Deeply Rooted in Traditions
“We started Gift of Life because we wanted to do something meaningful for birthdays and say, ‘Thank you for this life.’ This is what the Gift of Life is to us – it is to give back (to society),” Datin Sri Umayal says.The couple was inspired to structure a more formal programme for GOL after the encouraging responses of family and friends. Datin Sri Umayal says, “They always had positive things to say but what was amazing was what those close to us started doing: they paid it forward by contributing to worthy causes in their loved ones’ names.” Another encouraging experience that stands out for the Eswarans involved a home for the elderly in Singapore. Datuk Sri Vijay relates: “One of the biggest problems old folks face is abandonment by society and their families. When we organised an event in a home and contributed orthopaedic beds and other essential items, the reactions from the residents were incredible. They were emotionally touched, which was empowering and enriching.” GOL’s broader net of giving started in the company’s early years, Datuk Sri Vijay says. “In our fourth or fifth year, I received 15 to 20 birthday cakes. They were too much, so we shared them with a few homes and orphanages. “(The concept of) gift-giving is perhaps lost, but when you contribute to the less fortunate, it is a significant event for them. Blessings from these people are more valuable and important than any physical gift,” he explains.
“Instead of a gift you would probably forget about in a month, I would rather, for example, provide a wheelchair, orthopaedic equipment, or anything else a hospital needs in your name.”The significance of altruism and birthdays for the couple is deeply rooted in Hindu cultural practices. For instance, birthdays are more gratifying when you give than when you receive. “A philosophy that dates back 6,000 years asks that since you have completed 365 days – the period it takes the planet to complete a cycle around the sun – what have you accomplished in that time? “Suppose you look (at life) as a debit and credit ledger: you owe the planet and the many people who moulded and guided you into the person you have become. So, what are you doing to pay it back or rather pay it forward?” he poses. Datuk Sri Vijay adds that the western idea of blowing out candles on a cake, for instance, runs counter to Asian traditions.
“In our culture, we light lamps on good occasions. For example, we light (birthday) candles but carefully remove them to burn out naturally. So, we do not invite darkness (by blowing out light).”Another custom the Eswarans became familiar with early in life is the concept of Annadanam (feeding the impoverished). “Annadanam is a common practice in temples in our culture. We even hosted Annadanam for 108 people in Chidambaram in India when we wed,” Datuk Sri Vijay recounts. “We follow what our parents taught and left behind for us to continue.” The couple inherently credits their compassionate nature and the inspiration for GOL to their respective upbringing, too. Datuk Sri Vijay recalls having his birthdays celebrated at orphanages well into his teens. “My dad insisted on hosting it in an orphanage or old folks’ home and giving gifts to the residents.” Datin Sri Umayal echoes a similar childhood. “I grew up in a home where the front doors were never closed. My father would invite people to the house and feed them. “And he would give away whatever he had in his pocket. Even during the worst times, he gave whatever he had and only thought about what he would do next later,” she remembers.
Greater Support for More Beneficiaries
“Instead of expecting things to happen, accept what is happening. That changes your direction, life, and attitude. So, in a sense, Gift of Life is about clicking that switch in the right direction. It simply means that life is a gift, so live it with a sense of gratitude,” Datuk Sri Vijay says.Datin Sri Umayal adds, “In the words of Winston Churchill, ‘We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.’
“Our legacy is what we leave behind between birth and death – what do we do, how we live, how we give back, and whether it has been a meaningful life. In our own capacity, each of us must give back to someone in need.”Watch Datuk Sri Vijay and Datin Sri Umayal share how they add meaning to birthdays and anniversaries through the Gift of Life initiative in the video below: Find out more about the Gift of Life and how you can nominate someone in need to receive our support here.