Starting School (Vidyarambhana)
The next samskara is called Vidyarambhana or beginning education. Vidya is knowledge and arambhana is commencing. This is usually performed around the ages of four or five years. The ceremony generally involves some mantras of sanctification and the worship of Sarasvati Devi, the Goddess of learning. Then, either on a chalk board or "scratched out" in a bed of plain rice, the child's hand is guided in writing his first letters A, B, C . . . or whatever the local script maybe. Sometimes the name of an important family Deity, such as Rama is the first word written by the child.
Thread Ceremony (Upanayana)
The next samskara is called Upanayana. This is the equivalent of a Christian confirmation or Jewish bar mitzvah. It is a coming of age ceremony and in Hinduism it is usually performed for adolescence boys. Today the ceremony is generally performed only within the traditional brahmin families. This is unfortunate because it is an important ceremony and virtually all boys could benefit from such a ritual. Traditionally the ceremony was performed by the three upper varnas and not just brahmins.
The ceremony is sometimes called a "thread ceremony" because one of its important features is the investiture of a "sacred thread" that is placed over the shoulder of the boy. The thread is used in certain prayer rituals (called sandhya vandana) that are performed on a daily basis after the ceremony. The word upanayana comes from the sanskrit root "ni," which means "to lead," and so the upanayana is the "leading or coming closer," which means the boy is becoming a man and taking on adult responsibilities; it also implies that he is coming closer to the spiritual side of life, to guru and ultimately to God. After the ceremony, the boy is considered a dvija or twice born. He has completed his second birth. One's physical birth from mother is the first birth. The upanayana is the spiritual or second birth that comes from father or guru. During the upanayana ceremony the boy has his head shaved, is given a sacred bath, takes vows of study and celibacy, and is given the ancient gayatri mantra, which includes the investiture of the sacred thread. The mantra is whispered into the ear of the boy while ladies hold a cloth over the father, guru, and boy for privacy.
Moving along in a chronological way, the next import samskara is marriage. This is called Vivaha. As in virtually all cultures the marriage ceremony involves a bride and groom coming together in the presence of family and friends and then taking an oath of dedication to each other. In Sanskrit the word vivaha comes from the root vah, which means to carry. The oath of dedication that the bride and groom take to each other is a contract that "carries" them along for the remainder of their lives. Most Hindu weddings involve an exchange of garlands between the bride and groom (jaya mala), a bestowal of the bride by her father to the groom (kanya dhanam), the lighting of a sacred fire (havan), circumambulation of the fire (parikramanam), and the taking of seven vows (sapta padi). In general, southern marriages have the addition of a sacred necklace given to the bride by the groom (mangala sutra), and northern weddings have the addition of a sacred mark of vermilion applied by the groom to the bride in the parting of her hair (sindhura). There are, of course, huge variations between weddings, and many other aspects that we have not mentioned, especially in India where a ceremony can last many hours. In the West, the average wedding lasts about an hour.
The final samskara is the antyesthi or the last rites. In the West, Hindu funerals are performed very differently than in India where there is a whole caste of specialized priests that only deal with death. Out of necessity, in the West temple priests perform funeral services in conjunction with the local system for handling the dead. In orthodox culture it is considered impure for temple priests to deal with death.
Upon the death of an individual the family will call a funeral home to prepare the body as well as a priest to perform the last rites. In India a funeral is generally performed before the sun goes down on the day of passing, but in the West the funeral may not be performed for many days while permits are obtained and family members are given time to assemble.
During the funeral, family members and friends come to a funeral home or chapel. Last rites are never performed in a temple. A priest recites mantras, some final rituals are performed that may include a havan, eulogies are said, and family and friends are given the opportunity to offer their last respects with flower petals. Afterward the body is taken to a crematorium where the body is committed to the fire.