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 avatar of Vishnu, Matsya. 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.
Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana describe eight long lived personalities in the Hindu pantheon. They existed in past ages, Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, and Dvapara Yuga, and are alive today in our current Kali Yuga. Each represents a different attribute of man, which as long as they live, will exist amongst humanity.
"Ashwathaama 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 Chakravarthi, was granted a boon by Vishnu that he would be the next Indra, before merging with Vishnu. He expounds virtues of valour and charity.
- 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 Chiranjeevi, as his boon of longevity is to remain on the earth only until the end of Treta Yuga.
- Vyasa, a sage who narrated the Mahabharata. He represents erudition and wisdom.He was the son of Rishi Prashar and grandson of Rishi vashist. He was born in almost last of Tretayug, lived to see the whole Dwaparyug and also had seen the initial phase of Kalyug.
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 Parasuramas cha
- Saptaitey Chiranjeevinaha
It is specified that Markandeya had boon that he will never die and is blessed with immortality. He is commonly not found in the list of seven Chiranjeevis as he was born mortal and later attained immortality, unlike the seven Chiranjeevis who were born immortal.
- Bhāgavata Purāṇa 3.32.8-10
- Malayalam book Bharata Paryatanam (A journey through the Mahabharata) by Kuttikrishana Marar.