Mrikandu was a great rishi. Marudvati was his wife. For a long time they had no children.
The rishi prayed to God Shiva. God Shiva appeared to him, and said, "I am pleased with you, Mrikandu. Tell me, do you want a hundred sons, who will live for a long time, but will all be foolish?
Or, do you want one very intelligent son, who will live for only sixteen years?"
The rishi at once said, "God, give me that one intelligent son."
God Shiva said, "Good! You shall have him."
Soon the rishi got a son. He named him Markandeya. The boy grew to be very intelligent and handsome. The rishi invested him with the sacred thread. Markandeya learnt the Vedas and Sastras,easily. Every one liked him.
As the boy was getting on to be sixteen, Rishi Mrikandu became sadder and sadder. One day Markandeya asked his father: "Father, why do you look so sad?"
The rishi said, "Son! What shall I say? When God Shiva gave you to me, he said you would live only sixteen years. You are now about to reach that age. How can your mother and I bear to lose you as we will at the end of this year?"
Markandeya said, "Father! Is that the reason? God Shiva is very kind to His devotees. You yourself told me that. He has saved many from death before. I have read about it in the Puranas. I shall therefore worship God Shiva day and night from today. I am sure, He will save -me too! "
Rishi Mrikandu was very happy to hear his son say this. He blessed his son.
Markandeya built a Shiva-Linga at a spot on the sea-shore. He started worshipping Shiva morning, noon and night. He sang bhajans, and often danced in joy. On the last day, Markandeya was about to sing bhajans, when Yama, the God of Death, came to him. Yama rode on a buffalo. He held a noose in his hand. He spoke to Markandeya, "Stop your bhajan! you boy! Your life in this world is over. Be ready to die."
Markandeya was not afraid. He clung to the Shiva-Linga as one clings to one's mother.
Yama threw his noose round the boy's neck, and pulled him along with the Shiva- Linga.
Then the Shiva-Linga burst open and God Shiva came out of it, and said, "Yama, go away! Don't touch this boy. He is my beloved devotee. He will live for ever!"
Yama went away crest-fallen. Markandeya then prayed to God Shiva more fervently than ever. This prayer says at the end of each line, "What can Death do to me?" Many people recite this prayer even now.
Markandeya came home, and fell at the feet of his parents. They embraced him, and wept with joy.
Markandeya became a great rishi, and lived very long.