Devotees of God always crave for liberation from the cycle of births and deaths, but in case they are reborn, they would like to be born in families which have a tradition of bhakti. Samartha Ramadas prayed to be born in a family where everyone would be devoted to Lord Rama. In fact, when great bhaktas pray for progeny, the reason is their desire to continue the family tradition of worship, said S. Janakirama Bhagavatar in a discourse.
Sage Mrikandu was a great devotee of Lord Siva. He had no children, and so he prayed to Siva to bless him with children. The Lord appeared before him and agreed to grant him his request. But the Lord put before the sage and his wife a difficult choice. Mrikandu could either have a son who would be deeply devoted to Siva, but who would die young. Or he could have a son who would not do his father proud, but who would live long.
The sage chose to have a son who would be virtuous and devoted to the Lord, even if this meant the boy would have only a short life. The Lord granted him his wish, and a son was born to him, whom he named Markandeya. As promised by the Lord, the boy studied the Vedas, and was a devout Siva bhakta. But as the boy approached the age of 16, his parents grew anxious and unhappy. They were not willing to lose their son. The boy, who learnt the reason for their unhappiness, continued to worship the Lord, in the belief that He would save him from certain death.
When the attendants of Yama, the God of Death, arrived, Markandeya was not afraid, but embraced the Siva linga he had been worshipping. His devoutness was responsible for his fearlessness, for Yama’s attendants show no mercy to anyone.
Saint Purandaradasa, in one of his songs, says the attendants of Yama will not wait if you ask them to, and urges us to sing of Hari. When they could not take Markandeya’s life, Yama himself came to carry out the task. But Siva killed Yama, and saved Markandeya.
Thus Markandeya was a unique child, whose parents had prayed for a child whose death at a young age was certain, and yet Markandeya conquered death through his devotion to Lord Siva.