The term gotra, itself, according to strict Hindu tradition is used only for the lineages of Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vysya families. A Gotra relates directly to the original seven or eight Rishis of the Vedas. Recently, the term “gotra” has taken broader meanings to include any lineage, Brahmin or otherwise. Therefore, today, other terms are considered synonymous with gotra and the distinct meaning of the word and the esoteric connotations are lost to many, even within the Brahmin community.
A common mistake is to consider gotra to be synonymous with cult or Kula. A kula is basically a set of people following similar rituals, often worshipping the same God (the Kula-Devata – the God of the cult). Kula has nothing to do with lineage or caste. In fact, it is possible to change one’s Kula, based on his faith or Ishta Devatha. (preferred deity).
It is common practice in Hindu matrimonials to enquire about meaning of Kula-Gotra. Cult-Clan of the bride and bridegroom before approving the marriage. In almost all Hindu families, marriages within the same gotra are prohibited. But marriage within the kula is allowed and even preferred.
The word “Gotra” means “lineage” in the Sanskrit gotra, as given names may reflect the traditional occupation, place of residence or other important family characteristic rather than gotra. While it is somewhat akin to a family name, the given name of a family is often different from its gotra, as given names may reflect the traditional occupation, place of residence or other important family characteristic rather than gotra. People belonging to the same gotra also belong to the same caste in the Hindu social system. Many lines of descent from the major Rishis were later grouped separately. Accordingly, the major gotras were divided into ganas (subdivisions) and each gana was further divided into groups of families. The term gotra was then frequently started being applied to the ganas and to the sub-ganas.
Every Brahmin claims to be a direct patrilineal descendant of one of the founding rishis of a certain gana or sub-gana. It is the gana or sub-gana that is now commonly referred to as gotra.