Among all the minor characters in the Douglas Adam's 'Hitchhicker's Guide to the Galaxy' series, Wowbagger the infinitely prolonged is perhaps the wittiest. Wowbagger, the story goes, is one of the universe's small population of 'immortal beings', although he was not born this way. He is an alien who becomes 'immortal' and keeps living on and on, due to an accident with an irrational particle accelerator, a pair of rubber bands and a liquid lunch.
But unfortunately for Wowbagger, the exact conditions of the experiment mentioned above could never be understood. So anyone who tried to replicate it ended up either looking stupid or being dead or both.
The story goes on about his predicament -- Since he is not born this way, unlike other immortals, he does not know how to handle being immortal. He eventually comes up - and this is the best part - with a plan to keep himself busy: he will insult every living being in the universe - in alphabetical order. But that is later.
The Hindu Mythology has its own share - and I know that purists will not like this immediate comparison, but for the sake of poetic license, do bear with me for this one - of beings that live on and on. They are called Chiranjeevis - quite literally "the infinitely prolonged" --- or "those who live for ever".
The subtle difference between Immortals and 'Infinitely Prolonged'
Although the words Immortal (Amar) - अमर and Chiranjeev चिरंजीव are used almost like synonyms, there is in fact a slight difference। The word Chiranjeev is a combination of "chiram" (long) and jeevi (lived)। This word is often confused with immortality ("amaratva")। The following classification of beings will make this clear:
1. Mortals -- Beings who die. Includes all beings on the Earth - Humans, Rakshasas, Nagas etc. This is you and I.
2. Chiranjeevis -- Beings that will live a very long life, so long that normal humans feel that they live for eternity. They started off as humans, but have received the boon / curse of eternal life. Mortals can become Chiranjeevi by good deeds etc., but cannot become Amar easily unless they drink Amrita of Devas. Hence when a younger bows to an elder in Hindu society, the elder would bless "Chiranjeevi Bhava" (live long) and not "Amar Bhava" (live forever).
3. Immortals (Amar) -- Beings who do not die. This includes Devas, Apsaras, Gandharvas. These beings do not die at all. Even in war when they are wounded, they recover and continue to live. Devas drank Amrita, which made them Immortal. Before that, they too were mortals - sons of Aditi and Kashyapa. Note that Asuras / Daityas (i.e. the step-brothers of Devas and sons of Diti & Kashyapa) die in the wars and are then resurrected / revived by way of Sanjeevani Vidya possessed by their Guru Shukra.
4. Eternal -- Beings that will live forever. All the three categories above, even Immortal beings, get dissolved / die at the time of Pralaya (end of the universe), including its secondary creator Brahma. The only real Eternals are Vishnu, Shiva, Sheshanaga (the Eternal Serpent), and the four Vedas ... yes, although they are not really Beings, Vedas are considered Eternal in that they do NOT get destroyed at the end of time.
This series of posts is about the second category i.e. The Chiranjeevis.
The most well-knowns Chiranjeevis are three - Ashwatthama, Hanuman and Parashurama (Bhargava). Out of these, Ashwatthama was supposedly seen recently near Rishikesh. People said that they recognized him by the scar on his forehead. Now how can this be matter of identity where there are millions of people with scars on their foreheads is a matter of debate, and I will leave it at that.
A complete list of the most commonly agreed upon Eight Chiranjeevis (as per Bhagavata Purana) is --- in a possible order of their start of life:
- Markandeya मार्कंडेय - An ancient sage from the Hindu tradition, born in the clan of Brigu Rishi.
- Mahabali महा बलि – a righteous demon king who conquered heaven, earth, and the underworld, but was forced to give it back by Vamana वामन
- Parashurama परशु राम – Also called Bhargava, son of Jamadagni, and the sixth Avatar of Vishnu
- Vibhishana विभीषण – Brother of Ravana, who helped Rama in his war against Ravana and as a result became king of Lanka later
- Hanuman हनुमान – Son of Vayu and devotee of Rama
- Vyasa व्यास - Also known as Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa, composer of Mahabharata, and also the rishi who arranged the Vedas in four parts
- Kripa कृपाचार्य – The first teacher of Pandavas and Kauravas, before Drona
- Ashwatthama अश्वत्थामा – Son of Drona, a great warrior and one of the 3 survivors of the Great War from Kaurava side
A brief story of each of these eight and especially how they became Chiranjeevis follows in the next posts.