Folklore tells us of seven chiranjeevis or immortals, who play an important role in the Indian epics. These are persons who have been granted the boon of everlasting life. In the Ramayana, we come across four such characters. Even more interestingly, three of these characters appear in the Mahabharata as well, reinforcing the immortality myth.
Jambavan or Jambavanta, said to be a venerable old vanara in the Ramayana, appears at two points in the epic. An advisor to the exiled monkey king Sugriva, Jambavan encourages Hanuman to leap across the ocean. He tells Hanuman about the Mrutasanjeevani, the all-curing plant, which he learned about during the churning of the ocean. Jambavan is said to have dueled with Ravana in his youth. In the Mahabharata, Krishna finds him an as an old sloth bear in a cave. He struggles with him to procure the Symantaka Mani, the most famous jewel in Indian mythology. Jambavan, age not withstanding, fights with Krishna for twenty-eight days till he recognizes him and bows down. He hands over the gem and marries his daughter off to Krishna. Both Jambavan and the gem then disappear within the vast depths of Indian mythology. Where are they now? While some claim that the gem is none other than the Kohinoor diamond, Jambavan seems to have withdrawn into the mists to live out his everlasting years in obscurity.
Keeping a low profile might be a relatively easy thing to do for an aged sloth bear, but not so for one of the most recognizable characters in the Ramayana, Hanuman. Born to Anjana and Vayu the Wind God, Hanuman was blessed to live for as long as the Ramayana or any of its tales are narrated on earth. In the Mahabharata, he is Bhima’s brother, as both of them are the sons of Vayu. As Bhima sets off in search for the Kalyanasoughandhikam flower for Draupadi, he appears before him as a weak old monkey, blocking Bhima’s way. Bhima, who is first annoyed by the mangy old monkey, is later stunned to find himself unable to budge the monkey’s tail. He realizes that this is none other than his brother. Hanuman also appears before Arjuna as a small monkey, challenging him to build a bridge of arrows that would support him, when Arjuna wonders why Rama needed to take the help of monkeys. Arjuna struggles to build a bridge to support the weight of the small monkey. Later, Vishnu rebukes Arjuna for his vanity and Hanuman for making Arjuna feel inept. As atonement, Hanuman bolsters Arjuna’s chariot during the war as the image on the flag flown on his chariot. While he flies into the skies after the war ends, many devotees believe that you don’t have to go as high as that to get a glimpse of the celebrated Vaanara, who they say lives in the Himalayas. As proof they point to a photograph of a very simian looking man, wrapped up in an orange shroud, the Ramayana on his lap. The picture was allegedly taken by a group of pilgrims touring Manasarovar in1998. One could dismiss the photo if it were not for the thick tail that hangs by the man’s side. Of course, this is the age of Photoshop and doctored pictures, but that hasn’t stopped it from being given an important place in many Hanuman temples across India. And so if not Hanuman, the image has certainly attained immortal status.
Parasurama, also an incarnation of Vishnu like Sri Ram, appears in the Ramayana during Rama’s betrothal to Sita. A master of martial arts, he appears in the Mahabharata as teacher to Bhishma, Dronacharya and Karna. He withdraws to the Mahendra Hills after establishing many temples along the Konkan coast. Parasurama is believed to have thrown his axe into the sea to reclaim land, creating the coastal state of Kerala and parts of Maharashtra. While there have been no sightings of the warrior saint, his presence is still felt on every beach in Kerala — every Malayali knows that when she or he visits the beach, they should write ‘The sea that was defeated by Parasuram’ on the sand, when they stroll near the waves. No matter how high up the beach you scrawl the words, legend has it that the sea will rush upwards and wash them out, furious to be reminded of that old defeat.
Vibhishana, the fourth and last immortal in the epic, does not feature in the Mahabharata or elsewhere. A fearless believer in doing the right thing, he counseled his elder brother Ravana to send Sita back. Vibhishana was exiled for his pains and he joined Rama, giving him invaluable information against Lanka. Rama crowns him as King of Lanka after Ravana’s fall, and also entrusts him with the duty of staying on earth to guide people on the path of Dharma.
And so, symbols of selflessness and courage, righteousness, strength and humility, the immortals of the Ramayana continue to live on. For as Rufus Choate said, ‘A book is the only immortality’ and for as long as the epic lives on, these chiranjeevins too will live on amongst us.
Shweta Ganesh Kumar is a bestselling author and a freelance travel journalist. Before dedicating her life to writing, she was Communications Officer with Greenpeace India and Correspondent with CNN-IBN. The New Indian Express, One Philippines and Geo (Indian edition) have published many of her travel columns. Her non-fiction pieces have been featured in Chicken Soup for the Indian Spiritual Soul, Chicken Soup for the Indian Soul – On Friendship and also in CBW’s India’s Top 42 Weekend Getaways eBook. Her short fiction has been published in Indian Voices- an anthology, Australian Women Online, Single Solitary Thought, Pothiz, Damazine and the Asia Writes Project. Her first novel Coming Up On The Show… The Travails of a news trainee sold more than 10’000 copies within the first two months of its release in April 2011. She blogs on life as it happens at http://simplyspeaking.blogspot.com/ You can read more about her life and work at www.shwetaganeshkumar.com