Etymology and scriptural context
The term is a combination of chiram, or 'permanent', and jīvi, or 'lived'. It is same as'amaratva, which refers to true immortality. At the end of the last Kalpa, a demon attempted to become immortal by swallowing the Vedas, as they escaped from the mouth of Brahma. The scripture was retrieved by the first (Matsya) avatar of Lord Vishnu. Incarnations of Vishnu also later fought and killed two other asuras, Hiranyakasipu and Ravana, who tried to become immortal through obeisance to Shiva. In Hinduism, immortal does not mean eternal, as all physical bodies are foretold to become immaterial at the end of time, along with Brahma himself.
The extant Puranas, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata describe seven long lived personalities in the Hindu pantheon. Each represents a different attribute of man, which as long as they live, will exist amongst humanity.
"Ashwatthama Balir Vyaso Hanumanash cha Vibhishana Krupacharya cha Parashuramam Saptaita Chiranjeevanam" - 'Ashwathama, King Mahabali, Vyasa, Hanuman, Vibhishana, Kripacharya and Parashurama are the seven death-defying or imperishable personalities '.
The chiranjivi are as follows:
- Ashwatthama, the son of Drona, a great warrior. He acted out of cowardice to avenge the killing of his father, resulting in a curse of immortality.
- Bali, also called MahaBali, was the virtuous emperor of the three worlds and grandson of Prahlad who was of Asura descent. Every year on the day of Onam, he descends to earth from the heavens to visit his people, those of the region of Kerala.
- Hanuman, served Rama. He stands for selflessness, courage, devotion, strength, and righteous conduct.
- Kripa, military guru of the princes in the Mahabharata.
- Parashurama, 6th avatar of Vishnu, master of all astras, sastras and divine weapons. The Kalki Purana writes that he will re emerge at end time to be the martial guru of Kalki. He will then instruct the final avatar to undertake penance to receive celestial weaponry, required to save mankind at end time.
- Vibhishana, brother of Ravana. Vibhishana surrendered to Rama before his battle with Ravana. Later, he was crowned king of Lanka after Ravana was killed by Rama. He stands for righteousness. Vibhishana is not a true Chiranjivi, as his boon of longevity is to remain on the earth only until the end of the Mahayuga.
- Vyasa, the sage who composed the Mahabharata. He represents erudition and wisdom. He was the son of sage Parashara and grandson of sage Vashishtha. He was born towards the end of Tretayuga, lived to see the complete Dwaparayuga, and also saw the initial phase of Kalyuga.
Other famous immortals or Chiranjivins. Jambhavan, Markandeya, Devapi, Maru, Saptarishis, Bhusunda (Crow).
Hindu scripture contains a mantra about the seven immortals, in which their names are recited for luck and longevity:
अश्वत्थामाबलिर्व्यासोहनुमांश्च विभीषण:कृपश्चपरशुरामश्च सप्तैतेचिरंजीविन:।
- Ashwathaama Balir Vyasaha Hanumantha Vibeeshanaha
- Kripa Parashuramascha
- Saptaitey Chiranjivinaha
Apart from the seven Chiranjivis above mentioned, there exist other Chiranjivis as well. For instance, Sage Markandeya, when at the age of sixteen, was blessed with immortality.
- Bhāgavata Purāṇa 3.32.8-10
- Malayalam book Bharata Paryatanam (A journey through the Mahabharata) by Kuttikrishana Marar.