Markandeya was one of the greatest devotees of Lord Shiva. It is said that he was destined to die at the age of 16. However his power of devotion was so great that not only Lord Shiva himself came to protect Markandeya from Lord Yama, the God of death, Lord Shiva granted the boon of immortality to Markandeya. It is said the Markandeya is alive even now and roams the earth, looking always young and evergreen.
It is also said that Markandeya is the author of Markandeya Purana which is a beautiful collection of stories based on the Mahabharatha. Most of the Puranas are in the form of dialogue between sages and kings or as dialogues between sages. However the Markadeya Purana is in the form of a dialogue between Jaimini, a student of Sage Veda Vyasa and four birds – Pingaksha, Sumukha, Vibodha and Suputra, who were considered as sons of Drona. The birds were spiritually enlightened and were able to clarify the doubts of the sage. One such story narrated by the birds were why the five Upa-Pandavas, the sons of Draupadi and the five Pandavas, were killed even before they were married, though they had Lord Krishna to protect them.
The birds narrated a story which went back to the Treta Yuga. In the Treta Yuga, there lived a just king from the Solar Dynasty, called Harischandra. The king was an epitome of Justice and Truth. He was a very good king and the kingdom was extremely prosperous and his people loved him.
The king was once hunting in the forest when he heard sharp cries. 'HELP! Please help me!'
The king almost faltered for a few seconds because such a cry was practically unheard of during those times. Abandoning the hunt, the king drove quickly towards the sound.
However the king was in for a world of trouble.
The entire event was nothing more than an illusion created by the Lord of Obstacles for the purpose of breaking the power of penance of Sage Vishwamitra who was performing an exceptionally powerful penance in the same place, towards which the king was coming. On hearing the sound the king shouted angrily as he burst into the place from where the screams were coming.
The king was shocked to find the forest area completely vacant save the great sage Viswamitra, who apparently had been disturbed during his meditation, by the king's shouting. Disturbing a sage during meditation was considered to be a great sin, during those days. With great fear, the king fell at the feet of the sage. 'I am sorry! I am sorry! I disturbed your meditation! Please forgive me! I just heard someone calling for help! I thought....' The king's speech faltered as he looked at the angry face of the sage.
The sage took in a deep breath and asked the king sharply. 'What would you give a sage, who has come begging alms?'
King Harischandra relaxed and smiled weakly. He was genuinely afraid that the sage would curse him. However now it looked like he was going to get out of this mess a little easily. He bowed to the sage again. 'Anything that the sage wishes!'
'I want everything that you have!' The sage said simply.
King Harischandra stared stunned for a few seconds and then almost laughed. He was a spiritually powerful man and had no attachments to his wealth or kingdom. 'Everything that I have is yours!' The king said with a smile.
The sage nodded. 'Now that your kingdom is mine...' The sage said looking with menacing eyes. '….I have no place in my kingdom for people like you! Take your family and leave! Leave immediately!'
King Harischandra went back to the palace and immediately removed his jewels and other ornaments and with his wife Queen Saiyya and son Rohitashwa, left the kingdom. However fate was not yet done with the king. On the way out, the king met sage Vishwamitra again.
'Give me some more Dakshina, king! I am not satisfied with the meagre offerings that you have made me!' Sage Vishwamitra said with calm and steely eyes.
The king looked flabbergasted and then shook his head. 'I have nothing more to offer other than our bodies! However I will pay your Dakshina, some way!'
The sage smiled with cold eyes. 'I do not wish for empty promises! Give me a specific date within which you will repay the Dakshina to me!'
'A month!' the king said looking back at the sage.
'A month it is!' The sage said and turned his back. 'Now go!'
The three of them were leaving when the subjects followed them in utter misery. They could just not believe that their beloved king was leaving them. Most of them decided that following their king would be a better option and followed him instead. The king stopped walking away from the kingdom and consoled his people and asked them to continue staying in the kingdom. As the king was speaking to his people, he was flustered to see the angry face of the sage again.
'You liar!' Sage Vishwamitra boomed angrily. 'You said you would leave the kingdom! And you are staying back here pretending your people want you to stay!' The sage was about to raise a stick to hit the king, when the king held up his hands, 'I will leave now!' He said as he rapidly walked out of the kingdom.
The story goes on to how King Harischandra and his family were sold into slavery. The king was sold to a man tending the funeral grounds and tended the bodies brought there, for his master. Misfortune also befell his wife and son who were sold to another family where Queen Saiyya worked hard as a maid in the house. Adding to the Queen's troubles, Rohitashwa was bitten by a snake and was killed. The story ended with all the misfortunes of the king amounting to performing of a yagna and the king having completed it successfully and with complete adherence to the truth, the king and the Queen attained salvation and his son was also brought to life...
However backtracking, as Sage Vishwamitra was about to raise his rod and hit the king, the people in the kingdom were filled with wrath. However it was not just the people, even the Gods in the heavens could not tolerate the treatment of the pious king. Angrily the five Vishwa Devas came down to earth and looked at the sage angrily. 'Are your inhuman? Is this how you treat a king, who has been an example for all the others in the world? This man has kept his word to you and you tried to hit him....!'
The sage looked at the Vishwa Devas angrily. 'What do you know? You think you are celestials and you can comment about what I am doing? Be born as humans, only then you will realize the reasons of what I am doing!' The sage picked up some water from his kamandalam. 'I curse you to be born as humans!'
The Vishwa Devas looked at the sage with complete fear as the sage continued. 'And you shall never have wives or children....Only after you live a life as a human, you can become celestials again!' The sage said with finality.
It is said that the five Vishwa Devas were born as the sons of Draupadi – Prativindhya (son of Yudhishtara), Sutasoma (son of Bheema), Srutakirti(son of Arjuna), Satanika and Srutakarman(sons of Nakula and Sahadeva). It was because of the curse of Sage Vishwamitra that they were killed by Ashwattama, after the end of the battle, before they could marry or have children of their own......