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- Our Ancient Customs (Part - 1)

Yagna, Dana and Gotra

by Sudheer Birodkar


Table of Contents


Every society has passed through a tribal stage at some time or the other. Some societies are still in the tribal stage for instance the Australian aborigines, and the Red Indians living in the preserves or nearer home in India the Nagas and Bhils , etc.,. This stage is normally characterized by a collective way of living where property is under common ownership of the tribes the institution of monogamous family has not yet been accepted and where livelihood depends on tending of cattle, collection of wild fruits and roots and shifting, subsistence agriculture.

The Tribal Way of Life was of Collective Activity

This Collective way of life is conducive to the birth of many of the folklore and rituals of later stages of development when the tribal way of life is no more. The origins of these folklore and rituals is normally lost and hence they are looked upon as timeless and having divine sanction. The main reason for their origin being lost is the absence of a written language during the tribal stage when most of the folklore is born. Due to the absence of a written language, ideas had to be passed on from generation to generation by means of oral narration. Although the origin of most rituals is lost to us, the nature of the rituals that we perform today is at times eloquent about their origins.

A hard look at Our Rituals can bring out many of their lost origins.

A hard look at these rituals can bring out many of their lost origins . The practice of oral transmission of knowledge due to the absence of a literary medium itself becomes a tradition in some cases. In India our traditions of smriti (remembrance) and Shurti (listening) and sloka pathan (oral narration) are instances of this. Even during our prayers and sacrificial invocations (Yagna) we rarely see the officiating priests reading out the prayer (slokas and Mantras).

These are generally recited or chanted. In this chapter we take up a set of traditions which we observe in today's society and try to reconstruct the social ethos in which they could have originated. The issues we take up are the ritual of fire sacrifice (Yagna) our traditional practice of charity Dana), the concept of Gotra which is a consideration while arranging marriages, the institution of monogamous marriage (Dwanda-Vivaha) and the worship of the Mother Goddess.

Yagna as a Sacrifice

Agni - The Aryan God of Fire was looked upon as the protector of men and their homes. Agni was propitiated to spell prosperity for the Ayran tribe. The central fireplace where Agni was lit and preserved by the Agni-hotras "preservers of fire" was the common hearth of the Aryan tribe, originally. Later on it came to be ritualised as the Yagna - fire sacrifice.

Yagna is a term we normally hear in today's society. It is popularly understood as a fire sacrifice involving the offering of grains, clarified butter, sandalwood etc, to a fire . This fire is ignited in a special fireplace called the Kund, which literally means a "Pot". Yagna is normally performed with the objective of ushering in prosperity or to avoid disaster. For performing a Yagna a minimum number of five priests are required although many more priests may participate. A Yagna is normally accompanied by mass feeding of people, the food being distributed as Prasad (i.e food which has been sanctified by offering it to the Gods). Rituals similar to yagna are performed during marriage, thread ceremony, vaastu shanti (opening ceremony for a house), etc. when a homa or sacred fire is ignited in a kund.

It is widely known that Yagna is a very old tradition in the Hindu religion and it is looked upon as a Vedic ritual. In Vedic literature there are innumerable descriptions of a Yagnas being performed. The origin of the Yagna though lost in history, the rituals associated with it today throw light as to its nature.

Yagna centres around a Fireplace

Yagna as a ritual centers around a fireplace. Thus, it obviously must have come into being after fire was domesticated. Even the oldest of the Vedas, the Rigveda describes a society where man had no fire, no protection against wild beasts, uncertainty of prey and hence the spectre of being perished. This environment is poetically expressed in Vedic literature. Prajapati, the creator suffered abortion in the act of creation and was threatened with extinction. But the world was saved when he was given milk and roasted meat. Praiapati, symbolizes the Aryan man in his most primitive stage, who to the Aryans became a personification of their existence, the memory of which was kept alive by Prajapati being deified in the hymns and songs that constitute the Rigveda.

The Fablised Recollection of the Discovery of Fire

This fableised recollection also narrates the discovery of making fire and the art of domesticating animals. Agni - fire has been referred to as an eater of dead flesh (Kravyad). Fire also served as a formidable weapon against wild animals and other tribes. It also helped during the hunt for capturing prey and as a shield against the oppressive cold winters of the higher latitudes. Society obtained a respite from the threat of extinction and was lifted above the margin of sustenance.

Satra - The Collective Labour

However man individually was powerless in the fight; against nature, hence whatever was collected or hunted had to be done collectively in large groups (Gana). Thus the auxiliary practices of distribution and consumption were also performed collectively. The absence of the institution of the monogamous marriage and family life as we know it today was another factor that ensured collectivity in all facets of life. The collective labour that was undertaken by Vedic Aryans was termed Satra which means a session, implying collectivity. Thus there was no question of division of society into Varnas and Jatis, so prominent in later Hindu society.

The Fireplace was the Nucleus of the Tribal Society

But the domestication of fire provided a gravitating nucleus for the collective life of the tribe (Gana). As to what the tribal Aryans did around this central fireplace can be guessed from the original Yagna rituals which today are kept alive in the Yagnas as performed by Sadhus (i.e. ascetics and hermits).

The Yagna Ritual Re-creates all Aspects of Primitive Tribal Collective Life

Contemporary writer describes this Yagna ritual as follows: " The Yagna ritual " ... " is a process in which almost all primitive social life has to be recreated. You have to produce fire by friction of two pieces of wood, to build a cottage where no iron is used but only specific wood and grass, to milk cows, make curds, pound corn with stone (not even a stone mill), boil and cook it, ..." This description brings out the fine semblance between the original Yagna ritual and the function of cooking for a tribal household. In the public Yagnas, like the Rajasuya and Ashwamedha Yagna that were sponsored in later ages by kings, many alterations and refinements were introduced but the original primitive features stuck fast. These royal Yagnas involved the coming together of innumerable Brahmins, the consigning to the central fire, generous quantities of sandalwood, camphor, ghee (clarified butter), grains, and even sacrificial animals and birds. All this corresponds to the central fireplace theory as the origin of the Yagna.

The Central Fireplace of the Aryan tribe became a ritual to be performed at any important occasion as in a marriage. The Saptapadi (Seven Steps) was a ritual to be performed around a central fireplace called agni-kund. The sacred fire was Vedi. The couple to be married had to go around the Vedi seven times, representing seven days of the week.

Before its Domestication Fire was an Object of Awe and Fear

Fire had, before its domestication been observed by cavemen and savages only as a formidable destructive medium in the gigantic forest fires, volcanic eruptions etc. Hence it had always been looked upon with fear and awe. But after its domestication, fire spelt prosperity for the nomadic people. Hence it could easily become an object of worship. When the nomadic Aryans had progressed towards settled civilized life the fireplace no longer remained the gravitating nucleus of their daily life. But their social memory continued to be ruled by the past reality.

This Lingering Social Memory Perpetuated the Practice of having the Central Fire as the Yagna

This lingering social memory perpetuated the practice of having the central fire, which in the changed circumstances became a ritualised form of worship. The recollection of the extinct past fermented ideas that invocation of the fire would again spell wealth and prosperity as it had after its domestication.

In the Yagna ritual of later days up to our own age, the hymns sung in the Vedic days are recited, the collective social life is reconstructed in a ritualised rnanner with the fond hope that all this would spell prosperity for the performers of the Yagna. This is one instance of a past being kept alive in later ages by crystallizing it into a ritual.


Dana and Dakshina

At some time or the other during our lives we observe the practices of dana and dakshina. Dana is the traditional Indian form of charity. We are told that giving away of dana secures divine blessings for the giver. As such dana can be given to anybody but the emphasis has always been on giving dana to Brahmins. Hindu tradition has never extolled Dana to Kshatriyas, Vaishyas or Shudras.

Since ancient times kings and noblemen have organised mass feeding ceremonies, distribution of grain and utilities as dana. Such giving away of wealth without expecting anything in return except blessings, was termed Dana.

On any occasions like marriage, thread ceremony, opening ceremony, rites at death etc., we ask a Brahmin priest to officiate over the ceremony and in return for his services we offer him grain, cloth, gold and nowadays even cash. This offering is termed dakshina.

Dana and Dakshina are given in Cash and Kind, but never as free Physical Labour

Traditionally dakshina was given, and had the nature of a payment in kind for services rendered by a priest. But nowadays with this offering being made also in terms of cash its nature as a payment becomes clear. When it is given in cash, it is in the denomination of eleven, twenty-one, fifty-one, one hundred and one-etc Although has the nature of a voluntary payment it is not looked upon as such and is considered to be an offering to an officiating prbst. In spite of the fine difference between the terms dana and dakshina, these terms are used interchangeably with the same connotation. But the common element in both dana and dakshina is that they are payments in cash or kind articles of use, such as, cloth, grain, utensils etc.

Dana and dakshina are never offered in terms of physical labour in the form of social work. This is where they are different from the Christian concept of charity which involves social work and provision of social services. The custom of dana has always been part of Indian society and like Yagna, its origins seem to be in the collective hunting and common sharing way of life of life of the Vedic period.

The Havana- a method of distribution of the Common Tribal Wealth

The Rigveda mentions the incendiary wars that the different nomadic tribes fought in their search for better pastures and hunting grounds. The way of life both during peacetime and war was based on collective activity. In the tribal way of life even during peacetime the share (Havi) of every member of the tribe was distributed in a function called the Havana. Whatever was gathered, hunted or cooked was shared among all members of the tribe

The same principle was applied to the distribution of the booty of war. Articles that were plundered after a successful military campaign such as weapons, clothing and other articles of personal consumption were distributed amongst members. This distribution which was carried out in festive atmosphere after a successful campaign is perhaps the progenitor of our custom of offering dana especially on festival days and other auspicious occasions like the crowning of a king, royal birthdays, etc.

The Dakshina - Before the starting of a pooja, the seat (or pitha) of the pooja had to be established and decorated, after which the image of the presiding diety was installed on a betel leaf. Often a coconut is placed in place of a betel leaf. The borders are made of a grains of wheat and the diamond shape in the center of rice. These grains are to be given to the pujari (priest) performing the pooja as a part of his dakshina (customary payment to a priest for performing the pooja).

Dana Originally Connoted Distribution not Charity

The term dana is used in Vedic literature to describe the act of distributing such wealth among members of a tribe. The original connotation of the word dana was thus not just to give but to distribute. And in the tribal way of life this distribution did not have the nature of one person giving away his wealth to another but as distribution among members of a tribe (Gana) the captured property that was under common ownership of the tribe as a whole, but for its consumption it had to be allotted to individual members.

That dana connoted only the distribution of proceeds of war is corroborated by the fact that it was not part of daily life and was held on select occasions that called for festivities. The practice of offering of dana especially on festive occasions survived the passing away of the tribal way of life of collective activity and common sharing.

But with the passage of time, the tribal way of life broke up and so did the institution of common property. With the division of labour according to different specialised occupations, war became a profession of a select body of men who constituted the army, the commander of which was the king. In India those of the warrior profession were known as Kshatriyas or Rajanyas and their chieftain was the Rajan.

The proceeds of war and later on the proceeds of tributes and taxes came into the hands of the warriors and the king. These proceeds were no longer looked upon as common property to which every member of society had an equal claim. It now came to be looked upon as Rajasva, literally meaning that which belongs to the king (Raja = king, sva = own or self). But the practice of distributing wealth accumulated in the royal treasury and in the smaller private hoards of noblemen-warriors, among the kingdom's of populace continued. Religious festivals and public events such as coronation were occasions for distributing wealth and this distribution was looked upon as dana. This practice was normally respected but it was not a compulsory or obligatory requirement. If the king followed it he was looked upon as virtuous if not then he was an evil king.

Dana Became a Transfer of Wealth from the Nobility to the Clergy

But there was no formal law that made it imperative for the king and noblemen to observe this custom. Dana, thus acquired a voluntary character which was looked upon as an act of piety. With the passage of time Dana came to be bestowed mainly upon the clergy which in India was the Brahmin caste. Dana which under the tribal set up was an instrument for equi-distribution of wealth became one of discriminatory enrichment of a section of the society. This was so as the practice of Dana gradually came to acquire the nature of transfer of wealth from the nobility to the clergy. The clergy by virtue of the psychological hold exercised on all sections of society enforced this transfer though not always successfully. There did exist some justification for this transfer as it was normally the clergy which was a repository of knowledge as under the caste system only it had the right to acquire education. It was mainly the king and the nobility who could sustain the practice of dana although the trading community (Vaishyas) also joined their ranks of donees, when mercantile activity favoured them with disposable surplus wealth. In the later ages the observance of dana was ensured by fostering ideas that giving of dana results in Punya (God's blessings). Hence, it was the holy duty of everybody to offer dana this was especially so for the King and the nobility to give dana. The episode of Karna in te Mahabharat, highlights the overwhelming importance attached to honouring the practice of dana by the nobility in ancient India. Briefly the episode is as follows:

The Story of Karna in the Mahabharata

Karna was born to Kunti mother of the Pandavas before marriage. According to the mythological account he was fathered by the Sun from whom he inherited the Kavacha and Kundala which were protective organs as a part of his physical body. It was deereed that as long as he wore the Kavacha (a bony shield on the chest) and Kundala (ear rings), Karna would be immortal. Out of shame, Kunti abandoned the baby Karna by setting his cradle afloat in the Ganges river. He was found by a person from a menial Profession and was brought up as a son. Karna grew up to be a brave and expert archer whose extraordinary talent was spotted by Duryodhana the eldest of the Kaurava brothers. The wily Duryodhana enrolled Karna into the ranks of the Kaurava army in spite of Karna being looked upon as a member of a menial caste for which he was contemptuously referred to as Sutaputra (low born).

Karna's prowess as an archer was superior to that of Arjuna of the Pandavas, who himself was an accomplished archer. During the Mahabharata war between Pandavas and Kauravas, Karna and Ariuna were to confront each other. The outcome of their encounter was a foregone conclusion. When Kunti came to know that Karna was also her son, she rushed to Karna and begged him not to fight his brother Arjuna in what would be a fratricidal war. But Karna was unmoved in his determination to stand by his master, Duryodhana during the war.

A scene from the Mahabharata War in which Karna perished while fighting Arjuna. The reason for Karna's defeat was partly his giving away as Dana, his Kavacha and Kundala to Sri Krishna who came to karna in the guise of a Sadhu asking for Karna's vital defensive organs. In keeping with ancient Indian tradition, Karna could not refuse Sri Krishna's request.

Lord Srikrishna who acted as adviser to the Pandavas knew the inevitability of Karna's victory against Arjuna and to preclude this possibility he decided to deprive Karna of his protective Kavacha and Kundala in a way that Karna could not refuse. Srikrishna took upon the guise of a Sadhu and went to Karna before the inception of the battle and demanded that Karna offer him dana. Considering the giving of dana to a Brahmin before setting off for battle to be an auspicious deed, the innocuous Karna told the lord in guise to ask for anything he wanted and consider it to have been granted. Horrified as he might have been when the lord in guise demanded the Kavacha and Kundala.

But Karna refused to go back on his word and gave away his impregnable armour to the malevolent Sadhu. Thus unprotected he proceeded to the battle and the lack of his armour along with the misfortune of a ruptured chariot wheel became the reason for his undoing. Karna preferred death rather than the stigma of dishonour that would have attached to him had he refused to carry out his word and offered whatever the malevolent lord in the guise of a Sadhu had demanded. This anecdote illustrates the moral grip on the psyche that has insured the existence of dana over the ages till today.



Gotra is one of the many considerations that exist during match making in the traditional manner. Janmakundalis (horoscopes) of the prospective bride and groom are compared to see if a match could he made.

Saubhagyavati - The Blessed One. This term is used to refer to a married Hindu woman. The symbols associated with a woman being married are the Laxmi padas (Goddess Laxmi's Footsteps). The Goddess Laxmi is believed to have entered the house of a married woman who performs poja after drawing the Laxmi Padas. Other symbols of a woman being a Saubhagyavati (Married) are a vermilion powder pot, bangles, a comb, and a looking glass.

Gotras have to be different while Matchmaking for a Marriage

While in matching Janmakundalis the consideration is for the common and symmetrical features, but surprisingly while comparing Gotras the requirement is that the bride and groom should belong to different Gotras. If their Gotras are identical a match cannot be made. Today most of us may not be aware as to what Gotra is. Its meaning is lost and it is doubtful whether even the astrologers who compare horoscopes can satisfy an inquisitive student as to the origin and meaning of Gotra and the reason why identical Gotras preclude a match in a traditional Hindu marriage.

Gotra Originated as the Common Cowpen or Cow Shed During the Tribal Aryan Past

The origin of this concept of Gotra also seems to lie in a tribal ethos and is linked to the system of common ownership of property. The word Gotra literally means cowpen or cowshed and is derived from "Go" meaning cow.

With the domestication of animals, cattle became an important source of meats and milk. With the rearing of cattle, hunting as the principal source of subsistence lost its importance and the lifestyle became less nomadic as compared to the earlier days when hunting was the main activity of sustenance. With the coming of a pastoral way of life it was possible to have individual ownership of the means of subsistence which was impossible during the days of hunting.

But the older practice of holding property in common could not die out abruptly. Even in a pastoral society the principle means of subsistence - cattle - continued to be held as common property. The members of a tribe had one object for solidarity and this was the cattle they held in common. While in a society of hunters, the prisoners of wars and other fellow travellers could either be sacrificed or absorbed into the tribe so as to increase the strength of the hunt party; the pastoral society ruled out such absorption of new members who would only be additional mouths to feed. The tribe henceforth became an endogamous clan which kept outsiders out and insiders in.

Sa-Gotra (Marriage Within a Gotra) was the Norm Originally

But the endogamous clan still retained some features of the tribal way of life like common ownership of property (and promiscuity). This new solidarity that emerged from the common ownership of cattle, acquired the name Gotra from its very nature. But then the Gotra which was the foundation of life and livelihood also became its limit.Sexual pairing was limited to member of a Gotra. This form of pairing was termed Sagotra. Our Present day prohibition on marriage within one Gotra is a later development.

The shift from pairing within a Gotra to prohibition on marriage between two members having the same Gotra must be a result of a variety of factors.

As long as promiscuity survived, society must have been matriarchal as the mother would have been the only identifiable parent. But with the rising productivity and gradual emergence of individual holding of property, this way of life had to make way for another.

The title to the increasing hoard of wealth was held by male members of a clan due to their being the physically dominant sex. It was the efforts of the more powerful males that won for the clan the property of other clans and also enabled defense of their own property from being grabbed by other clans. With the gradual increase in productive power, the acquisition of slaves etc. The title to property also changed from being collective to individual. This change in the title to property from communal to individual must have been the result of evolution over hundreds of years. But why did this change have to prohibit the established practice of marriage within a Gotra?

The answer perhaps lies in Human Social Evolution. Primitive promiscuity as it exists among the lower animals, also existed among humans to begin with. Later on came monogamous marriage. Simultaneously, with the rise in the productive power of human beings there came about accumulation of property initially in the form of cattle. The common ownership of this object of wealth made essential marriage only within members of the clan that held the wealth so as to prevents outsiders from claiming a share of it. But while this solidarity was based on the common ownership of wealth there still existed a commonality in the title to that wealth. And this commonality was first disturbed with the removal of promiscuous matriarchy which did take place with the passage of time. In matriarchy and its earlier form, promiscuity, there existed no bar on members of a clan (Gotra) whether they be the progeny of the same mother, the father not being an identifiable parent.

But with the eclipse of matriarchy and the coming of individual ownership and monogamy, the father became an identifiable parent and strains of patriarchy appeared. The ethic of matriarchal society that allowed marriage between the progeny of one mother or between paternal cousins now came to be frowned upon as these progeny were now the sons and daughters of one (identifiable) father or of one grandfather. This encouraged marriage outside the clan (Gotra). The prohibition on marriage outside a Gotra was made irrelevant by individual ownership of property and the custom of inheritance whereby property passed from father to son. As the title to property was individual and private and the transfer of this title to property was also fixed, there was no reason why a female member of one Gotra should not be tied in wedlock with a male member of another Gotra. Thus while formerly marriage within a Gotra was the rule, later marriage outside a Gotra became one.

Today it is difficult to imagine that marriage within one Gotra between members who were the progeny of one mother or were immediate maternal cousins by virtue of having the same grandmother could have once been a solemn custom. But the later rigid injunction against marriage within a Gotra itself implies that once the practice of marrying within one Gotra must have existed.

Thus as Sa-gotra marriage was once the norm, there arose the need for its prohibition. Something that has never existed need not be prohibited. Hence the existence of prohibition on Sagotra marriage itself is one evidence of its existence sometime in the past. With the disappearance of a pastoral society and also the clan ownership of cattle (Gotra as 'cowpen'), the emergence of monogamy and ownership of property and later urban civilization and with it a much wider social unit of human existence, the Gotra as an institution and a consideration for matchmaking vanished and marriage outside one's Gotra became the rule. But even afterwards the custom of prohibition on marriage within a Gotra continued. Today this prohibition is still observed as a matter of ritual and custom when even the original connotation of the term Gotra is generally not known.

Now we move on to examine the practices of Dwanda Vivaha and Worship of the Mother Goddess and in what circumstances they otiginated in ancient times.


Sudheer Birodkar


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