Once upon a time, there lived a sage called Mrikandu with his wife Marudvati. Both were devotees of Shiva. The couple was childless, and so decided to perform austerities so they would be blessed with a child. Then one day, Shiva appeared before them. Shiva asked the couple if they desired an ordinary son who would live a long life, or an exceptional son who would live a short life. The couple asked for the latter.
In due course, Marudvati gave birth to a boy and the child was named Markandeya (literally: son of Mrikandu). Markandeya was an exceptionally gifted child, and became an accomplished sage early in his childhood. He was especially devoted to Shiva, and had mastered the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra. At the age of sixteen, his time on this earth had come to an end, and so Yama, death personified, came to take him away. At the time, Markandeya was in a temple worshipping the icon of Shiva (Shiva Lingam). When he saw Yama, out of fright, Markandeya grabbed a hold of the Shiva Lingam and asked Lord Shiva to protect him. Yama threw his noose around the boy-sage, which encircled the Shiva Lingam too.
Suddenly, the Shiva Lingam burst open with a thundering roar and a majestic, fiery form of Shiva appeared out of the blazing light. Enraged that Yama should have the audacity to encircle the Shiva Lingam with his noose, Shiva struck down Kala (Yama is also called Kala, time, since time brings death to all things) with His trident, and Kala was no more. Markandeya was spared from death. Shiva blessed Markandeya with eternal life and proclaimed that he shall forever remain a sixteen-year-old sage. The assembly of Devas who had witnessed the spectacle begged Shiva to revive Yama, as a world without death would put unnecessary burden on the earth. Shiva then revived Yama, and declared that His devotees were forever to be spared from the noose of Yama.
Meaning of the story
The story as narrated above comes to us from the Skanda Purana. There are other versions of the story that differ in details, but our concern here is to understand what we are being told in this beautiful tale. What does it mean for Markandeya to be saved by Shiva and for Shiva to destroy Kala?
For Markandeya to be saved by Shiva means that Shiva's Anugraha Shakti had descended upon the boy-sage. Markandeya had at a young age attained enlightenment and become a jivan-mukta. He was no more bound by time (kala) or death. He had broken through the cycle of birth and death. Verily, Markandeya had gained oneness with Lord Mrityunjaya and conquered death itself.
For Shiva to destroy Yama and become angry that Yama should have the audacity to encircle the Lingam indicates that Shiva is beyond death and time. He is the Eternal Lord. He is the Ruler of time (Mahakaleshvara); He is the Originator of time (Mahakala) and Destroyer of time (Kalari or Kalasamhara Murti). Time in the story is represented by Yama since time brings death and dissolution to all things, but Shiva brings death to time itself. So, He is called Mahakalakala or Mahakalabhairava. When all things decay, Shiva alone remains. As He alone is beyond death and time, Shiva is called Maha Mrityunjaya, the great Conquerer of Death.
The moral of the story is that we, like the boy-sage Markandeya, should also pray and meditate on Shiva-Mrityunjaya, for He alone can take us unto the state beyond the cycles of samsara:
Aum Kalasamhara-Murtaye Namah.
aum mṛtyuñjaya mahādeva trāhi māṁ śaraṇāgatam |Aum, O Great Lord Mṛtyuñjaya, I take refuge in You, pray protect me;
janmamṛtyujarāvyādhi pīḍitaṁ karmabandhanaiḥ ||
And relieve me of the painful experiences of birth, death, old-age and disease.
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