Finding Refuge in Our Work: The Goddess of the Kadamaba Forest

By Sandi Siegel…


Dr. Douglas Brooks of  Rajanaka Yoga did a summer workshop which drew heavily from the classic poem "Tripura-Sundari Ashtakam" "(त्रिपुरसुन्दरि अष्टकम्)" commonly attributed to Adi Shankaracharya. After immersing in the deep woods of upstate New York and his gracious teachings, I came home to Boulder and sat with my Sanskrit teacher Marcia Solomon, pulling apart each line for grammar practice but mostly to glean our translation of this evocative and beautiful poem. Evolving out of this work came a kirtan piece and then, this telling of her story in photographic form. A community of skillful artists came together to paint her on this canvas. This photo shoot and article is a collaboration and manifestation of "KULA" where each person lends their authentic voice in creating a piece of art. 

Imagine that we are every character in the story and each of the gods and goddesses represent aspects of our own psyche that we wish to evaluate, elevate, evoke, excavate and understand both for ourselves and in relation to our world and other beings. There is vast beauty and modern relevance in these writings which are as enriching and relevant as any philosophy I have seen. I have been invited to become a better mother, wife, friend and collaborator in deep study of these myths.


We shot these photos in the woods because the "VANA (वन)", or forest is a common setting in Hindu mythology. This place of broken light creates shadow and we go there to better understand these darker parts of our selves. Tripura-Sundari, whose name literally translates, "Beauty of the Three Cities" has arrived in her victorious crone years knowing that her refuge lies in understanding lessons learned in her deep and difficult life experiences. Though an elder, she speaks to past, present and future all at once. She embodies the dynamic integration of all three in that she skillfully weaves what has happened, what is happening now, and what is going to happen into her decision making. How then does her tale, beautifully expressed in this poem, cajole and teach us to find refuge in our work?

 As is common in translating Sanskrit, we find the answer in the verb at the end of several stanzas, "ASHRAYE (आश्रये)" meaning "I take refuge in". Eight poetic stanzas then describe her unrivaled beauty and many forms of shelter. From the root "SHRAM", meaning "to take effort to its very limit to find refuge", sanctuary is found in hard-won knowledge born of expansive experimentation and observation. The word "ashram" is derived from the same root. Her story invites us to turn shadow made of our challenges into our assets as we investigate what we truly value. In this search, we find our true voice, strong and unique, harmonizing in collaboration and relationship.  

She moves through the "KADAMBA VANA (कदम्बवन)" or forest of kadamba trees, tapping into our unconscious nature, creating slivers of space in an otherwise diamantine and structured surface reality. This space and breath become fertile ground for creating what Emile Durkheim so beautifully called "collective effervescence". In this place of collaborative possibility, we find art, poetry and song so she is "SANGITA (सन्गीत)”, the one who delights in the songs we sing together. She has been loved, betrayed and all things a life deeply lived will bring, but in these woods, we are reminded that you cannot really be safe until you are willing to go to places that take a toll. This is a demanding task but, for those who wish to live fully, a vital gift of embodiment.

The poem to the Goddess of the Three Cities speaks to many trinities. Trinity is found throughout Hindu writings because we are learning how to be in relationship with others hence, "subject object and their relationship" as a central trinity. The poetry refines these into many others, here telling of the three phases of womanhood being sung as a tale of:  Kumari, Sumangali and Jyeshta


Tripura-Sundari is virtuosic in her multiple selves. Like an acorn which has all the possibilities of what an oak tree may become given its DNA and how it unfolds in its environment, so too, all three stages of her life are apparent in each stage of her life.

She is "VASINIM (वासिनीं)" the forest dweller, seated as the teacher and comfortable living in the wisdom of her entangled understanding of the complex lives we live.   The broken lines and winding roads of her life experiences become her armor and adornment.  Despite our grief, losses and shadow, we find the courage to live well with all of our selves. She is Shakti, adept at discerning what is needed for each new creative moment.  Taking the seat of the teacher for her daughters and granddaughters as the cycle goes, she is "AMBIKA (अम्बिका)", the mother of the world. 


Go deeply into the work you have prepared yourself for and truly value. Here in the midst of great effort in work and collaboration, the Beauty of the Three Worlds unfolds in ways yet unimagined giving us deep shelter in the process. Dancing between her forest home and the world we inhabit as people engaged in our world, art and beauty unfolds in ways perhaps never before imagined.

(The original Sanskrit and our translation of this poem is available at my website: Shakti Sandi)

Kimberly Ghorai