Symbolism in Hindu Rituals and Worship

What Do Vedic Rituals & Puja Offerings Symbolize?

Devotee nun soothsayer, telling fortunes at Preah Khan Temple, Angkor, Cambodia
Cultura Travel/Gary Latham

Vedic rituals, like the 'Yagna' and 'Puja', as said Shri Aurobindo, are "attempts to fulfill the purpose of creation and elevate the status of man to that of a godhead or a cosmic man". Puja is essentially a ritual suggestive of a symbolic offering of our lives and activities to God.

Symbolic Significance of Puja Items

Every object associated with the ritual of Puja or worship is symbolically significant. The statue or image of the deity, which is called 'Vigraha' (Sanskrit: 'vi'+ 'graha') means something that is devoid of the ill effects of the planets or 'grahas'. The flower that we offer to the deity stands for the good that has blossomed in us. The fruits offered symbolize our detachment, self-sacrifice and surrender, and the incense we burn collectively stands for the desires we have for various things in life. The lamp we light represents the light in us, that is the soul, which we offer to the Absolute. The vermilion or red powder stands for our emotions.

The Lotus

The holiest of flowers for Hindus, the beautiful lotus is symbolic of the true soul of an individual. It represents the being, which lives in turbid waters yet rises up and blossoms to the point of enlightenment. Mythologically speaking, lotus is also a symbol of creation, since Brahma, the creator came forth from the lotus that blooms from the navel of Vishnu. It is also famous as the symbol of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - the Hindu Right-wing political party of India, the familiar lotus position in meditation and yoga, and as the national flower of India and Bangladesh.

The Purnakumbha

An earthen pot or pitcher - called 'Purnakumbha' - full of water, and with fresh mango leaves and a coconut atop it, is generally placed as the chief deity or by the side of the deity before starting a Puja. Purnakumbha literally means a 'full pitcher' (Sanskrit: 'purna' = full, 'kumbha' = pot). The pot symbolizes mother earth, the water life-giver, the leaves life and the coconut divine consciousness. Commonly used during almost all religious rites, ans also called 'kalasha,' the pitcher also stands for goddess Lakshmi.

Fruits & Leaves

The water in the Purnakumbha and the coconut have been objects of worship since the Vedic age. The coconut (Sanskrit: Sriphala = God's fruit) alone is also used to symbolize 'God'. While worshipping any deity, a coconut is almost always offered along with flowers and incense sticks. Other natural objects that symbolize divinity are the betel leaf, the areca-nut or betel-nut, banyan leaf and the leaf of 'bael' or bilva tree.

Naivedya or Prasad

'Prasad' is the food that is offered to God in a typical Hindu ritual worship or Puja. It is our ignorance ('avidya') which we offer to the deity in a Puja. The food symbolically stands for our ignorant consciousness, which we place before god for spiritual enlightenment. After he suffuses it with knowledge and light and breathes a new life into our bodies, it makes us divine. When we share the prasad with others, we share the knowledge we thus gained with fellow beings.