The Gotra (Devanagari:’गोत्र’ ) is a Sanskrit word which is equivalent to lineage, it denotes people who trace descent in an unbroken male line from a common male ancestor, i.e. patriline. The great ancient scholar Panini (400 to 350 BCE) defined Gotra for grammatical purposes as ‘Apatyam Pautraprabhrti Gotram’, which means ‘Gotra denotes the progeny (of a Maharishi or Sage)’.
When a person says he/she belongs to Bharadwaja-Gotra, it means that he/she traces his/her descent from the Bharadwaja Maharishi by an unbroken male descent. The progeny of eight or nine ancient Sages (Maharishi) is considered to be Gotras, they are as follows –
◙ Agastya Maharishi
◙ Atri Maharishi
◙ Bharadwaja Maharishi
◙ Jamadagni Maharishi
◙ Kashyapa Maharishi
◙ Shandilya Maharishi
◙ Vamadeva Gautama Maharishi
◙ Vashista Maharishi
◙ Vishvamitra Maharishi
These Sages are called Gotrakarins from whom all the Gotras (especially of the Brahmins) have evolved. The offspring (apatya) of these sages are Gotras, and all others than these are called ‘Gotravayava’.
It is important to note that Gotra is different from the Varna system. Varna is a Sanskrit word which means ‘type’, used to refer to social classes in ancient Indian society. Vedas and the ancient texts classified the society in principle into four groups or Varnas. The four groups are – intellectuals and scholars (Brahmin Varna), rulers and warriors (Kshatriya Varna), agriculturists and Merchants (Vaishya Varna), and other workers, laborers and service providers (Shudra Varna).
As per some ancient scriptures, the Varna System allowed movement of people from one Varna to the other based on their qualification and skillset, whereas Gotras represents a relation which is genetic, and hereditary.