Let us start by introducing myself shall we?

I consider myself a secular humanist, but if we were to go by the rules of Hinduism, a culture-religion complex into which I was born, I am supposedly a Brahman guy from a Hindu Brahman family in a predominantly Hindu populated country known as Nepal. Going further in this ancient and socially-acceptable form of racial and ethnic prejudice, I am supposed to be of an ‘Aryan descent’.

My blood line in terms of paternal heritage as put forth by the archaic logic, is supposedly ‘unaltered’ from the time of a Hindu sage by the name of ‘Atri’ (One of the original 8 baby booming Brahman sages probably dating back to around 800 to 600 BCE) from whom it is believed that an even purer bloodline who call themselves ‘Atreya’ (meaning “from Atri”) were descended. That is where my ‘Gotra’ comes from. Involuntarily asserted and appointed to me giving me the cultural license to become a part of that ‘clan’, the Atreya Gotra. Summing up, I am first known as a ‘male’ child, then as the son of a Hindu man, then as part of an upper caste of Upadhyaya Brahmans belonging to the Atreya Gotra and then only I am to be known just as a person who I am as defined by my achievements and interests.

Such is the reality of our predominantly Hindu societal values. This feudal taxonomy is very well prevalent in many parts of Nepal and India. A child out here is ruthlessly labeled and tagged and indoctrinated by various denominations of this culturally justified ‘tribalism’ even before the child is aware of him/herself.

 

Richard Dawkins on childhood indoctrination by religion. I think we ought to expand it to include cultural indoctrination as well.

I can say that it’s a relief now that I have chosen to live my life in a rational, consequential, empirical and humanistic way and I do not have to be bound by senseless cultural norms and taboo whatsoever. Well some might say that I must be, but I am brave enough now to say ‘nope’. It took me almost 4 months to thoroughly investigate into this matter of Gotras and I have come to learn quite a lot about the whole mystery.The sole intent of this blog, however, is to systematically breakdown and debunk the myth and misunderstandings behind the Gotra (sub-caste) and especially the pseudo-scientific notions of marrying within the same Gotra being equivalent to incest and resulting in the birth of deformed and mentally unstable children from it.

 

Or rather the ‘pseudoscience’ of Kula gotra.

So what is Gotra after all?

The Gotra pratha is an ancient Hindu practice, still given continuity and stout validity by many modern day conservative Hindus especially by those who claim to belong to any of the 3 main upper castes such as Brahmans, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. Ongoing casteism is pretty-well evident today. We can judge just by going through the myriad of matrimonial websites in the subcontinent which prioritize Caste and Gotra even above moral values and education). I will deal with Casteism later in my other blog posts but I will be focusing only on Gotras for now.

The Gotra of people actually refer to their obscure and indistinct lineages tracing back to any one of these original (but with dubious existence) eight Hindu sages: Angirasa, Atri(Atreya), Gautam, Kashyapa, Bhrighu, Vasistha, Kutsa, Bharadwaja. It is believed out here in India and Nepal that marrying within the same Gotra will result in the birth of deformed and mentally unsound children and consequently such an act is deemed impure or inappropriate. Thus the taboo.

A cartoon mocking the Khap panchayat

All existent Gotras that are present today have been thought to have originated from these eight sages. The total number of established Gotras at present range from an estimate of 49 to 52 depending on the region of inquiry. Though Gotras in North India and Nepal actually refer to the dominant view of paternal lineage, there are some matriarchal Kannada communities in southern India who follow Gotras that refer to a person’s maternal lineage. So by this we can come to realize that the concept of Gotra is not an established standard across different cultures.Societal taboo regarding marriage within the same Gotra remains very strong to this day and exists even within affluent and educated Hindu and Sikh societies in the sub-continent (surprisingly even those who have had some background in biology and genetics, such as medical doctors and nurses, have been known to condone the Gotra pratha and many of its proponent use such arguments from authority (many top doctors and scientists follow the Gotra, why not you? You think you are better than them?) and from masses (If Gotra was not scientific, why are most people still practicing it? How can a few people be right and many of us wrong?) to justify their claims. With rigorous scrutiny, we can come to realize their fallacies effectively as it is not necessary for the people in authority (i.e Doctors and Scientists who conform to Gotra) and the majority to be accurate most of the time. I’m saying we need to accept the fact that there is always a possibility that they can be wrong.

Honor Killings in the name of Gotra…..

The common belief here, I’ll mention once again, is that if two people belonging to the same Gotra were to marry each other then they surely would give birth to an inbred child (owing to the broader definition of Incest by the system) subject to mental or physical anomalies. In doing so, same-Gotra couples and their children are deemed ‘polluted’ and ostracized or ridiculed by most of their societies with greater degree of mandate in rural areas compared to urban ones. Some communities such as the Khap Panchayat and the Jat from northern India have also been known to have committed multiple ‘Honor-Homicides‘ of same-gotra couples. There are true and horrific stories of even fathers and brothers ruthlessly slaughtering their own for the sake of honor.

Following an Honor-killing trial in 2010, the Indian High court scrapped a proposal of Khap Panchayat (who wanted Gotra-pravara to be made mandatory), denied an appeal of innocence to the accused murderers and found them guilty of ‘homicide in the name of unfounded honour’ by firmly declaring that there have been “no Hindu scripture till date that bans marriage between same gotras and justifies honor killings”. Even though it was a favorable action against the fanatics, I still find it odd that an evidence-requiring government body such as the Indian high court even considered to take scriptures as the means to justify the Khap panchayat.

A newspaper clipping on Honor killing in Haryana

Death sentence was announced to the culprits (I myself do not approve of any kind of capital punishment but now that would be wholly off-topic if I discuss it here) as a way to deter the hostility towards same-gotra couples and also to declare the prejudice behind Gotras as being immoral and unethical. Despite the then efforts of the Indian jurisdiction (and activists and organizations who worked to abolish superstitious customs across India), proponents of the Gotra pratha continue to voice and lobby their heinous motives and opinions (including numerous Indian politicians and God-men). The concerning thing is that there are plenty of recent reports which suggest that such people are gathering momentum following the right-wing BJP and Modi’s historical cruise to the Indian Government. The major problem lies in one of their agenda: To justify Gotra by claiming it to be a legitimate science!

Is Gotra really scientific?

Gotra pratha is thought to have originated somewhere around the 1st millenial BCE, i.e post-Atharvavedic period approximately 600 BCE. The concept of “Gotra Pravara” is relatively new even in relation to the newest of the four vedas, the Atharvaveda. So naturally, none of the four Vedas seem to have ever endorsed prohibiting, denouncing or condemning marriage between people of the same Gotra nor do they even describe the Gotra pratha in anyway. This ensures that the concept is most likely post-vedic.
The book ‘Indian sociology through Ghurye’, by S. Devas Pillai mentions that the 8 sages of the Gotras, were not those of the Rigveda and thus Gotra was a relatively recent invention by them and their kins. This was most probably to prevent inbreeding and narrowing of the gene pool within their Brahmin caste considering their strict endogamous beliefs. This might be in order to forbid marriage outside of their caste, just to maintain the purity of their blood-lines in accordance with their primitive yet genuine attempt to understand human inheritance with the limited set of knowledge they used to have back then.
khap-5-638
Summary of what a Gotra is. It may be losing value in urban areas, but at least in the upper caste community, it still is prevalent to a significant extent.
Their logic looks quite sound from a lay perspective (if the caste system were to be justified in any rational way). Indeed, it’s completely natural of any big ancient civilization for wanting to prevent incapacitating and unwanted traits (such as diseases, disabilities and deformities) spreading. But that still does not give us any basis to take their observations for reality owing to the paucity of empirical observations back then, at least not in the urban part of the 21st century when well-resourced scholarly or scientific articles on inheritence, genetics and anthropology are just a mouse click away! Along with many other contemporary civilizations of that time such as the Hellenic, Babylonian and Persian civilizations (which shared a common linguistic and cultural roots originating from the Yamna/Bactria Magna cultural settlements east of the Ural mountains, central Asia, according to the “Kurgan hypothesis“), the Ancient Indian civilization also strictly prohibited incest and consanguineous marriages. Gotra pratha was just their primitive and unsuccessful attempt at trying to prevent what we now know as recessive phenotype resulting from recessive genes.

Proponents of gotra pratha constantly bring up the argument “Gotra pratha is very scientific because the ancients knew about the recessive gene and knew about genetics so developed the gotra pratha as an effective means to prevent recessive genes from entering any progeny” while defending their case. But they constantly fail to provide evidence to back their claims and moreso even fail to demonstrate the claimed science in scriptures such as the Vedas or upanishads. Throwing out assumptions upon assumptions, shutting themselves to contradictory information, being subject to heavy confirmation biases (looking up for only those information that they ‘want’ to be found and rejecting any contradictory side despite of the latter’s validity and credibility) and presenting with no solid evidence! This is how any conveyor of a pseudo-scientific principle would defend themselves; wholly being devoid of the critical aspect in their thinking and also while arguing or making their case.

But the ancient did realize the harmful effects of consanguinity didn’t they?

The most logical explanation of the ancients’ awareness about the negative effects of incestuous mating goes down to their generation-long practice of animal husbandry and breeding (sadly not Vedic mantras or bramhagyan). The ancient Indians were very much experienced about the fact (after countless observations) that mating two offspring from the same parents would result in the greater chance of birth of deformed, mentally unsound and physically weaker progeny than compared to the progeny resultant after non-consanguineous mating.
mendel
Not until after the life ofvGregor Johann Mendel were we able to completely understand inheritence.
They realized that more the consanguineous offspring were inbred, more weaklings would be born and if they were to raise healthier batches of livestock then they were not supposed to mate two siblings or progeny related up to at least the third degree (something like saying ‘third cousin’). The same principles, they must have observed in some rare cases of human consanguinity, and must have applied a similar logic towards incestuous relations in humans, which appears quite a sound practice. Possibly, the Gotras were formulated for fulfilling a similar motive of maintaining their understanding of a healthy trait-pool for long. But we need to grasp the fact that this was even before antiquity, when our understandings of genetics and genomics were far from being nascent, were primitive and insufficient owing to the paucity of organized observation methodology and technology at that time.

Not until Gregor Johan Mendel were we to understand the science behind inheritence and it was not before James Watson and Francis Crick that we were to understand the principles of molecular genetics. So there are plenty of reasons for us to not to conform to this feudal and non-progressive Hindu tradition.

If it was founded to prevent the spread of recessive traits via incest, which is good, why can’t we justify the Gotra then for precaution?  Why take chances by rejecting Gotra completely?

Genetically speaking, there is negligible health impact of marriage between two people if beyond one degree of separation (i.e between two 2nd cousins) but passage of recessive alleles is likely nonetheless. Another concept in genetics we need to be familiar about is that even congress between two siblings does not necessarily always result in the birth of abnormal recessive offspring. We are in terms of chances here and in that sense the chances of recessive alleles passing on are high but still not absolute. Increase the degree of separation up by one (i.e 3rd cousins), the chance is drastically reduced. Increase it by a further one degree (i.e 4th cousins), the chance of recessive genes being transfered into the progeny will be reduced further. (Here’s a pdf providing more information on this and a comprehensive explanation by a Stanford geneticist on the subject matter).
So broad is the definition of consanguinity in Gotra and so diluted and diverse has the gene pool of even the people belonging to the one particular Gotra has become that the effects of consanguinity becomes as good as negligible! Talk about thousands of years of intermingling of races and castes and ethnicity! Talk about hundreds of degrees or generations of separation of cousins! Isn’t it obvious?
Furthermore, according to geneticists, as mentioned in Wikipedia (having the reliability of the references checked):

“The percentage of consanguinity between any two individuals decreases fourfold as the most recent common ancestor recedes one generation. Consanguinity, as commonly defined, does not depend on the amount of shared DNA within two people’s genome. It rather counts the number of meioses separating two individuals. Because of the effects of pedigree collapse, this does not directly translate into the amount of shared genetic substance.

It is common to distinguish first-degree cousins, second-degree cousins, and often also third-degree cousins. Since comparatively few people can trace their full family tree for more than four generations, the identity of fourth-degree cousins often cannot be established. Also, at a genetic level, half-fourth cousins typically do not exhibit greater genetic similarity with one another than with any other individual from the same population.”

Despite of the scientific information presented above, many people (with the exception of few cultures) would not want to knowingly marry their cousins. That now is a whole new discussion topic as the perception and definition of incest varies across different cultures. Musims, Jews and many ethnicity in Nepal (i.e Gurungs) and India are known for allowing marriage within their family (cousins). My concern with consanguinity in this blog was just to explain the passage of recessive alleles/genes in reality.
Evidence from animal breeding and studies on human inheritance of traits however still point out that the closer the marriage is to 1st degree relatives, the more likely it is for the recessive genes to pass on to your children and thus the increased likelihood of genetic or chromosomal defects. So consanguinity while remaining a matter of choice might still do you more harm and on that scientists do to some extent agree with Gotra proponents.
“It is has been known that the risk for birth defects in the offspring of first cousin matings has been ‘increased’ by 5-8% compared to the increase of only 2-3% in non-consanguineous marriages” as one research paper says (see here). Consanguinity of any degree is known to be rather deleterious when compared to non-consanguinity. So yes, it is wiser to stay away from your cousins, though distant, as much as possible, when it comes to marriage. What scientists do not agree upon is the definition and extent of consanguinity put forth by the Gotra pratha as well as the archaic scriptural mandate it tries to enforce on people. The latter of which is against the very principles of human rights.
Mendelian Inheritence

But the claim that the Gotra pratha is able to prevent consanguinity effectively is very questionable. Thanks to the multiple logical fallacies within the system (see below), and the support of numerous anthropological, genomic, genetic and historical datas; we can safely conclude today that the Gotra system bears no validity whatsoever and is not justified by anything other than superstition, ignorance and ethnic prejudice.

Can we debunk Gotra-pratha effectively?

Yes we can!
There are indeed plenty of resources available online for us to be able to do so. Some of the most convincing reasoning and logical examinations have been presented and explained below (click on respective hyperlinks for more information).

Case 1: The gotra of a male child is supposed to remain permanent whereas that of a female child is temporary. After the girl’s marriage, following certain complicated ceremonies, her Gotra is permanently changed into that of her husband and were she to become a widow and to be married again (supposing the now banned ritual of ‘Sati‘ did not come into effect back then, or say this marriage took place in a less harsher yet gotra-following society), she could not marry someone belonging to her husband’s gotra but could yet marry another man bearing the gotra of her Father. Logic has been clearly destroyed here!

Case 2: There have been many historical accounts of masses upon masses of Kshatriyas (a caste respectable but considered lower than Bramans who are considered the highest amongst all caste) converting into Brahmans through rituals of fire sacrifices known as ‘yagya‘ or ‘yagna’, which allowed them to acquire any one of the original 8 gotras depending on their star signs and were required by norm to give continuity to this system from then on. The gene pool has already widened here after the assimilation of numerous Kshatriyas and thus the validity of the ‘pure’ genetic continuum of gotras has been as good as void. Gotra severely contradicts the Mendelian and non-Mendelian laws of inheritance.

Case 3: There have been plenty of stories, historical accounts or accounts from puranas where impotent kings or noblemen had their wives impregnated, having their consent, by other noble sages or a priest. (e.g. Sarandayani from Mahabharata, Mayadanti the wife of Sudasha Kalmashpadh (Ram’s anscetor), King Pandu allowed his wife to be impregnated by supposed Devatas, The Pandavas (five sons of Pandu) had one wife as Draupadi and many more other such tales). The genetic distinction of the ‘purity’ of the lineage of the Gotras was already obscured during the dark ages within 10 to 20 generations or so (evident from multiple paternal lineage contributing to any one Gotra) and it is common sense to say that the Genetic authenticity claimed by all of the 49 or 52 Gotras as of today and their ignorant proponents are meaningless and non-existent. The concept of Gotra is clearly not logical, let alone scientific. The concept collapses on its own logic!

Observational Evidence: There have been many linguistic, anthropological, Genomic and Gene-mapping researches into the origins and migrations of the various ethnic groups of the sub-continent. If the purity of lineage as claimed by the Gotra-proponents were to be true, all individuals belonging to a particular gotra would have to display a certain set of genomic characteristics unique to that group when compared to other groups. But a study (click for abstract) conducted by geneticists at Harvard, which is a near-concluding research into the genetic origins of people living in India, suggested that none of the caste or sub-caste had any genomic characters unique to the group and showed that there were considerable degrees of intermingling between indigenous Dravidian races and Migrating races from central Asia and Bactria Magna cultural groups (supposed ‘Aryans’), such that every individual belonging to any caste system as of today has Genomic characteristics from both the two major racial groups.

Migration routes of animal rearing nomadic populations (wrongly called Aryans) from the BMAC cultural complex in central Asia

In short, the sub-continent hosts a population which is indeed a ‘buffer’ or a ‘mixture’ between the ancient major races and none of us here are ‘pure’ Aryans or Dravidians. It clearly suggests that there is no biological distinction between the multiple castes and sub-castes and not at all regarding the Gotras because both system appear to have originated rather later in history, even in relation to the very sacred Vedas and their origins. Neither Gotra nor Caste bear any genetic relevance whatsoever at present. (Click here for a simpler explanation of the study.)

What can we conclude then?

  • We can conclude confidently that one need never consider Gotra or caste while choosing partners.
  • It should be noted that unless two people are cousins related by blood, they need not have to worry about marrying each other.
  • If there are concerns about inherited or genetic diseases running within families, or of Rh blood group differences in between, then a couple should opt for genetic counselling and screening if feasible.
  • The chances of same-Gotra couples giving birth to a child with chromosomal and genetic defect is no different from the chances of different-gotra couples giving birth to a child with genetic defect, as suggested by evidence.
  • There are many complicated factors that come into effect while considering birth defects and anomalies, but Gotra is just not one of them!
In this digital age of communication, where information is so readily available, one should always research thoroughly before coming to any conclusion. To adopt an unbiased view about any matter of interest, it is of utmost importance that one should give equal weight to both sides of the argument and only justify the position that is rational, ethical, logical and of course, supported strongly by evidence! There are countless hoaxes and scam articles all over the web, and not all indexed research papers are appropriately peer-reviewed, so it is vital that we should learn to identify credible and authentic sources for unbiased information. Because no matter what any ignorant culture says in any part of the world, science and rationalism are always there with the slogan “Eppur Si Muove!”
So enjoy your lives with the ones that you love and always keep in mind that love is unconditional and Gotras and Caste are justified by nothing but discriminatory, racial and ethnic prejudice. No human reserves the right to obstruct another human’s right and happiness, not maybe even your parents! And any individual, good or bad, has the right to live. Period!
Live long and prosper!
Protester Protesting against the Honor killings in Haryana

Other Material:-

The following notes are suggestions for further reading from blogger SUIRAQUA as it is in his/her blog that tries to debunk the Gotra-pratha.

(1) For a recent scientific study of the genome of Indians that effectively dispels the traditional notions of caste and subcaste, look at this scientific article (Nature, 2009 September 24; 461(7263):489-94), and its corresponding Commentary in Nature by Aravinda Chakravarti, of Center for Complex Disease Genomics, McKusick–Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

(2) Study of the allelic and haplotypic structure at a specific dopamine receptor gene (DRD2) locus among five North Indian “upper-caste” populations has indicated a major genetic contribution from Eurasia to North Indian upper castes, apart from the common genetic unity of Indian populations (Am J Phys Anthropol, 2010 Apr; 141(4):651-7), further evidence that the alleged ‘purity’ of the gotra is a myth and cultural construct.

(3) A review by PP Majumdar of the Human Genetics Unit of the Indian Statistical Institute concludes that “… south Asia has also been a major contributor to the gene pool of southeast Asia. With the availability of new genotyping technologies, diversity studies encompassing a large number of populations, both tribal and caste, need to be undertaken at the genome-wide level to validate the inferences of previous studies, and to understand patterns of micro-evolution of populations of this region.” (Curr Biol. 2010 Feb 23; 20(4):R184-7) Genomic studies indicate that Southern and Northern India had differential inputs of genes from central and west Asia, as well as Africa – likely leading to differential impacts on the genetic structures of castes of different ranks. This admixture makes it almost impossible “to tag a population or a set of populations as being descendants of the earliest settlers of south Asia, especially because none of the more ancient lineages can be definitively associated with any specific group of populations, such as populations belonging to a linguistic group.”

Reference materials and links:

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