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Anthropology of Taboo

The word taboo has been derived from the word Tapu or Tabu which refers to certain specific types of prohibitions violation of which is believed to be produce undesirable consequences. Such beliefs are widely spread among the primitive societies observed by all the members of a society. In all these societies the consequences of the breach are believed to be drastic and defined such as illness,death ,draught or disaster and economic failure etc.

Taboo is a different kind of prohibition in the sense that it is considered as ritual prohibition. Since they are followed and observed by all the members in a culture with an element of compulsion by which certain acts or behaviours are prohibited therefore they are defined as negative complusives of culture. The association of the fear of the super natural with taboo makes it a part of the belief system. 

Food taboo are associated with totemic beliefs because of which the consumption of certain plants and animal species is prohibited and its non observance is considered to be detrimental for the society. In many societies consumption of specific food items is prohibited temporarily or permanently for the men of ranks or forbidden to women and children.

Certain prohibitions pertaining to sex relations are categorized as sex taboos.Incest is an almost universal sex prohibition in societies which prohibits any sexual contact between the members of the same nuclear family and other closely related kins. 

To protect the privileges and prestige of sacred persons or sacred places there are certain types of activities and behaviors which may be prohibited for them.Toda sacred dairies and dairymen enjoy high status in Toda society. The pots and utensils of the sacred dairies and milk and buffalos associated with them are of sacred category and cannot be handled or touched by the commoners.Taboos act as important mechanism of social control – the unwritten law in the primitive societies operative through supernatural agency. Forbidding anti-social acts, it reinforces prescribed social values.

There are certain taboos which are observed for the sake of protection.The tribal chiefs and kings are not allowed to be touched by the commoners.The idea behind these such taboos is to provide maximum protection to the life and person of these political luminaries in tribal societies.In Polynesia certain things as a new born child ,a dead body,body of a chief are not allowed to be touched.By doing so,an individual himself becomes a tabu polluted and certain rites of purification have to be performed. This is known as desacralization and he or she become a Noa after the performance of these rites a term opposed to Tabu.

According to Frazer, the system of following taboos was prevalent in all the societies under different names. Breach of taboo places an individual in the condition of ritual danger.Relief from this danger is obtained by performing an elaborate ritual expressive in nature. Sigmund Freud considers taboo as an act of repentance , a product of consciousness of some common guilt.