This great country of ours, India, with its underlying theme of unity in diversity, has a rich cultural heritage of education and knowledge, and civilization. It pains me immensely to find instances of idiotic and irrational customs, based solely in religious myths and superstitions, still existing in modern day India; the pernicious influences of such customs and traditions, fuelled by religious beliefs, are not only degrading the secular principles enshrined in the Constitution of India, but also actively harming the lives of many of its citizens.
Examples abound. Let me refer to a specific and recent one: the controversy about same-gotra (sub-caste) marriages among the Jats of Haryana. It all began with the 2007 murder of a young couple, Manoj and Babli, who were kidnapped and killed for the 'crime' of falling in love and marrying within the same gotra, against the wishes of the Taliban-style local village caste council, the Khap Panchayat. Though the perpetrators were arrested, tried in a court of law and given the death sentence, they were unrepentant - as were the other Khap leaders, who went on to ostracise Manoj's mother. The Jat cops who colluded with the murderers have not been punished yet.
The capital punishment handed out to the perpetrators was meant to act as a deterrent. Yet, undeterred, the Khap chieftains recently pledged to intensify their war against same gotra marriages, and started clamoring for amending to Hindu Marriage Act to ban same-gotra marriages. Recently, in a bizarre turn of events, a young Jat soldier, belonging to the traditionally caste-less Muslim religion, has caught the ire of the Khap for marrying a Muslim girl, whom the Khap considers to belong to the same gotra - never mind the completely different religion!
Sensing a political opportunity to be seized, a few Indian political leaders have come out in support of the Khap leaders.
Yesterday, I expressed my disgust on Facebook at the action and words of Naveen Jindal, two-times Congress MP (Member of Parliament) and supposedly an 'icon of young India'. During an interview, when asked about his views on same-gotra marriages, he tried to pull a stunt by asking the interviewer, and then her mother by phone, about their views. When both of them said that they had no problem with that and even excoriated the MP for promoting casteist views, he beat a hasty retreat, bypassed the question and started talking about culture and values et cetera. Reading about this, I was outraged and expressed that by asking aloud - How do these idiots become our members of the Parliament? Because of people like these, the despicable caste system and caste-based politics are still alive and thriving in India. Is there no scientist of some substance who can give this minister a biology and genetics lesson?
In fact, that is one of the things that have majorly bothered me about this situation. The politicians have now started referring to the 'problem' of same-gotra marriage as "not right scientifically and medically". This is, of course, utter bullshit; this is what happens when uneducated, irrational fools start expressing their 'scientific' opinions. And coming from a senior politician, such an opinion carries a lot of weight amongst the masses that are equally uneducated and mired in religious myths and superstitions. There is no truth to the assertion of the 'problem'. Within bounds of endogamy, immediately consanguineous marriages are discouraged because it effectively shrinks the gene pool, and may lead to congenital defects in the progeny from such marriages. But same-gotra marriages are hardly consanguineous in the scientific sense.
Therefore, it surprised me greatly to find that some of my own friends, with good grounding in biology and genetics, turned out to be ignorant of the wildly irrational nature of the claims against same-gotra marriage. That surprise spawned this post, which I hope will clear some issues surrounding this entire concept of gotra.
Gotra represents a traditional clan system, used to designate ancestral lineages of descent - in conjunction with caste. In general, lineage indicates patrilineal descent from ancient Rishis (Sages) of the Vedic age; people belonging to Hindu castes, the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Vaisyas, and even some of the Shudras, trace their origins from some Rishi or other, and come under the fold of a particular gotra.
However, gotra is by no means a firm and structured system. In certain matrilineal communities of the Southern part of India, gotra-membership passes from the mother. Many Hindu castes have lineages that do not necessarily follow the Vedic classifications. In Hindu religious mythology, Rishi Vishwamitra became a Brahmin from Kshatriya, and thereby changed his gotra. Moreover, even in the case of patrilineal descent, lineages were sometimes broken because of the Niyoga liasion system - where the wife of an impotent man was allowed to beget a child by someone else, often a Brahmin Kulguru (religious mentor of the clan), presumably to introduce good genes into the family tree. The most famous (and often disturbing, by modern standards) examples are afforded by Hindu mythology, including the epic texts, which is marked by amazing latitudes in sexual mores:
(a) After Parashurama massacred all Kshatriya men, their widows continued the race by being impregnated by Brahmins.
(b) Saradandayani stood waiting at the four-way crossroads until a Brahmin passer-by would impregnate her - on three separate occasions.
(c) Utanka impregnated the wife of his teacher (guru), Veda, the priest of King Janmejaya the third - upon her invitation.
(d) Madayanti, wife of Saudasa Kalmashpada, is sent by her husband to Rishi Vashishtha. This becomes interesting because Rama, the Hindu God-incarnate, was born later in this lineage, and yet, in accounts, traced his origin to Rishi Ikshwaku (and not Vashishtha) - following his gotra traditions, though there was no biological connection.
(e) King Pandu allowed his wife Kunti four Niyogas (with so-called Gods), resulting in the five sons, the Pandavas.
(f) The wife of Rishi Uddalak was impregnated by one of her husband's pupils, chosen by herself, resulting in Shwetaketu.
Note that I used the word 'latitudes' as opposed to 'promiscuity' there, simply because the decision to have sex out of the marriage in the Niyoga system, as well as the choice of the intended partner, was often left to the women. (I respect a woman's right to choose her sexual partner, and personally find the system not much different than in vitro fertilization using an anonymous sperm donor, of course, if the woman consents.) However, it is undeniable that in certain situations, there may have been various types of familial or political pressure to beget a child. In other circumstances, women were often treated as chattel and instrument of appeasement, even by other women in positions of power. Consider these further examples from Hindu religious mythology:
(a) Ambika and Ambalika were forced by their mother-in-law Satyavati to accept Rishi Vyasa.
(b) King Yayati gave away his daughter Madhavi to Rishi Galva, who in turn rented her out to three different kings in succession, and finally to his own guru, the Kshatriya-turned-Brahmin Vishwamitra, to obtain a son each from her. After four sons, Madhavi was returned to her father.
(c) King Vali sent his wife, Sudeshna, to the blind Rishi Dirghatama.
(d) There are enough examples (too many to list) of incest, with the grandfather, father and son sharing the same woman for sex and impregnating them (such as Daksha Prajapati, Vaivaswat Manu, Kashyapa and so forth. The genealogy of the Mahabharatas is replete with them).
Therefore, if one goes by the Hindu religious tradition and ancient texts (often considered reflexions of the-then society and norms by modern historians), the concept of gotra (as well as the main objection to inter-gotra marriages) becomes meaningless. The claim of a continuous biological linkage with the moola purusha (the original or most significant personality) of the gotra is scientifically absurd, and treated even in those days as a mere matter of convenience, and sometimes prestige.
Adding further to the confusion is the fact that even the concept of 'sagotra' union (within same gotra) is defined differently from region to region in modern India. (And when one considers caste, the situation becomes impossibly murky, so I'm not going there.) In patrilineal South Indian communities, marriages are allowed between maternal uncle and niece, while such marriages were forbidden in matrilineal communities, such as Keralite Nayyars and Pillais of Nagercoil. The South Indian Hindu society permits marriage between cross-cousins (children of brother and sister). On the other hand, the North Indian Hindu society not only follows stricter rules of gotra for marriages, but also a broader - and often arbitrary - definition of incestuousness.
Biologically and genetically speaking, beyond one degree of separation, there is no health impact on the progeny of a marriage even between a man and woman who are related to each other. The taboo is mainly societal and cultural, not medical. The study of Genetics and Human Genomics puts the entire concept of gotra into serious doubt. This entire caste/subcaste and gotra business is an extremely regressive socio-political position, not supported by science at all. But the political leaders in India, as well as the Khap leaders now, understand that in modern societies, science represents authority - which is why these leaders are desperately trying to polish their despicable positions and superstitions with a scientific veneer, by claiming a scientific justification for their idiotic traditions and customs.
This denigrates Science itself, and anyone who has read, understood or worked with biology, genetics and science should speak up against such abuse of science.
(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."