Widely hailed as one of the most ancient civilizations of the world, Indian culture is a rich amalgamation of stories, myths and legends.
Every Indian kid will relate to being blessed by elders in the family with a blessing – “Jug Jug Jiyo!” or “Chiranjeevi Bhava”. Chiranjeevi = Chiram (Long) + Jeevi (lived), thus Chiranjeevi Bhava translates to “May you live forever”.
While blessings are good wishes for the well-being of loved ones, there is mention of some Chiranjeevi’s in Hindu mythology who have been blessed or cursed with immortality. Since Hinduism deals with multiple lifes and yugas (eras) the concepts of eternal and immortal are viewed differently. Immortal beings survive only till the end of the Universe, while the Eternal beings live even beyond that. This is beyond the comprehension of modern science and as such beyond the scope of this post.
So, coming back to the point of the Immortals of India.
The below mentioned individuals are widely acknowledged as Chiranjeevis in Hindu mythology.
1. King Mahabali
Mahabali or Maveli was a legendary Asura king who had conquered all the three worlds (The Heavens, The Earth and The Underworld). He was the grandson of Prahalad (an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu who took on the Narasimha avatar to save him) and his reign was characterized with peace and prosperity for his citizens.
Upon annexing the Heavens, Mahabali started conducting the Ashwamedha Yagna to cement his sovereignty on all the worlds. A petrified Indra – the King of the Devas, requested Lord Vishnu to help in restoring the rule of the Devas on the Heavens.
Knowing his righteous and charitable nature, Lord Vishnu took on the Vamana Avatar (a small brahmin boy) and asked Mahabali for a gift of 3 paces of land. In the first pace he covered all of the earth and the underworld and in his second pace he covered all of the heavens. With his pride crushed, a humble Mahabali offered Vamana to put his last step on his own head. This resulted in his banishment to the underworld forever.
However, seeing the devotion of King Mahabali, Lord Vishnu granted him the boon of immortality and permitted him to come back to earth every year to meet his beloved citizens. The day Mahabali returns to earth is celebrated as Onam in Kerala.
2. Rishi Markandeya
Markandeya was the only son Rishi Mrikandu and was born after severe penance to Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva gave Mrikandu the option to choose between a brilliant son who would live only till the age of 12 or a son of lesser intelligence who would live long. Mrikandu chose the first option and thus Markandeya was born.
Since childhood, Markandeya grew up to be known as a great devotee of Lord Shiva. On his 12th birthday, despite the heart wrenching despair of his parents, he was immersed in deep prayers of the Shiva Linga. That is when the Lord of Death – Yama appeared to snatch his life away.
Owing to the immense power of the Shiva Linga, Yama was unable to do so. Enraged, he sprung a noose around the young boy’s neck to drag him away. By accident the noose fell on the Shiva Linga and a furious Shiva emerged from it. Shiva prohibited Yama from taking the life of his ardent devotee and thus ensued a furious battle between both the Gods.
Eventually, Yama is defeated by Lord Shiva and Markandeya is granted the boon of immortality by Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva is henceforth also known as Mrityunjaya – “The Defeater of Death”.
Markandeya lives on to be hailed as a great sage making notable contributions to Hindu scriptures which include the Markandeya Purana and the Maha Mrityunjaya Stotra.
3. Lord Parashurama
Widely hailed as the 6th avatar of Lord Vishnu, Lord Parashurama is the quintessential warrior saint. He has the unique distinction of being the avatar who has also lived and interacted with the later incarnations of Vishnu – Rama and Krishna in the Dwapara and Treta Yugas.
Born as the fifth child of Sage Jamadgani and his wife Renuka, Parashurama is known to have learnt the art of celestial warfare from Lord Shiva himself who was so pleased with his pupil’s skills that he gifted him his own battle axe – Parashu. Hence, the name Parashu-Rama.
Angered by the misdeeds of King Sahasrarjun and his army against his parents and other brahmins, Parashurama set about killing him by severing his thousand hands and wrought havoc on his army who were terrorizing the common people. Infact, noticing 21 scars on his father’s body, Parashurama went on a carnage, ridding the world of all tyrannical Kshatriyas 21 times over!
Hugely impressed with his martial skills, the king of Gods – Indra bestowed him the Vijaya Dhanusha which was later used during Sita’s swayamvara. Infact he once punished the Sun God – Surya for being too hot with his fiery arrows, because of which the Sun God presented him with 2 inventions – the Umbrella and Sandals. He is also known to have reclaimed land from the seas to establish what is now the Konkan region in south India.
Lord Parashuram is also hailed as the Guru of legendary warriors like Bhishma, Drona and Karna. Infact, he and another Rishi – Agastya are acknowledged as the founders of the mother of all martial arts – Kalaripayattu.
In the later stages of his life, Parashurama took to penance on top of Mount Mahendra. His discourses on Mount Mahendra with Saint Dattatreya gave rise to Tripura Rahasya of the Advaita Vedanta.
According to the Kalki Purana, it is believed that Parashurama will re-emerge at the end of the Kali Yuga as the martial and spiritual guru of Kalki – The 10th and final avatar of Vishnu.
4. King Vibheeshana
Popularly known as the younger brother of Ravana – the king of Lanka, Vibheeshana finds himself in the list of Chiranjeevis quite by accident. Although born in a Rakshasa family, Vibhishana was of pure mind and heart.
Since childhood he immersed himself in holy rituals and prayers much like a Brahmin. Pleased by his penances, the creator of the Universe – Lord Brahma granted him any boon he wished for. Vibheeshana wished that he be granted the strength to plant himself forever at the feet of the Lord with the Charana Kamala (Lord Vishnu whose feet are like the petals of the lotus).
As the epic of Ramayana progresses, his elder brother Ravana abducts Sita – the wife of Lord Rama. Vibheeshana urges Ravana to promptly return her back with full honour and dignity but to no avail.
Eventually, as Rama is assembling an army to lay siege on Lanka to rescue Sita, Vibheeshana defects to his side at the behest of his mother. As a result, he is branded a traitor by his family & countrymen.
Vibheeshana’s knowledge of the secrets of the impenetrable Lanka proved invaluable to Rama and his army of apes. Right from the secret path to the temple of Mata Nikumbala (The Guardian mother of Lanka) to the nectar of immortality stored in Ravana’s belly, the inputs provided by Vibheeshana are instrumental in the rout of Lanka and the rescue of Sita.
When time came for Rama to leave for Ayodhya, he assumed his Vishnu avatar and anointed Vibheeshana as the King of Lanka and blessed him with immortality to stay on earth and guide the people of Lanka through the path of righteousness and piety.
5. Lord Hanuman
Definitely one of the most loved mythological figures in India, Lord Hanuman is devotion personified. Tales of his strength, valour, loyalty and knowledge are stuff of legend as every child is brought up listening and reading about them.
Whether it is his attempt to eat the Sun as a boy or soaring across the oceans to land in Lanka or single handedly burning down the City of Gold or uprooting the Dronagiri mountain to deliver the Sanjeevani herb to revive Lakshman or ripping his chest apart to reveal his devotion for Lord Rama, Lord Hanuman has never ceased to inspire awe and respect among the masses.
He is widely acknowledged as the 12th avatar of Lord Shiva, who was born to assist the 7th avatar of Lord Vishnu – Rama in the Treta Yuga. He is also known as the son of the Wind God – Vayu and is hence also called Vayuputra.
After the reign of Lord Rama comes to an end on earth, he decides to depart to his celestial abode – Vaikuntha. Along with Sita, many loyal members of his entourage like the King of Apes – Sugreeva also decided to depart with him. However, Hanuman requests the Lord to let him stay back on earth for as long as people keep paying obeisance to the hallowed name of Rama. Till date, we see the statues of Hanuman dotting all kinds of public places throughout India.
There is also mention of an incident involving Hanuman and the mighty Pandava – Bheem in the epic Mahabharata. Hanuman gives the haughty Bheem (another Vayuputra) an important lesson in humility while in exile. Incidentally, Hanuman also holds the unique distinction of being one amongst only 4 people who have heard the Bhagwad Geeta directly from the mouth of Lord Krishna. This was because he was on the flag of Arjuna’s chariot when Krishna gave his discourse to Arjuna and showed him his Vishwaroopa.
6. Maharshi Veda Vyasa
Most familiarly known as the narrator of the epic Mahabharata, the great Sage Veda Vyasa was born as Krishna Dvaipayana to Rishi Parashar and Satyavati a fisherwoman (who later went on to marry Shantanu – the father of the legendary Bheeshma).
It is said that Rishi Parashar was so enamored by the beauty of Satyavati that he created a temporary island covered with fog on the river Yamuna with his mystic powers and went on to secretly consummate her. Out of this union was born a fully adult boy who was named Krishna (dark in colour) Dvaipayana (born on a Dwipa – island).
Satyavati asked the sage for 3 boons. One, her virginity be restored since she was unmarried; two, the fishy smell of her body be turned into fragrance and third, the child born out of their dalliance would be born with extraordinary brilliance and mystical powers. Rishi Parashar granted her all the boons and left.
Soon after, the boy Krishna Dvaipayana also sought his mother’s blessings to leave for undertaking heavy penances to unravel the purpose of his existence on the Himalayas. Satyavati let him go with a condition that he would immediately present himself whenever his mother summoned him.
While on the upper echelons of the Himalayas, he was imparted knowledge of the Vedas by the four Kumaras, Rishi Narada and Lord Brahma himself. He then went on categorise the primordial Vedas into 3 canonical Vedas for the common people to understand the infinite wisdom held in them. Hence, he came to be known as Veda Vyasa – The Splitter of the Vedas.
Parallelly, his mother Satyavati who had by then married King Shantanu of Hastinapura faced the dilemma of ensuring the continuity of her clan as both her sons were killed before giving birth to heirs. She summoned Veda Vyasa who through his mystic powers fathered 3 sons – Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura at the behest of his mother.
Veda Vyasa eventually narrated the story of Mahabharata (Story of the Bharat Clan) to Lord Ganesha who was the scribe of the epic in one sitting. Known to be the longest poem ever, the Mahabharata encompasses 18 books and 100 chapters.
Horrified by the violence of the Kali Yuga, Veda Vyasa is said to have retired into the deep forests on the foothills of the Himalayas. His day of birth and the day he split the Vedas is celebrated every year as Guru Purnima.
7. Kulguru Kripacharya
One of the most enigmatic characters in this list, very little is remembered of Kripa apart from the fact that he was the Guru of the Kuru Clan and the brother in law of the legendary Drona.
Legend has it that a very powerful sage by the name Shardwana who was born with arrows, making it evident that he was born to be a great archer. Upon growing up he started indulging in severe penances to attain the status of the most ultimate archer in the universe. This led the King of Gods – Indra to become insecure and he sent an apsara (celestial nymph) Janapadi to seduce him.
Shardwana’s penance was momentarily broken and as a result a few drops of semen involuntarily fell on some weeds which split into two giving birth to twins – a boy named – Kripa and a girl named – Kripi. Ashamed, Shardwana retreated farther into the forests to undertake further penance.
It so happened that the King of Hastinapura – Shantanu (Great grandfather of the Pandavas) was passing by and chanced upon these two kids. Immediately realizing that they are supernatural children, he took them with him to bring them up in his capital.
Upon getting to know that he has two children, Shardwana comes to Hastinapura and trains both his children not only in the scriptures but also in warfare. Considering his expertise in warfare as well as spiritual matters, Kripa is appointed the Head Priest of the court of Hastinapura and his twin sister – Kripi is married to another legendary warrior priest – Drona.
Eventually, in the great war of Mahabharata, Kripacharya is bound by duty to take the side of the Kauravas and is instrumental in wreaking havoc on the Pandava armies. Owing to his mastery over all forms of weapons and combat skills he annihilated 60,000 soldiers single handedly and was also instrumental in the killing of Arjuna’s son – Abhimanyu.
Infact, on the 18th and last day of the war, he alongside Ashwatthama and Kritavarma massacred all the sons of the Pandavas. However, owing to his virtues of impartiality, righteousness and truth Lord Krishna grants him immortality and leaves him in charge of Parikshit (grandson of the Arjuna) to carry forward the legacy of the Pandavas.
The only son of the legendary Guru Dronacharya and Kripi, Ashwathhama was named such because instead of wailing like a baby he neighed as a horse (Ashwa) when he was born. Conceived after severe penance to Lord Shiva, it is believed that he is one of the avatars of Rudra and was hence born with a celestial jewel on his forehead.
After growing up in penury, Ashwathhama also receives military training alongside the Kauravas and Pandavas as his father is appointed the Guru of the royal princes of Hastinapura. While Arjuna was the favourite student of Drona, he is also very fond of his only son and groomed him to become a mighty warrior or a Maharathi. Infact, Ashwathhama emotionally blackmails his father to grant him the celestial weapon – Narayanastra which even Arjuna has no access to.
Owing to constant instigation from Duryodhana, Ashwathhama ends up harboring jealousy towards the Pandavas and particularly Arjuna. He grows up to be an arrogant and jealous man and naturally sides with the Kauravas during the great war.
After his father is killed in an act of deceit, a furious Ashwathhama unleashes the Narayanastra on the hapless Pandava armies wiping out an entire Akshauhini formation comprising 21,870 chariots and elephants each and 65,610 cavalry units. Infact, the Pandavas and Dhristadyumna narrowly escape annihiliation in this onslaught.
Widely acknowledged as a fierce warrior by even the great Bhishma, he becomes the last Commander in Chief of the Kaurava armies. After the death of Duryodhana, he alongside Kripacharya and Kritavarma wipe out all the children of the Pandavas along with other prominent warriors like Dhristadyumna and Shikhandi.
As a final showdown, both Arjuna and Ashwatthama invoke the dreaded Brahmastra and trigger it on each other. Upon the intervention of Sage Vyasa, Arjuna withdraws the weapon but an inconsolable Ashwathhama directs his weapon to the womb of Uttara (Abhimanyu’s wife) who is carrying the yet to be born Parikshit.
Enraged with this dastardly act, Lord Krishna uproots the gem from the forehead of Ashwathhama and curses him to a life of suffering with pus and blood oozing out of the wound and his body being ridden with ulcers and sores till eternity.
While all the other Chiranjeevis have been blessed with immortality, Ashwathhama has the infamous distinction of being cursed with it. Infact, on and off one gets to hear news of him being spotted in various places across India by unsuspecting people.
Hope you enjoyed reading about the legendary Immortals of India.
Chiranjeevi Bhava (If not in life, but in thoughts and actions atleast)!
By Biswaroop Padhi
who is an entrepreneur.