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 Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva, respectively. In one sense immortal can mean "to live eternally until the destruction of Universes," i.e.; all physical bodies are foretold to become immaterial at the end of time, along with the tridevas themselves, with the destruction of the Universe.
The extant Puranas, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata describe seven long-lived personalities in the Hindu pantheon. There are others as well, which are not included in the one particular shloka. Each represents a different attribute of man, which as long as they live, will exist amongst humanity.
"Maarkandey Balir Vyaso Ashwatthama h Hanumanash cha Vibhishana Krupacharya cha Parashuramam ashtaita Chiranjeevanam" - 'Sage maarkandey,Ashwathama, King Mahabali, Vyasa, Hanuman, Vibhishana, Kripacharya and Parashurama are the eight death-defying or imperishable personalities '.
The Chiranjivis are as follows:
- 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 Kali Yuga.
- Hanuman, served Rama. He stands for selflessness, courage, devotion, strength, and righteous conduct.
- Parashurama, 6th avatar of Vishnu, knowledgeable about all astras, sastras and divine weapons. The Kalki Purana writes that he will re-emerge at the end of 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 the 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.
- 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 possessed the same valiance as Lord Shiva. Ashwatthama is the avatar of one of the eleven Rudras. Ashwatthama and Kripa are believed to be the lone survivors still living who actually fought in the Kurukshetra War.He might be immortal but Krishna gave curse that, he would live forever but with his body covered with sores and ulcers that would never cure.
- Bali, also called Maha Bali (his son was Banasur), was the virtuous emperor of the three worlds and Son of Virochana and grandson of Prahlada who were of Asura descent. During the Vamana avatar, Lord Vishnu blessed him to be a Chiranjivi. Every year on the day of Onam, he descends to earth from the heavens to visit his people, those of the region of Kerala.
- Other famous immortals or Chiranjivins: Jambavan, Sage Markandeya, Devapi, Maru, Saptarishis, Kak Bhusundi (Sage living in the form of a crow), Muchukunda the son of Mandhata , Banasur (son of King Bali) by Boon of Shiva, and Udal.
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 Hanumanshcha
- Vibhishanaha Krupascha Parshuramascha
- Saptaitey Chiranjivinaha
Apart from the seven Chiranjivis above mentioned, there exist other Chiranjivis as well. For instance, Sage Markandeya, who 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 Hanumanshcha Vibheeshanaha
- 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 mean 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 Ailments and live for 100 years. These are also referred to as the 8 great warriors.
- Bhāgavata Purāṇa 3.32.8-10
- Malayalam book Bharata Paryatanam (A journey through the Mahabharata) by Kuttikrishana Marar.
- Indian Mythology: Tales, Symbols, and Rituals from the Heart of the Subcontinent. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co. p. 173.