeepers rise up and resist. One such form of resistance has been in the form of evolution of khap panchayats in India. Khap panchayats are form of parallel governments which dictate the societal norms in villages where they are formed. They are actually without any legal powers. A khap panchayat generally consists of the senior and respected members of that village. Its role is to ensure smooth functioning of the village and also resolve conflicts as and when these arise amongst fellow villagers. To do so, a khap panchayat formulates a set of rules that are to be followed by everyone in that village. And these rules are purely based on traditional religious customs. For the Hindus living in such villages, these rules include strict adherence to caste system and Gotra system. Nonadherence to the khap prescribed rules are not tolerated and offenders are subjected to harsh punishments. Supporters of the khap way of managing a village point out that what khap expects from a village is similar to what any country expects from its citizens- majority follow the rules laid down; and someone does not agree he/she is free to stop being part of the village.
In 2009 a young physician working in a small village in Haryana dared to pursue his love for his girl- friend. Issue was Dr Pal was a Mor- Jat and his girl- friend, Sonia, belonged to Banwala gotra. As per ancient Hindu laws followed by the khap, no marriage is possible between these two gotras. By definition prescribed in this system, members of all these gotras are siblings of each other.
But Dr Pal and Sonia did not accept this interference: twenty-two years old Dr Ved Pal went ahead against the decree of the khap and married Sonia on 10 March 2009. The rebellion did not go well with the khap panchayat at Sonia’s village; and the khap, at a meeting, sentenced the defiant couple to death. Dr Ved Pal had to flee. Sonia remained trapped in the village under her parent’s custody.
Dr Pal sought help of Indian legal system. Haryana high court finally recognized Dr Pal’s marriage with Sonia as legal and valid. It was now four months since Dr Pal had married- but Sonia was still in her village guarded by her parents. On 22nd July 2009 Dr Pal, accompanied by an officer of the Punjab and Haryana High Court and some policemen, came to the village to take his wife home. As soon as Dr Pal and the policemen with him reached the village, a mob attacked them and forcefully took Dr Pal away. Dr Pal was cruelly lynched to death. The reign of terror created by khap was so deep that, on police questioning, a horrified Sonia deposed against her husband stating that Dr Ved Pal made her elope and get married.
This is one of several such spat of “honor killings” going on across India in the name of preserving the Hindu traditions.
However, from country’s legal standpoint, the view has been pretty much clear and consistent- eighty years ago, in 1945, the issue was settled by the Bombay High Court which categorically declared that same gotra marriages were legal and this view has never changed. In 2010 there were pleas in both Supreme Court and Delhi High Court seeking amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act so as to legally prohibit marriages in the same gotra- both the pleas were dismissed.
While its fully comprehensible why the measures taken by khap panchayats in the name of preserving customs and traditions are questioned and condemned, it will also be important to really investigate and understand if there is any scientific merit in the Hindu Gotra system and if those merits, if any, are still valid in current times.
So, what exactly is Gotra system?
What led to adoption of Hindu Tradition?
Around 2500 years ago, Indian society was a congregation of several monarchies. In a monarchy generally the rulers would be rich leaving majority of the subjects oppressed with poverty and adversities of routine life. Such systems are chaotic and cannot last. To bring order and control and avoid anarchy, the ruling class collaborated with the learned and revered sages and implemented a set of rules that governed life of any Hindu. These rules were written down in volumes of sacred texts called the Vedas. It’s important to understand that Hinduism was the common thread that linked all the people in every monarchy that existed in India during those Vedic times. Vedas defined how each person should live and how society should function. But these were not just any random set of rules.
The ones who developed these rules- the sages- were highly learned scholars. Their understanding and mastery over science and philosophies was far richer than today’s top nuclear physicists or medical experts. Even today we are still scratching the surface of what these ancient scientists already knew.
But these highly scientific rules of Vedas would have failed to create any impact without proper implementation and adoption across India.
No amount of research can reveal exactly what steps were taken to ensure such wide-spread implementation. Most probably this was a gradual process spanning over centuries. But it was a beautiful example of “pull” marketing techniques at such a mass scale, using the powerfully employing story- telling with religion. It was an example of successful change management at the level of population, which involved targeting one group at a time and celebrating and promoting success of those groups.
The emotions of fear and greed of the masses were engaged and exploited to achieve this mammoth feat.
Science is complicated and not everything can be explained to everyone. Imagine a scientist explain a laborer “m-tor pathways” and concepts of “inflammaging”. Based on these explanations, this scientist wants the laborer to make dietary “fasting” a regular habit to be practiced for life. Will it work? Instead, it’s much more easier to ensure such adoption by saying that fasting on Saturday would please “Lord Shani” (God of Saturn) and will give relief from joint pains, muscle pains, back pain, muscle disorders and others and while ensuring a vibrant physical and mental health.
It is this approach of powerful storytelling that gave rise to the Hindu culture that is rich with its religious practices, legends and mythologies that have been inspiring generations since more than 2500 years.
Importance of Cows in India and their contribution to development of the Hindu Gotra System
In Hinduism, cows have been called sacred and are revered. And there are very important and logical reasons behind this.
During the Vedic era, each Hindu family generally would have one or more cows. Cow was so important for any family in those times that normal life was considered very difficult without it. In fact, one cow potentially could easily sustain an entire family. Milk is highly nutritious and would serve to feed the entire family. Cow dung would serve as free efficient fuel helping to cook daily food. Cow dung had several other uses as well including in padding the walls of the huts where the villagers would stay. Maintaining a cow was not too complicated- it can happily survive on leftover vegetables and grasses around, which was so abundant around during those times.
Cow was akin to the “Golden Goose”. Of course, it’s a blunder to kill the “Golden Goose”. One cow, as we just saw, can potentially propel an entire lifetime of a poor villager and his family with abundance and nutrition. That poor villager needs to be mindful of his greed and should not kill the cow for the sake of one time meat or leather- this would end up destroying his entire family eventually. A robber needs to be made afraid of killing a cow- he killing a cow will eventually end up killing the entire family dependent on that cow. The easiest was to again resort to religion and God! And hence cow was declared sacred by the sages and killing/eating cow was declared a “sin”.
The sages who developed Vedas also grew up and lived amongst the cows. Cowsheds naturally were important fertile grounds for scientific observations and experiments and contributed immensely to their understanding of genetics which we will soon discuss. It was probably out of these “cowshed” observations and experiments that the Hindu Gotra system emerged. The word Gotra is derived from the Sanskrit words “Gau” (cow) and “Trahi” (shed). Actually the English word Cow is also a derived word of the Sanskrit word “Gau” with the same meaning.
What is the Hindu Gotra System?
Hindu Gotra system is quite simple. All it says is that there are eight Gotras, and no marriage can happen between individuals from the same Gotra.
The Hindu mythology says that Lord Brahma (the God of creation) passed the baton of continuing humanity in the hands of following eight Rishis (sages):
Each of these Rishis married and started their own separate families that went on to define the future population that represented the Vedic Hindu culture of India. Each one of these 8 families were unique and bore the name of their “first father” Rishi as their respective Gotra. So, Gotra is the unique family identifier and nothing else. There is a deep science behind the need for maintaining the integrity of this family identity (which we will discuss later in detail), and Gotra system was developed for ensuring the same.
These 8 Rishis who originally started these families are called Gotrakarins. Gotrakarin means root of Gotra. Now as generations passed on, many of the descendants of these Rishis became famous and important and started their own Gotras. It is believed that 49 new Gotras emerged from these sages. However, each of them finally traces back to one of the root Gotrakarin Rishi.
But this practice of descendants starting their own Gotra had the potential of corrupting the entire Gotra system. It is theoretically possible that a male from one Gotra marries a female from another Gotra but both Gotras have emanated from the same single Gotrakarin. Potentially what this means is, two individuals from same root Gotra can end up marrying. To prevent such outcome, hence came forth the system of Pravara.
Pravara is nothing more than just a list of most excellent Rishis in a Gotra lineage. For example the Vatsa Gotra has Jamadagnya , Apnavana, Bhargava, Chyavana Rishis as their Pravaras. Vatsa himself was a famous Rishi descending from Bhrigu Rishi’s limeage. So, a male from Apnavana Gotra cannot marry a female from Bhargava Gotra. Both the parties intending to marry, after going through the Pravaras listed, can immediately know that the original root Gotra in each case is Bhrigu.
Thus, the Pravara system ensures that the derived Gotras maintain track of their root Gotras. This, in turn, is used to ensure that bride and groom from no two derived Gotras coming from the same root Gotra marry each other.
In Gotra system each person is linked with his most ancient or root ancestor in an unbroken male lineage. In North India, the Gotra is believed to be passed on in the male lineage of the family (grandfather-father-son). For example, a person from Bhrigu Gotra will trace back his male ancestry to Rishi (Saint) Bhrigu. So Gotra refers to the original Root Rishi in a person’s male lineage.
Thus, the Gotra system uses up- tracing of male lineage to identify the root Gotra. It’s the Gotra of the male that gets passed on. So a man’s Gotra will be same as his father’s Gotra. But in case of females it’s different. While it can be said that when a female is born she belongs to her father’s Gotra, after marriage her Gotra changes to the one of her husband’s.
Suppose a man from Atri Gotra has a son. Now suppose this son gets married to a girl whose father belongs to Kutsa Gotra. The Gotra of the girl automatically is said to become Atri after her marriage even though her father belonged to Kutsa Gotra.
So, the Gotra of a man will remain same throughout his life while the Gotra of a woman will changed to the Gotra of her husband after marriage.
This means that if a person has only daughters and no sons, his Gotra will end with him in that lineage because his daughters’ Gotras will change to the Gotras of their husbands after their marriage. This was the reason why in the traditional Hindu societies it was preferred to have at least one son along with any number of daughters, so that the Gotra of the father could continue. And here is where the practice of Gotra system eventually started giving rise to evil acts, as the controls started falling apart with time.
A knife can be used to cut vegetables or murder someone. The practice of Gotra system after thousands of years of slowly developing rot and degeneration led to a generation that started believing that females are a burden on the families they are born in. There started a widespread notion that since won’t contribute to continuation of the “family name”, investing in their growth and development is a waste of time and money. This also led to the origin of female feticide in India. Of course, this was not the intent with which Gotra system was developed. But, all well intended successful systems eventually developed rust and degenerate with time.
In South India, the Gotra system is practiced a bit differently. There the Gotra is believed to be descended in the female lineage (grandmother-mother-daughter). Both are theoretically logical from scientific standpoint- but back tracing the root Gotrakarin in the South Indian system will be impossible and eventually the system would fail. Why so? Why can only males carry the Gotra- why can’t females? What kind of science it is that says Gotra of a female changes just because she marries a person belonging to a different Gotra? We will soon answer these questions.
However, the most important question that you should ask right now is- what is so bad in marriages within same Gotra?
The answer lies in the science of genetics- a science that we have really started understanding only after 1866 when Gregor Mendel propounded his famous Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance. He did that by observing how traits are passed on from one generation to another in pea plants. It’s around 150 years since then and we are still trying to grapple with our understanding of genetics. But this is also the same science that was used successfully in mass level by then Hindu sages to define societal norms 2500 years ago. Gotra (from “Gau” and “Trahi”) system is an outcome of this ancestral application of genetic science which took birth probably in the Cow (Gau)- Sheds (Trahi) where the scientists of those times, known as Rishis, observed how traits of generations can be controlled by manipulating breeding partners in cows and bulls!
Understanding Principles of Genetics involved in Gotra System
Amazon is a giant organization. It’s a huge multinational business with enormous complexities. But still Amazon has been a successful business establishment. And this has been possible because of its thousands of employees working together as a system. This system divides Amazon business into several functions such as Finance, Marketing, Sales, HR etc. And in each function, there are several employees who have pre- defined roles. And to ensure seamless execution of these roles and their synchrony with the overall organization, there are well defined detailed processes in place. There is seldom any confusion, because of these detailed processes perfectly outlined in the form of manuals known as Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).
A human body is just like a big organization like Amazon. We are made of millions of living units called cells. Each cell is functional entity capable of living on its own. These cells are like the employees at Amazon. Several cells come together to form organs. Each of these organs has a specific role in our body, and their co-ordination allow us to live the way we do. Cells that form liver specialize in detoxifying the toxins entering our body. Cells forming our kidneys are specialists in filtering out unwanted substances from our blood. Cells that make our heart are the only ones who know how to work as a rhythmically beating bellow.
In Amazon most of the employees are extremely intelligent. But any employee can really do most of his functions without thinking much. This is because everything is so well defined in the instruction manuals- the SOPs. However, unlike the employees at Amazon, cells inside any organ cannot think. A liver cell cannot think and determine how to detoxify the highly toxic ammonia into urea. But we all agree that our body is more efficient than any organization existing on this planet. This is because a liver cell is not supposed to think at all to do its job. It does exactly what is written in the instruction manuals. And these instruction manuals are known as chromosomes. These chromosomes are located inside every cell. Inside a human cell there are 23 pairs of such instruction manuals (chromosomes). There are 23 chromosomes and for each of these 23 chromosomes there is a corresponding back- up copy, thus making 23 pairs. So, in every cell, we have 46 chromosomes. Within these chromosomes are located pages of instructions that define each and every activity performed by a cell. Each page of instructions is known as a “gene”. Each chromosome bears thousands of genes. The cell just does exactly what’s written in those genes.
Of these 23 pairs of chromosomes, the chromosomes belonging to 23rd pair are called the “sex chromosomes”- they decide the gender of the person. This is the most interesting pair and are the lead artists in this story of Gotra.
The 23rd pair in any female consists of has two X chromosomes. In case of males, the same 23rd pair consists of one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. Hence, in the world of human genetics, males are denoted as XY and females are denoted as XX. In a female, one X comes from her mother and other X comes from her father. In a male, the X always comes from his mother (because she has no Y) and Y always comes his father (because only father has Y and not the mother).
And hence the logic of male lineage in Gotra system!
It makes it very easy and simple if you use male lineage for determining Gotra. I am a man and hence I know that my Y chromosome has definitely come from my father and not my mother. Similarly, my dad’s Y came from my grandfather and not from my grandmother. And if I trace back this male lineage up, at some point I will meet the root Gotrakarin Rishi who started the Gotra I belong to. But, if I am a female this system fails. Because, if I am a female, I have no way of knowing which X came from my mother and which X came from my father. The chances of being correct in tracing the root Gotra is 50% right at level one. As I move to next level and consider my mother to trace the Gotra, it’s another 50% down- it’s now 25% accurate. So, with each level upwards, the confidence of being correct about Gotra will keep diminishing by 50% each time. Point is- female lineage can’t be used for tracing root Gotra. Hence, I am not sure if the South Indian way of following female lineage to trace Gotra is scientifically sensible. But, it might also be a case of my illiteracy regarding their logic.
However, I must admit, South Indian female lineage way also can achieve similar outcomes as the North Indian male lineage system. These outcomes I am referring to is not about tracing root Gotra, but its about the real reason why Gotra system was implemented. We take this up at the end. Right now, let’s stick to the original Gotra system using the male lineage rule.
So the Y Chromosome maintains the identity of its root Gotra throughout a male lineage (Father – Son – Grandson etc), while the X Chromosome cannot maintain such identity in female lineage (Mother, Daughter, Grand Daughter etc) because it comes from both father and mother. This fact has been recognized even in modern genetics; Y Chromosome is extensively used by today’s geneticists in identifying the ancestry of a person.
If this part is clear, then you can easily understand why Gotra system asserts that the Gotra of men remains the same, while the Gotra of the woman gets changed to the Gotra of her husband after marriage. Its actually just to keep things simple. Any system which is too complicated won’t be followed by masses uniformly. After marriage, there is just not much relevance or use of tracking the female’s father’s Gotra. It will just make things complicated. If the Gotra of female remains that of her father, what will the Gotra of her son or daughter. Will it be hers or her husband’s? If anyways the children’s Gotra will be that of the father, isn’t it simple to just say that the entire family (father- mother-children) belong to one single Gotra. So long as you are tracking the men in a family, you are tracking the Y chromosomes and root Gotrakarin Rishi can be located. By this system, you can really check what is a man’s Gotra and what is the Gotra of the female he is intending to marry.
Again, to summarize, the system is simple to follow if female’s Gotra becomes that of her husband’s after marriage.
Why not to marry within the same Gotra?
Earlier we saw that every cell inside our body contains 23 pairs of chromosomes and inside each chromosome there will be thousands of genes which carry the instructions necessary for cell to function. Note that I have been saying 23 pairs of chromosomes instead of simply saying 46 chromosomes. When I say there are 23 pairs of chromosomes what I am trying to emphasize is that each chromosome has a back-up. Both chromosomes in each pair are similar to each other. They define specific functions and processes to be performed by the cell, and they both harbor “similar” set of instructions. “Similar” is a key word here. Take for instance Chromosome 15. Each segment of this chromosome carries thousands of pages of instructions for thousands of processes to be carried out by a cell. Somewhere within this chromosome 15 is also located the “gene” that contains instructions that defines what should be the color of your eyes. As I just mentioned, there are two chromosome 15s. Both have similar genes at similar locations carrying similar instructions. So, there is a gene which carries instructions for eye color on chromosome 15 and a similar corresponding gene on the other chromosome 15.
Let’s call these two corresponding genes as C-1 and C-2 for the sake of convenience. C-1 and C-2 will be similar, but not same in every aspect. So, although C-1 and C-2 both determine color of your eyes the color instructions can be different. Let’s say C-1 codes for brown color and C-2 codes for blue color. The cell will read only one gene. Here it will read only, let’s say, C-1 gene from the first Chromosome 15 and you will end up having brown colored eyes.
Now imagine a scenario where, due to some abnormal event, the instructions for eye color in C-1 gets corrupted and destroyed. This is exactly why a back- up chromosome exists. When one instruction page (gene) gets torn, cell can depend on the similar gene from other back- up chromosome and keep functioning normally. In such a scenario, you will still have a colored eye- but this time it will be those beautiful blue eyes thanks to the instructions from C-2 gene that covered up the failure of C-1 gene.
(At this point let me add a disclaimer- the example used here was to just ensure simplicity in explaining the concepts. The details of the disease and its manifestations are irrelevant and beyond the scope of this article)
So, our life is completely defined by what is written in these 23 pairs of chromosomes. And these chromosomes come from our parents. In each pair of these 23 chromosomes, one chromosome comes from the father and the other comes from the mother. If it was you in the above “eye color” example and if your mother has blue colored eyes, it is definite that your father has brown colored eyes.
The Vedic sages had introduced Varna system that functionally divided the then Indian society into four categories based on capabilities. There are four Varnas- Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Each Varna had specific roles and responsibilities. By ensuring that marriage happens between same Varna, the Vedic rules had already ensured selective breeding. This selective breeding allowed all the traits of one Varna to be concentrated in a single group. Thus, all the traits that made someone do well academically, due to selective breeding over several generations, got amplified in the Brahmin Varna. Similarly, all the traits that made some-one fight ferociously, due to selective breeding over several generations, got amplified in the Kshtriya Varna. But such amplification of traits by selective breeding also runs the risk of amplifying “errors”. And smaller the group greater is the risk. (Note that selective breeding was just one small part of Varna system, and a lot depended on the “gunas”. But that’s a altogether a separate discussion worthy of detailed deliberations).
The point you should remember is that selective breeding within same Varna ran the risk of amplifying “errors” in future generations.
Let’s go back to the earlier example of Chromosome 15 and eye color. We saw that chromosome 15 has a “gene” that defines what should be the color of your eyes. And, there are two chromosome 15s, as chromosomes exist in pairs. So, there is a gene which carries instructions for eye color on chromosome 15 and a similar corresponding gene on the other chromosome 15. We had named these two corresponding genes as C-1 and C-2. Now, just for the sake of this example, let’s say we are talking about a boy named Paul. Paul’s C-1 came from his father while C-2 came from his mother. Now, let’s say C-2 has an abnormality- the instructions are unreadable. Still, it won’t matter since C-1 carries corresponding similar instructions and Paul will still have eyes with color.
Let’s denote C-2 as C(abn) for simplicity. When Paul marries a Laura with normal genes C-1 and C-2, 50% of his kids will carry C(abn). But its ok because all these 50% will have a copy of normal gene coming from the girl Paul married. These 50% will be called as “carriers” as they carry the abnormal gene, but because of the corresponding normal gene, the abnormality remains hidden. Hopefully, this diagram below will help you understand what I just explained.
The kids will have ugly colorless eyes only if both the genes for eye color are abnormal. So long as Paul’ s next generations ensure that they don’t marry anyone with C(abn), no one within Paul’s family will ever suffer from those ugly “colorless” eyes. And the probability of avoiding such mishap is highest if Paul’s future generation ensure that they don’t marry anyone who can be traced back to have originated from Paul. In other words, you may call Paul here as a Pravara and all his lineages will be “siblings” of each other as per the Hindu Gotra system. If this system is not respected and Paul’s future generations decide to marry anyone without checking, it is possible for a carrier of C(abn) gene to end up marrying another carrier. In such an eventuality, 25% of the next generation will carry 2 copies of C(abn) and these 25% kids will have super ugly and scary colorless eyes.
I have tried to aid your imagination by drawing this diagram. Paul marries Laura and together they have four kids- Jerry, Sandra, Martha and Rick. Since Paul is a “carrier”, and Laura is normal, two of their kids (remember 50% chance!)- Sandra and Rick- are also carriers. This means, both Sandra and Rick carry one copy of abnormal gene. But they have another gene copy which is normal and hence they have normal eye color. The other two kids- Jerry and Martha- are normal is all sense. Now, if Paul’s family decides to maintain “pure blood” line and allow siblings to marry each other you suddenly increase the probability of having a kid with both copies of the gene being defective. Here, let’s say Sandra (who is a carrier), marries her brother Rick (who is also a carrier) and they have four kids. Here Trisha becomes the unfortunate one. She has two copies of abnormal gene and thus gets ugly scary looking colorless eyes. Gillian and Darren are carriers. Jeremy is the only one who is completely normal.
Gaucher Disease, Cousin Marriages and Gotra System
The example of Paul and his family that we just discussed is not truly fictitious. There are plenty of live examples. Being associated with the field of genetics for quite some time now, let me demonstrate one example. There was this 3-year-old girl child in Mumbai who was brought to a pediatrician with a pretty serious situation. The kid had a huge swollen belly. When I say huge, I really mean it! Just see the pic. (I have masked the face to ensure identity is not revealed.)
The parents complained that she was not doing well since quite some time. Compared to other kids, she was generally weak and lethargic, and her growth was quite sluggish. On examination, she was found to have abnormally huge liver and spleen. The spleen was 30 times larger than its usual size. Blood examinations showed that she had abnormally low platelets and hemoglobin. The child was first referred to a pediatric haemato- oncologist (a blood cancer specialist). After a dozen of other investigations, the oncologist concluded it was not any of the cancers that was causing the problem. Finally, the kid was referred to a clinical geneticist who did a thorough examination in her own way. This doctor did something called as pedigree analysis which involves drawing family tree. And soon she discovered that such complaints were seen in many family members of earlier generations. As suspicion grew stronger, enzyme analysis was conducted. There was deficiency of an enzyme called glucocerebrosidase (of course you need not remember the name). Deficiency of this enzyme meant that the child was suffering from Gaucher Disease, which was further confirmed by genetic testing. The unfortunate part was that the kid hailed from Mumbai- a city in India. In India, healthcare is still quite nascent and is still evolving. Very few people have health insurance, and the health insurance itself does not cover many diseases including rare ones like Gaucher Disease. There is no government policy to support treatment of patients with such diseases. The treatment itself is quite effective – but it is so costly that even the rich will think twice if they can really afford. So, the kid, now diagnosed with Gaucher Disease, remained untreated for almost a year before sadly succumbing to complications. It is really painful to witness someone dying of disease for which treatment exists. If the patient would have been a citizen of a developed country, the treatment would have been taken up and managed by healthcare system there. India has amongst the finest expertise in terms of healthcare, but access to patients has always been a challenge.
Gaucher Disease is a genetic disease. The way it passes from one generation to another is exactly as we discussed in case of Paul’s family. Clinical geneticists have been trying their best to warn people about the dangers associated with consanguineous marriages (marriages amongst cousins). Genetic diseases like Gaucher Disease are very frequent in such communities where consanguineous marriages are allowed. In India, Gaucher Disease is generally seen in those communities where consanguinity is prevalent. The disease itself is not much prevalent in India. The epidemiology is around 1 in 40,000. The same Gaucher disease, however, is extremely common in Israel; more than 10 times as prevalent as it is in India. This is because 80% of Israel population consist of Jews and 50% of these Jews are of Ashkenzic decent. And amongst Ashkenazi Jews, epidemiology of Gaucher Disease is 1 in 850!
Why is it so common amongst Ashkenazi Jews?
Ashkenazi Jews had had a very difficult history owing to centuries of struggle for survival. From the religious persecutions during the middle ages to the Holocaust of Second World War- this group barely managed to survive. And this longstanding fight for survival as a community has given rise to traditions that focus on maintaining identity of the community. Simply put, they don’t marry outside their community. In 2014 a landmark study was published by Columbia University researchers established that today’s Ashkenazi Jews have all evolved from just 350 people some 600 to 800 years before. The same study concludes with a striking statement- all Ashkenazi Jews are 30th cousins!
Marrying within family (i.e. marrying cousins) was the route used by Ashkenazi Jews to maintain their identity. It’s very similar to why the Hindu Varna system emphasized that a Brahmin can marry only a Brahmin or a Kshatriya can marry only a Kshatriya. But those sages that authored this system also knew about risk of marrying in closed groups. Hence, they introduced the Gotra system- this allowed a Brahmin to marry a Brahmin with a fail- safe system to ensure that no two chromosomes from the same source mingle together. Gotra system was a simple system- just follow the rule that you don’t many anyone within your Gotra.
But what about love? What if you fell in love with someone and later discovered that she is from your Gotra. For such scenario, there existed a nice scientific solution within the same Gotra system. If someone does want to marry within Gotra, he or she must then ensure that the two individuals who are getting married are not related to six generations on both maternal and paternal sides. But this is a lot more complex to evaluate. Maybe this is what South Indian system follows which allows them to use maternal lineage as reference.
Gotra system was a system to address the risks that would be magnified due to implementation of Varna system. The philosophical reason to forbid marriage between same Gotra is that as per Gotra system people from the same Gotra are siblings of each other. Scientifically what the Gotra system is trying to say is that the genetic material is too similar for people belonging to the same Gotra.
Is Gotra system still relevant today?
My simple straight answer to this question is mostly NO. The foremost important reason for this NO is what I hinted earlier when I said Gotra system has an inherent problem. It works only if everyone follows it strictly. If you have one person “cheating”, the whole system will fall flat on face. And I really think this is exactly what happened. I can’t speak for everyone in this country of 1.3 billion. So, let me talk about myself. Although I know my Gotra, honestly I know that someone up there in my family had definitely married within Gotra. And I know several such instances around. If I know 10 such people “cheating” on the Gotra system and you know 10 such people, it will not take much imagination to conclude that in today’s era the system is already corrupted. And this corruption has been going on since several generations now. Again, these are my personal views and I would be happy to be proven wrong.
Also, with whatever we have learnt, if the Gotra system is corrupted its actually risky to follow breeding principles of Varna system now. Gotra system was introduced to avoid the issues associated with closed group marriages as is promoted by Varna system.
There is another reason why I feel Gotra system is irrelevant today. According to me (and I think only according to me!), no Hindu system should be viewed in isolation. Varna system and Gotra system are interconnected. Networked intricately with these were the systems that involved Yagnyas and Pujas. Augmenting these and quite interlinked were the practices of Ayurveda and Yoga and several other ancient sciences. We might mock the art of palmistry and astrology today (and I do believe they are again irrelevant in today’s time just like the Gotra system), but based on you date and time of birth these sciences claim to calculate influence of gravitational pull of various planets based on your Gotra. We can easily rubbish off these claims, but we just can’t stop wondering how the same occult science of astrology, without using any telescope, manages to predict on which date and what time how will one planet be aligned compared to others, and these predictions are extremely accurate.
All these Hindu systems are interconnected. They are like house of cards. One falls and all fall. It’s foolish to expect an astrologer to predict anything accurately about you when you know most probably your Gotra is corrupted. And probably this is true about Ayurveda as well (I haven’t done much research yet on this aspect, but I have strong feeling that Ayurveda too heavily relies on what Gotra you belong to).
While I do believe Gotra system has lost its relevance, I don’t agree to some strong criticisms to this system made by several experts. One such criticism is that Gotra system was inaccurate right from the start. This criticism stems from the belief that Gotra system plainly forgets that Rishis would often adopt someone as their son who would then carry the Gotra to the next generation. But then the Y chromosome would have lost the continuity. It’s a fairly logical criticism. But to assume that this part was ignored by the then Rishis who started Gotra system, would be illogical as well. My answer to this criticism is lies in the phenomenon of genotype- phenotype congruence. In simple words, I am what my genes are (to a large extent). So if the traits of a person matches my trait (and if I can measure this match scientifically), most probably it would ok for both of us to be a part of the same Gotra. In those times, a Rishi couldn’t adopt anyone just like that. There were rules, as scientific as Gotra system itself. While Y chromosome is important to understand how Gotra system works, Gotra system was not about preserving Y chromosome continuity. Gotra system was only and only about ensuring that similar genetic material do not mingle with each other, thus avoiding risks of genetic diseases such as Gaucher Disease showing up.
Final thoughts on the Hindu Gotra System
To finally conclude, I would just say that Gotra system was a near perfect example of application of genetics at the level of population that aimed at preventing genetic diseases. When today’s clinical geneticists argue vehemently at various forums the vices of consanguineous marriages (marriages within cousins), they are merely echoing what our ancestors enforced via Gotra system 2500 years ago. When today’s genetic scientists use Y chromosome to understand genealogy, they are merely rediscovering the same concepts used by the Hindu Gotra system. However, the system is no longer applicable today (and this is my view with no hard feelings against those who might disagree)- it is thoroughly corrupted now and stands invalid, except for maybe a few families.
Disclaimer: This article is an attempt to investigate scientific logic behind introduction and imposition of the Gotra System by our ancestors. This article does not intend to endorse practice of Gotra system in the current times. Infact, the personal opinion of the author is that Gotra system is no longer relevant and can have disastrous impact on entire society on mass level if practiced today.