Sage Mrikandu was a great rishi and an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva. He and his wife Marudvati dedicated their life to the worship of the lord, and their only regret was that they had no child to pass on their piety to.
One day, Lord Shiva himself appeared before Mrikandu in response to his prayers, and said, “Mrikandu, I am very happy with you and your wife. I have decided to grant you your dearest wish – a child. However, you have a choice. Do you want a son who will be smart and intelligent, but will only live for 16 years, or do you want a long-lived, but foolish son?”
Mrikandu replied immediately, “Lord, we would rather have the intelligent son, even if his life will be short. Of what use is a long life if one is not intelligent enough to make use of it for the right purpose?” Lord Shiva was happy, and disappeared, granting the sage his wish.
In due course of time, a child was born to Marudvati. He was named ‘Markandeya’, literally meaning ‘the son of Mrikandu’. Even as a child, he stood out among the other children of the ashram with his divine luster, which grew as he absorbed knowledge like a sponge.
At a young age, his father performed his thread ceremony and started teaching him the Vedas and the Puranas. The child picked up the mantras easily, stunning the inmates of the ashram. In a few years, he had mastered all the Vedas and the Shastras, and made his parents proud of him.
As his sixteenth birthday drew near, Sage Mrikandu and Marudvati started becoming apprehensive, remembering Shiva’s injunction, and fearing that they would soon lose the son whom they loved so much.
Markandeya noticed his parents’ apprehension and asked them the reason for their sadness. Sage Mrikandu explained to him the circumstances of his birth, the conditions laid down by Lord Shiva, and his approaching death. “My son, we were so happy at the prospect of getting an intelligent son that we did not worry about the short life span. But now, we cannot bear to be parted from you, and thus are worried about what will happen just a few days from now” he said.
Markandeya smiled and said, “Father, you have taught me the Vedas, the Puranas and the Shastras. You have taught me that the lord always listens to the sincere prayers of his devotees. So please do not worry on my account. It is lord Shiva who has decreed that I should live for 16 years. I shall pray to him, and ask him to extend my life span. He will surely answer to my sincere prayers.” Speaking thus, with a confident smile, Markandeya went to the river bank, and, making a Shiva lingam with sand, started praying to it with all his heart.
Days passed, and Markandeya was immersed in his prayers, when Yama, the lord of Death, arrived to take his soul from his mortal body. Seeing the fearful form of Yama, Markandeya hugged the lingam he had made, tightly.
Yama laughed, and said, “Child, it is my duty to take you today. Nothing and no one can save you now.” Saying this, he threw his noose over the boy, but he was so close to the lingam that the noose encircled the Shiva lingam along with Markandeya.
As soon as the noose touched the lingam, Shiva was enraged, and burst out of the lingam, and kicked Yama. “How dare you throw your noose on me!” he shouted, stunning Yama. Caught off-guard, Yama tried to explain that it was his duty, but Shiva was furious. He said, “This boy has come to me for protection, and he shall have it. Yama, you can never touch him. He will be immortal.”
Yama was disappointed, but had no choice, and thus chastised, left for his abode. Shiva blessed Markandeya not just with a long life, but also with immense knowledge.
Markandeya returned home, making his parents very happy. He went on to become one of the most learned rishis of all time.
There are many powerful stotras, such as the Maha Mrityunjaya mantra, which protect one from death, which are ascribed to him. He is also mentioned in many of the sacred epics and Puranas. The Markandeya Purana comprises of a conversation between Markandeya and the rishi Jaimini, and is a storehouse of knowledge and information. The Devi Mahatmayam, a treatise on the Devi, is part of this Purana.
The story of Markandeya shows us how our love for god is reciprocated by the gods themselves, and how far they go to protect their devotees.