The Indian Gotra System: To Prevent Incest or Is There Some Science Behind It?

By Prerna Bhatia

Many people have argued that the Indian Gotra system has a scientific theory to it, but not everyone agrees to the story. Here are the two sides to it.

Like most ancient Hindu laws, the Gotra system has also been a subject of much debate among people. There has been open disapproval of Khap Panchayats conducting honour killings in the name of preserving the community, and many people have taken to explaining the scientific theory behind the system. There was also a plea in the Delhi High Court to make same-Gotra marriages illegal, which was overruled. But what is the whole story behind this debate?


What is a Gotra?

According to Wikipedia, “The term gotra means clan. It broadly refers to people who are descendants in an unbroken family line from a common ancestor. Generally the gotra forms an exogamous unit, with the marriage within the same gotra being prohibited by custom, being regarded as incest.”

As per the Brahminical theory, there are seven gotras, descended from the eight Brahmins, the sons of Lord Brahma. They are Gautama, Bharadwaja, Vishvamitra, Jamadagni, Vashista, Kashyapa, Angirasa and Atri. The 49 clans are believed to be emerged from these sages. In North India, the Gotra is believed to be passed on in the male lineage of the family (grandfather-father-son), whereas in South India, it is believed to be descended in the female lineage (grandmother-mother-daughter).

Thus, intra-gotra marriages have been banned in most parts of North India for centuries, and many parts of South India too.

The Science Behind The Gotra System

It is believed that the people from the same clan are kith and kin, thus reprimanding same gotra marriages, giving the explanation that there is close connection of DNA among the descendants of the same gotra, and such marriages would lead to genetic disorders.

Every human body contains 23 pairs of chromosomes, and one of them is called the sex chromosome, i.e., it defines the sex of the child. During conception, if the resultant cell has an XX chromosome, then the child is a girl, and if the cell has an XY chromosome, the child is a boy. The Y chromosome is the only one which does not have a pair among the 46 chromosomes. Its size is also about a third of the X chromosome, and thus it has to create copies of its genes on its own, to repair any injuries. The male child, thus, always gets his Y chromosome from the father and the X chromosome from the mother, while the female child gets one X chromosome each from both the father and the mother.

It is argued that marriage in different Gotras prevents the Y chromosome from deterioration and extinction, since it considerably reduces the chances of the same chromosome being carried in the lineage.

The Challenges to the System

Many people have argued that the science behind the system contains a number of flaws and factual errors, the first one being that it is incorrect to assume that only the biological descendants of the Brahmins belong to the same Gotra. This is because Gotras could also be assigned to adopted sons and disciples of Rishis, thus including many Gotras in the same lineage, bringing forward genetic diversity. Also, the theory of the extinction of the Y chromosome does not stand true in cases where the daughter adopts her Gotra from the mother, since women only have X chromosomes.

Moreover, the Gotra system was formed thousands of years ago, and there have been a lot of inter-Gotra marriages since then, so hasn’t the dominance of genes among the same Gotra reduced?

Some researchers have also stated that intra-Gotra marriage was not discouraged to preserve the Y chromosome, but to increase the followers of a particular Gotra, as a girl coming into the family from another Gotra would automatically become a follower of her husband’s Gotra, thus raising the question of whether the science behind the system is just being used as an excuse to explain the ancient Hindu law that still prevails in the society.

Modernists have argued against ancient laws, but there is another set of individuals looking to save the cultural integrity of the society, and arguing in favour of them. There are two sides to every story, and everyone has a different perception to it. Which side are you on?

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