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In Hindu mythology, there are said to be a group of Ashta-Chiranjeevis (Eight ‘Immortals’, Chiran- Long, and Jeevi- Lived). These eight immortals are said to still live on the Earth in flesh and blood today, for various different reasons. Specifically, Chiranjeevis are those born human, but blessed or cursed with extremely long life (perhaps not immortality as we know it, but I’ll use the word immortal for simplicity anyway). Recently there have been reported sightings of some of these, though there is only little significant material proof. I’ll explore the relevance of two of these beings in particular, in today’s world and will highlight their contrasting fortunes over time. I’ll also briefly explain each of the eight in the group.
Firstly, the Asura King Mahabali, who had conquered all the three worlds, had to be subdued by Vishnu on the request of Indra, after having developed an unhealthy arrogance. Vishnu banished Bali to the underworld, but his pious deeds on Earth granted him the boon of being able to visit his subjects once a year- now celebrated as Onam in Kerala.
Next is the sixth avatar of Vishnu, Parashurama who descended on Earth with the purpose of exterminating the irreligious monarchs on Earth who neglected their duties. He was granted Chiranjeevi status to continue this job.
Third is the brother of Ravan, Vibhishan, who fought on Ram’s side in the Ramayan. He was made a Chiranjeevi to maintain morality and righteousness in Lanka and to guide people over the world in Dharma. Ved Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharat and the Puranas, and the splitter of the Vedas is the fourth. He is said to live wherever the true and faithful exist, and has the job of splitting the Vedas in every Dwaparva Yuga.
Kripacharya and Rishi Markendeya are the next two- both of the Brahmins being ardent devotees. Markendeya is a devotee of the Lord Shiva, and was granted immortality by him when Shiva and Yama (the God of death) fought to decide the Rishi’s destiny. Kripa was the Kul Guru of the Kurus during the Mahabharat, and whilst his status as a Chiranjeevi is disputed, his impartiality towards all of his students is the most commonly documented reason for his immortality.
The final two, those who I will consider in more detail, are both said to be incarnations of the God Shiva- Lord Hanuman of Ramayan fame, and the son of Guru Drona, Ashwathhama. Both were given Chiranjeevi status for very different reasons, and both have recently been ‘sighted’ on Earth.
Lord Hanuman really needs no introduction, he is devotion personified, and his strength, form and knowledge characterise him. He is the son of the wind, the dispeller of evil, and the protector of all mankind. It is said that whilst other characters from the Ramayan achieved their sought-after Moksha, Hanumanji shunned the heavens and requested to remain on Earth as long as Lord Ram is venerated by people, to reside wherever the name of Ram is taken- such was, and is his love for God. Whoever recites the glories of Lord Hanuman is supposedly certain to overcome life’s miseries and obstacles- in this Kalyug he is recognised as the ideal subject of worship. It is also said that the person who arrives first, and leaves last from a Ram Katha is always Chiranjeevi Hanuman- look out for him next time!
Ashwathhama is probably a little more unfamiliar. He was a prominent character in the Mahabharat, and fought on the side of the Kauravas, alongside his father Drona. Ashwathhama committed three major sins through the Mahabharat, namely foeticide, infanticide and genocide. He killed teenager Abhimanyu, Arjun’s son unlawfully, he killed the sons of Draupadi (amongst others) in their sleep illegitimately, and killed Abhimanyu’s son Parikshit in his mother’s womb. On the final crime, Krishna decided that the punishment should be the most severe. Ashwatthama was blessed with a gem in his forehead that guaranteed protection from disease, weapons and snakebites. Krishna ordered this gem cut out and cursed him such that the wound would never heal and that he would suffer for eternity- as a Chiranjeevi. This is the only example of immortality being a curse out of the group of eight. Ashwathhama is however prophesised to become the identifier and martial guru of the final avatar of Vishnu, Kalki when the time comes, and this is his significance for the future.
There have been fairly recent claims of sightings of Hanuman and Ashwathhama on Earth, and whilst it may sound phantasmagorical at best, the Shastras fairly explicitly state that these immortals will reside in flesh and blood on Earth.
There are many stories about sightings of Ashwathhama, particularly in the fort temple of Asirghar. Between closing at night and opening in the day, a red rose mysteriously appears on the Shivling, attributed to the immortal. Locals often claim they’ve seen Ashwathhama, recognised by his wound, usually asking for butter to soothe it. Other sightings of him have been reported around the Rishikesh area of India.
There is one very interesting story about a pilgrimage in Mansarovar in the Himalayas in 1998. A pilgrim supposedly saw a light in the cave, of which he took a photo. He died shortly after and when his fellow travellers had the photo developed, it came out to be the one attached to this article. It depicts a monkey-formed being, studying what looks like the Vedas.
The closest we can get in verifying the idea of Chiranjeevi’s being on Earth is through these supposed sightings- unfortunately there’s no solid proof as of yet. However we can all try to comprehend and appreciate the probable benefits to the world of having these immortals present- protection from ill fate, divine education, and undying devotion are just some of the things we enjoy, which may have more than a little to do with these Chiranjeevis.
Nitish Mehta studied at Cambridge University and was President of the Cambridge University Hindu Cultural Society.