The word Chiranjeevi in Sanskrit literally means chiram ie long and jeevi ie living. The seven known immortals each represent an attribute of humanity that will exist till the very existence of humanity. Immortal however does not mean eternal and therefore are said to exist till the end of this "Kali Yuga".
There are also some other immortals which were killed and some others which are comparitively lesser known. As a special mention, Markandeya is also widely accepted as an immortal in which case we can very well call these as the eight immortals of Hindu mythology.
Like most of the Indian myths and legends, most of these immortals were blessed with the boon after pious and strenuous meditations and prayers to the three holy Hindu Gods namely Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. However, the reasons and story varies vastly.
The short elaboration of the boon that each received for their immortality is as follows:
Bali or Mahabali [maha means great]: Bali was the "daitya" [Descendants of Diti] king and his capital was the present day state of Kerala. He was an extremely devoted follower of Lord Vishnu and was known as a righteous, wise, generous and judicious King.
During an Ashwamedha yagna, Bali once was granting wishes to his masses out of his generosity. Meanwhile, Lord Vishnu reached there taking form of a little Brahmin boy better known as his fifth avatar Varuna. The little Brahmin boy on reception asked from King Bali enough land to cover three paces of his feet. On acceptance of his wish, Varuna grew to an abysmal size and in two paces, took away all the living world and also the three worlds in general.[heaven, earth and underworld figuratively]. Having left nothing else to offer, for his third and final step, King Bali bowed down in front of the Varuna realizing that he was none other than his Lord Vishnu and asked him to place the third feet as this was the only thing that belonged to him. Varuna then took the third step and thus raised him to Suthala, the supreme form of heaven. However, looking at his generosity and devotion, Varuna on request of Bali, gave him permission to visit earth once a year to ensure that his masses are well off and happy. It is for this reason, that the festival of Onam is celebrated widely in Southern parts of India to welcome the arrival Onapottam, the symbolic form of King Bali.
Veda Vyasa was a great sage born in the later stage of Treta Yuga and who has been said to have lived through the Dvapara Yuga and the current Kali Yuga. The sage like any other immortal is said to have a lifetime of this Manvantara or till the end of this Kali yuga. Veda Vyasa was the writer of Mahabharata and the Puranas and also the one who split the Vedas in four parts. It can also be debated so that Veda Vyasa was not just one being but a group of scholars who worked on the Vedas. Veda Vyasa in literal sense means the splitter of Vedas. Having said that however it is widely believed that he was a single human being. There always is a Veda Vyasa who lives through one Manvantara[a timeframe in ancient Hindu mythology.] and hence is immortal through this Manvantara.
Veda Vyasa is said to live life of a hermit and is widely believed to be still alive and living among the living beings till the end of this Kali Yuga.
Ashwatthama: Perhaps the most interesting of all the Chiranjeevis, Ashwatthama was a great warrior and son of a legendary warrior and teacher named Dronacharya. He was gifted with a gem on his forehead by Lord Shiva and was said to have divine powers. During the war of Mahabharata, there was two sides namely the Pandavas and the Kauravas. [Leaving the details for some other space.] When the battle was almost over, Ashwatthama who fought from the Kauravas, decided to murder the five Pandava brothers in their camp at midnight even though it was against the ethics of war to attack after sunset. Mistaking the identity of the five brothers, Ashwatthama killed the sons of Pandavas while they were away. On their return, the Pandavas saw what happened and were enraged with the incident and chased Ashwatthama to kill him. Ashwatthama sought salvation for his crime but it was already too late.
To defend himself, he decided to invoke Bramhashirastra [a sort of divine highly destructive weapon] against Pandavas. In retaliation, Arjuna invoked the same as he too was the student of Dronacharya and could do the same. However, on observing this scene, Lord Krishna asked them to revoke the weapons as it would have led to a cataclysmic event resulting in annihilation of earth. Arjuna revoked his weapon, however Ashwatthama was unable to do so as he was never taught how to. Out of spite/ helplessness, he directed the weapon towards a singular being which in this case was Uttara, the daughter-in-law of Arjuna and who was pregnant. The weapon led to the death of the unborn child and thus the lineage of Pandavas came to an end. Enraged at this atrocious act, Lord Krishna cursed Ashwatthama as follows:
"he will carry the burden of all people's sins on his shoulders and will roam alone like a ghost without getting any love and courtesy till the end of Kaliyuga; He will have neither any hospitality nor any accommodation; He will be in total isolation from mankind and society; His body will suffer from a host of incurable diseases forming sores and ulcers that would never heal"
And thus Ashwatthama is destined to live a life of misery and pain till the end of this Kaliyuga.
King Vibhishana was the brother of the famous demon king Ravana and someone who played a pivotal role in his defeat by siding with Lord Rama in Ramayana. Vibhishana was said to have been a pure soul with a pure heart and was a devoted follower of Lord Rama.
After defeat of Ravana, Vibhishana was declared as the King of Lanka [present day Sri Lanka] by Lord Rama and was said to have been given the blessing of a long life to take good care of his kingdom of Lanka. However, Vibhishana was not a Chiranjeevi in real sense. By which I mean that his lifetime was only as long as the end of one Kalpa. [which is still a pretty long long time.]
Hanumana is possibly the most famous of all the Chiranjeevis and for people who need introduction, it will be more appropriate to call him Lord Hanumana. Hanuman was the most devoted follower of Lord Rama and played a pivotal role in shaping the Ramayana and the defeat of Ravana by Lord Rama. Hanuman was a humanoid born in the form of a monkey or also called as the race of vanaras. Skipping the history for some other time, when Rama, his devoted Lord was leaving the earth, Rama asked Hanumana if he would like to come. In response, Lord Hanumana requested Rama that he would like to stay back on earth as long as the name of Lord Rama is chanted by the people of the earth. As such, Lord Hanumana is said to still exist on this planet and we can only speculate as to where he is.
Kripa or Kripacharya
Another character from Mahabharata, Kripa was an archer born to a sage and was a royal teacher of the Pandavas and Kauravas before Drona [mentioned above as the father of Ashwatthama]. He fought from the Kauravas during the war of Mahabharata and was one of the few surviving characters of post-war period. He later trained Parikshit, the grandson of Arjuna and son of Abhimanyu in the art of warfare. He was known for his impartiality and loyalty for his Kingdom. I am not too sure why, but Lord Krishna granted him immortality.
It is said that Parashurama will act as a teacher for the last and final Avatar of Vishnu known as Kalki and will help him in undertaking penance in receiving celestial weaponry and knowledge which will be helpful in saving mankind at the end of the present Yuga that is the Kaliyuga.
Parashurama is said to be one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu and the story of Parashurama is better narrated in another hub here:Parshurama
There are also some other Chiranjeevis which are not as famous or who were killed by Gods.
Markandeya: Devotee of Shiva, undertook penance and was gifted with long life.
Ravana: Devotee of Shiva, undertook penance and was gifted long life. Nemesis of Lord Rama in Ramayana and was eventually killed by Rama.
Jambavan: Devotee of Lord Rama.
Hiranyakashyapu: Demon king, undertook penance, got bestowed with Long life and was eventually killed by Lord Narasinha [An avatar of Lord Vishnu]
Explanation of Mahayuga and other units of time in Hindu Mythology
Lastly on a personal note..
While researching all these topics, I came across many things that I found interesting. Like narrations of eyewitnesses of certain immortal and supernatural incidences relating to these super beings. Being a citizen of current age, many things mentioned are beyond reason and that is quite understandable. Yes, most of these immortal stories always came down to being blessed by Gods. But reasoning on the same, these are stories passed down for thousands of years and are highly manipulated as per will of Kings of different ages and storytellers alike. Also it seems ridiculous to believe how someone can live for 5000 odd years. But here we are easily being arrogant by discarding the possibility that the ancient people might have had far more knowledge than they are credited with. What one might call blind faith of people can also be a not so well understood science. It is very easy being a skeptic and critic. But it is not always the right thing to do because somewhere along we do hope for these stories to be true.
Ajinkya Kolhe (author) from Atlanta, GA, USA on March 10, 2021:
Oh wow, sorry for being so late and I wonder when you will see this.
Well, short answer.. YES! Mahabharata is a complex story and you will find many such shocking trivias once you start exploring. In this case to summarize, Arjuna and his brothers were rulers and as rulers, their primary Dharma or Duty was that of being a ruler, even above Family.
Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on November 18, 2019:
Did Lord Krishna really tell Arjuna to kill his family?
RustyW from Pennsylvania on March 20, 2015:
I truly appreciated your narrative upon the "immortals" , whether based upon fact, myth, or a little bit of both. Thank you, and keep up the good work!
Ajinkya Kolhe (author) from Atlanta, GA, USA on September 15, 2014:
I have written an article separately about Lord Parashurama. Request you to read that. Just to add info which is not there, Lord Parashurama's father Sage Jamadagni had blessed him with a boon that Parashurama will be undefeated in battles and have a long life. This was because he had followed his father's orders to kill his own mother.
praseedkumar on September 12, 2014:
Parashurama is an incarnation of lord vishnu. How parashurama only became chiramjeeve. please explain ?
vimlesh on August 05, 2014:
Ajinkya Kolhe (author) from Atlanta, GA, USA on June 10, 2014:
Thank you for reading and sharing your opinions. I share your ideology and agree that long life is not the criterion for a great life. But when it comes to these people I mentioned and assuming you do the same, I beg to differ. This is how I put it.. Let us for a moment believe everything that I read of these legends is false, then these are nothing but just another fictitious fable born out of the imagination of highly creative mind. In the other scenario if we believe they are all true, then the span of one lifetime of few thousand years is just a blink of an eye for these people who are closer and more deeply involved with the Almighty God. Their aspirations go beyond the mere pleasures of our mundane lives and are more towards attaining Nirvana. I have skipped a few details in the article with the fear of overburdening with information. Like of the seven mentioned, three are meant to be Great Sages of the next cycle of time, one is meant to be Indra, the God of heavens and one is meant to be a spiritual guide for the next incarnation of God. Also do read if you have time the story of Markandeya that I mentioned in my article, it is quite relevant to your perspective.
someonewhoknows from south and west of canada,north of ohio on June 07, 2014:
Long life has it's place. So,do relatively short lives.To what advantage is long life if you are attracted to someone with a short life in comparison?
Or,you stop learning due to the mistaken Idea that there is nothing left to learn? Being "born again" has the advantage of a renewed thirst for knowledge. Assuming one believes in re-incarnation.There are other reasons not listed by me here though too.