Symbolic Meaning of Acts Performed During Hindu Pujas and Prayers

A simple prayer before the deity with hands folded and placed near the heart is the most common form of praying in Hindu religion. But there are also various other acts that Hindus perform while praying like lighting the lamp, offering flowers and leaves, burning camphor or offering food etc. In Hinduism, each act performed has a symbolic meaning.

Sprinkling of Water and Sipping while doing Puja
Sprinkling of water symbolically performs the purification of the surroundings. Sipping of water is purification of oneself.

Lighting of Lamp
It symbolizes removal of ignorance and ushering in of knowledge. The wick in the traditional oil lamp symbolizes ego and the oil or ghee used symbolizes our negative tendencies. When we are lit by self knowledge, the negative tendencies (oil) melt away and finally the ego (wick) perishes. (More details in this post)

Burning of Camphor
Burning of camphor symbolizes the destruction of our egos and arrogance. When ego melts what is left is the pure Self.

Lighting of Incense and Agarbathis
This is used for fragrance which symbolically suggests the presence of the deity and the love of deity.

Performing Aarati or waving of lamp around the deity
Waving of lamp and camphor around the deity is symbolically an act of surrender.

Breaking of Coconut
Symbolically breaking of coconut is act of destruction of one’s ego. Coconut kernel and the water is also considered to be the purest form of offering that a devotee can make. (more details in this post)

Offering of Betel leaves and Betel nuts
Betel leaves and nuts symbolize fertility and is usually offered for the birth of children at home. It is also part of all important pujas in South India.

Bells Rung during Puja
The bells that are rung during puja are to keep out other noises and it is also a means of celebrations. Bells rung in the beginning is done to ward away evil forces.

Offering of Food or nevediya
Symbolically, offering of good indicates a thanksgiving to the deity. It is an act of sharing God’s bounty. It is then distributed as 'prasad.' What is offered should be shared with the poor and the needy.

Offering of Flowers
Flowers are offered basically because of their fragrance and due to the association of a particular flower with a particular deity. For example Bilva leaf is associated with Lord Shiva and Tulsi with Lord Vishnu. Puranas have stories which explain why a particular flower is associated with a particular deity.
On the symbolic level, the flowers and leaves are picked up with five fingers and is offered with all five fingers. It is usually placed at the feet of the deity. The five fingers symbolically indicate the five senses and thereby surrendering of it before the deity.
Flowers are also offered by bringing it close to one’s heart. This symbolically suggests that one is offering the soul or atma to the deity.

Walking thrice around the deity or Pradakshina
In some places mainly in temples people walk around the Sanctum Sanctorum three times in clockwise direction. It is symbolically to cross the nether world, earth and heaven to reach Brahman. (More details in this post)

Knocking the two ends of forehead before Pujas in South India
Some devotees knock the two ends of forehead before beginning prayer and puja in South India. It is believed that the nerves connecting to the intellect passes through these two ends and the knocking is to invoke Lord Ganesha, the god of Budhi (intellect).

Arms crossed across the chest and holding ear tips
In South India, Hindus while praying knock both the sides of forehead and then put arms crossed across the chest and hold ear tips and then sits and stands before the deity a few times. This is known was Thoppukaranam in South. It is a sort of self-imposed penance and praying for forgiveness.