Pseudoscience & Religion

Genetics behind Gotra System – Not Really!

Folks at Sanskriti magazine have written an article on the relationship between modern science of genetics and the Hindu Gotra system. The article has too many logical inconsistencies and factual errors, which I would like to discuss.

The crux of the argument is this: Ancient Rishis prohibited marriage within the same gotra to prevent inbreeding, which is known to cause diseases due to accumulation of recessive forms (alleles) of a gene. However, there are several problems with this argument.

Male Chromosomes (Y highlighted)

Male Chromosomes (Y highlighted)

Firstly, let’s look at the religious side of things. Gotras were set up by Brahmins, and all brahmins were identified by being descendants of 8 rishis – so 8 gotras were established. Marriage between people of same Gotra is prohibited. Gotras can be assigned to adopted sons and disciples of a rishi. Gotras are passed only from Father to son, hence the tradition of transferring the last name in case of son but not daughter. In some societies (e.g. Malayalis and Tulus), Gotras are passed from mothers to their children. So far, so good.

Now let’s look at the genetics argument before we move to point out the fallacies. The author points out that the reason behind this tradition is the perpetuation of Y chromosome. Y chromosome is passed only from father to son, so technically, a man of a particular gotra can trace his lineage to that particular rishi. That is the reason why a man keeps his family’s gotra while a woman who does not share the Y chromosome (since they have XX sex chromosomes) does not. Finally, the tradition to prohibit the marriage between people belonging to same gotra is set up in this way to prevent disease which may arise due to accumulation of recessive alleles of various genes.

Alright, let’s get down to pointing out the errors in the article.

  1. Since gotras can be assigned to disciples and adopted sons of a rishi, the whole theory of Y chromosome lineage and inbreeding avoidance falls apart. Same applies to cases where the mothers are assigning the gotras (Malayalis and Tulus).
  2. The argument about preventing inbreeding is a broad and incorrect simplification. Recent research into populations which have inbred over several decades due to geographical or other limitations (e.g., Iceland) have revealed a complicated relationship between inbreeding and health. Some studies have found that it increases instances of diseases (e.g., in middle east) whereas others have paradoxically found that it sometimes leads to increase in fertility [1].
  3. I am not sure what the author wanted to get out of linking the evolution and gene loss in Y chromosome with the gotra system. There is just no connection between these two concepts whatsoever! Also, as several recent research papers have shown, the perpetual loss of genes in Y chromosomes and its imminent extinction is a myth [2,3]. So, rest assured, Y chromosome is not going anywhere.
  4. The author states that “Ancient Vedic Rishis created the Gotra system… in a bid to prevent inbreeding and completely eliminate all recessive defective genes from the human DNA”. Exogamy (marriage outside social group, or in this case, gotra) will NOT be able to eliminate the recessive alleles. It will only make it less likely that a person has two copies of a defective allele. This is a misunderstanding of one of the fundamental concepts of genetics.
  5. The article does not delineate the genetic diversity or lineage of the original rishis, although I doubt the veracity of this whole story due to lack of evidence.
  6. The concepts of genetics have been discovered relatively recently, starting with the experiments of Gregor Mendel in 19th century. To say that ancient rishis devised this system of gotras based on science of genetics is quite presumptuous. Like it or not, ancient rishis had no clue about genes, recessive alleles, Y chromosomes or even the most rudimentary concepts of modern genetics.

The fact is that the folks in the vedic ages (roughly 3000 BCE) devised a patriarchal system based on rights of sons to family name and property. Also, incest taboo, which is an integral part of several cultures, probably played a role in setting the system of gotras. The taboo is almost universal in human cultures. Both these factors, patriarchy and incest taboo, along with misogyny, combined to form this archaic system of gotra which actually has no sound cultural or scientific basis. The attempt by folks at Sanskriti magazine to link this to genetics is an exercise in futility. It is time we stop putting the facade of modernity and science on these anachronisms and justifying them by using scientific means.


  1. Helgason, A.; Palsson, S.; Guthbjartsson, D. F.; Kristjansson, t.; Stefansson, K. (2008). An Association Between the Kinship and Fertility of Human Couples. Science 319 (5864): 813–6.
  2. Bellott, D. W. et al. Mammalian Y chromosomes retain widely expressed dosage-sensitive regulators. Nature 508, 494–499 (2014).
  3. Cortez, D. et al. Origins and functional evolution of Y chromosomes across mammals. Nature 508, 488–493 (2014).

About the author

Rupinder Sayal

Rupinder holds a doctorate in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Michigan State University, USA. In his spare time, he likes to read non-fiction books and watch movies.


  • Let us consider a boy and a girl of different families. Let us assume that the families ( or the two pairs of parents of the boy and the girl) are not related through a wedlock for a couple of generations but are of same gothra. The boy has a Y chromosome which is a lineage from that particular gothra ,where as the girl does not have the trademark Y chromosome but two X chromosomes which are far different from the X chromosome of the boy. In this scenario , isn’t the marriage between the boy and the girl genetically safe/non-compromised? Why should there be objection from genetic angle for marriages from same gothra?
    I hope some one with a knowledge of genetics would enlighten me..

  • Can you please give the reference for your statement – “The fact is that the folks in the vedic ages (roughly 3000 BCE) devised a patriarchal system based on rights of sons to family name and property. Also, incest taboo, which is an integral part of several cultures, probably played a role in setting the system of gotras. The taboo is almost universal in human cultures.”

  • There are some flaws in your arguments, in my view. It should be noted that im neither endorsing nor refuting the gotra system.

    a) There are hundreds of Gotras;not just 8, as far as I know.

    b) Even if selecting couples from different gotras did raise the fertility in some cases, the higher prevalence of diseases by not doing so is a far greater problem, and should not be overlooked. (I mean they were probably right in doing so)


  • Hi krishna,

    The statement is a mix of several facts. Here they are:

    1. Vedic ages – actually, the age should be around 1700-900 BCE, as it was during this time that Vedas and Upanishads were composed.
    See India: A history by John Keay.

    2. Patriarchal system – I said that because women are not (for the most part) allowed to share the gotra, and were not leaders of the family.
    See Singh, Upinder (2008), A History of Ancient and Early Mediaeval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, Pearson Education India, ISBN 978-81-317-1120-0

    3. Universality of Incest taboos – See “Human Universals” by Donald E. Brown, 1991.
    See here:

  • Hi Bharadwaja,

    As I said in the article, the reality is way more complicated. And yes, you are right in your assertion, and that would be true if Y chromosome was all that mattered in determining inheritance of traits. But sadly, it is not. The compatibility or incompatibility of genes is determined by the sum total of all the alleles on all the chromosomes of the gametes of parents. That makes it pretty tough to figure out the incompatibility. If this were as easy as avoiding same-gotra marriage, we would not have any inherited diseases at all in Hindus.

  • Hi AB,

    1. The “8 gotras” statement does not come from me. I am just quoting from the article in Sanskriti magazine. I’m not an expert on gotras, so can’t comment on how many gotras are there.

    2. I brought up the case study on increase in fertility in an inbred population to highlight the fact that the genetics behind this is way too complicated, and effects have too many variables for any reliable prediction. Saying that they were probably right in doing so is the same as saying that I arrived home safely, so it must be due to my friend praying for me. Without “any” knowledge of the genetic diversity of these gotras, it is impossible to accurately predict effects on future generations. The best medicine and biological knowledge we had that time talked about 3 humors in our body, Vata, Pitta and Kafa. Just like the 4 humors of Greeks. So I have a hard time believing they knew about any “genetics”. However, they may have intuitively arrived at this system.

  • Dear Mr Rupinder,

    thanks for debunking this. its now flooding whatssapp group and i am glad that you took the trouble of writing this for us non-biologists to understand.

    you were absolutely right to say that not to put the facade of this modernity on the ancient culture. we can appreciate the practices and their advancement upto that period with their limited body of knowledge.

    we can also appreciate the growth of science which is helping us to understand the concept and the statistics that lie beneath it.

  • “Like it or not, ancient rishis had no clue about genes, recessive alleles, Y chromosomes or even the most rudimentary concepts of modern genetics.” That can’t be right. Given the record of discoveries (by pure thought alone, too) of ancient rishis and their associates in fields such as aerodynamics, missile technology, nuclear and sub-nuclear physics, astrophysics, cosmology, neuroscience and a whole host of other subjects, genetics ought to have been a cinch!

  • Dear V. Balakrishnan,

    With all due respect, can you provide some real evidence for any of these fields in this regard? Because honestly, all “evidence” I have seen so far is hokum.

    Also, evidence for advances in the fields of physics, neuroscience and others does not mean the rishis DID have knowledge of genetics. Expertise in one area can facilitate discoveries in others, but in no way it guarantees them.

    Your claim that rishis had knowledge of nuclear and sub-nuclear (!!) physics, missile technology is quite extraordinary. And you know what they say about extraordinary claims, right?

    “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

  • Can I marry a girl who has the same gotra as my mom’s gotra?

    Science behind gothra system: Gotra means cowshed (Go=Cow, tra=shed) in Sanskrit. Pāṇini defines gotra for grammatical purposes as apatyam pautraprabhrti gotram (IV. 1. 162), which means “the word gotra denotes the progeny (of a sage) beginning with th…

  • I have been trying to explain what you have said in this article.. but people just dont listen!!!

    How can Y become extinct by crossing over with an ‘X’!!

    The article was entirely illogical and you have provided a much better perspective to it

  • Wow !! now people are giving reference from the authors of foreign land who don’t understand our system . Well am just 21 so, I have not had that much knowledge as the author of this article , actually the point is people are too much educated to understand it .

  • There are always two opinions one in favor and one in opposition. I believe everything has a reason and we should concede it. It is up to you that you follow a system or not but you should not discredit it. I will try to convince you why.
    But before that 1. I concede that the Rishis might or might not know about genetics. we can discuss it later, it might also be by experience!!
    2. Will you marry your uncle’s (chacha, father’s brother) daughter just because you do not share a gene (same logic as given for same gotra)? Fact is you may!! but many people will consider it Morally wrong.
    Now here’s why you should not discredit gotra system:
    In gotra debate people opposing and defending it use the same term “genetically related”. For defense we know.. those who oppose say (as mention here also), that they are so far that it is impossible to have any relation. Anyone hearing it will say, true even I can not deny it. But lets go back a little.. What was population of India in 1950? 2 million!! Now imagine the population 5000 years back!! (or 1.5 lakh years back as claimed by certain texts as life of earth) It has to be (was) very less, right? So the social group we are talking about was very small and at that time marrying in same gotra in that group was not good morally (I think you will agree to it) and genetically. I say genetically because irrespective of knowledge of genes it is highly possible that the recessive gene problem which we now know and is proven by science was known by experience then, i.e. they suffered and observed that gotra system is a way to avoid it.
    FYI : I don’t know about others but in Kanyakbja Brahmin’s adopted sons and daughters keep their original gotra, if known. For disciples only non Brahmin get’s Rish’s gotra, Brahmin disciples keep their original gotra.

  • More opinions than facts.

    1) You cannot marry in your maternal grand mothers gotra as well
    2)All varna’s share gotras. You will have Markandeya gotra in Brahmins as well as Shudras that kind of kills the Varna inherited myths.

    Please research a little bit more and drink with a buddy over the facts ie. if you have buddies that not always agree to you.

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