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 Manvantara, 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. Drona did many years of severe penance to please lord Shiva in order to obtain a son who possesses the same valiance as of Lord Siva. Aswatthama is the avatar of one of the eleven Rudras. Aswatthama and Kripa are believed to be the lone survivors still living who actually fought in the kurukshetra war. Aswatthama was born with a gem in his forehead which gives him power over all living beings lower than humans. This gem is supposed to protect him from attacks by ghosts, demons, poisonous insects, snakes, animals etc. Dronacharya loved him very dearly. Even though he was born immortal due to the blessing of Lord Siva, the rumours about his death in the Kurukshetra war led to the death of Drona at the hands of Prince Dhrishtadyumna. He is the grandson of the Brahmin sage Bharadwaja. Ashwatthama is a mighty Maharathi who fought on the Kaurava side against the Pandavas.
Along with sage Parashurama and sage Vyasa, Aswatthama is considered to be foremost among the rishis. Aswatthama will become the next sage Vyasa (title), who in turn divide the Veda in 29th Mahayuga of the 7th Manavantra. Aswatthama will also become one of the Sapta Rishis in the 8th Manavantara. His physical description in the Mahabharata is that he is incredibly tall, with dark skin, dark eyes, and a gem in his forehead. Like Bhishma, Drona, Kripa, Karna, and Arjuna, he is a master of the science of weapons and is regarded as the foremost among warriors. Aswatthama studied Dhanurveda or martial arts and Brahmavidya or the science of the Self or Atma from Lord Parasurama,Maharishi Durvasa,Maharishi Ved Vyasa, Bhishma,Kripa and Drona. Aswatthama is the master of all forms of knowledge and possess complete mastery over 64 forms of arts or Kalas and 18 Vidyas or branches of knowledge.
- Bali, also called MahaBali and his son Banasur, 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.
Hindu scripture contains a mantra about the seven immortals, in which their names are recited for luck and longevity:
अश्वत्थामाबलिर्व्यासोहनुमांश्च विभीषण:कृपश्चपरशुरामश्च सप्तैतेचिरंजीविन:।
- Ashwathaama Balirvyaaso Hanumanshach
- Vibhishanha Krupascha Parshuramascha
- 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.
अश्वत्थामा बलिव्र्यासो हनूमांश्च विभीषण:। कृप: परशुरामश्च सप्तएतै चिरजीविन:॥ सप्तैतान् संस्मरेन्नित्यं मार्कण्डेयमथाष्टमम्। जीवेद्वर्षशतं सोपि सर्वव्याधिविवर्जित।।
- Ashwathaama Balirvyaaso Hanumanshach
- Krupaha Parshuramascha Saptaitey Chiranjivinaha
- Saptaitaan Samsmareynnityam Markandeymathaashtamam
- Jivedvarshshatam Sopi Sarvavyadhivivarjit
इस श्लोक का अर्थ यह है कि इन आठ लोगों (अश्वथामा, दैत्यराज बलि, वेद व्यास, हनुमान, विभीषण, कृपाचार्य, परशुराम और मार्कण्डेय ऋषि) का स्मरण सुबह-सुबह करने से सारी बीमारियां समाप्त होती हैं और मनुष्य 100 वर्ष की आयु को प्राप्त करता है।
The above lines means that by daily remembering these 8 immortals (Ashwatthama, King Bali, Ved Vyasa, Hanuman, Vibhishan, Kripacharya, Parashuram and Rishi Markandaya) one can be free of all problems and live for 100 years. These are also called as 8 great warriors.
- Bhāgavata Purāṇa 3.32.8-10
- Malayalam book Bharata Paryatanam (A journey through the Mahabharata) by Kuttikrishana Marar.
- K M Ganguly(1883-1896). The Mahabharata,Book 5 Udyoga Parva,Section CLXVIII sacred-texts.com,October 2003,Retrieved 2014-10-12
- K M Ganguly(1883-1896). The Mahabharata,Book 13 Anusasana Parva,SECTION CL sacred-texts.com,October 2003,Retrieved 2014-10-11