This is a weird story I've been meaning to blog about for a couple of weeks, but the bloody election keeps getting in the way.
Here's what Maev Kennedy wrote about it:
Raj Patel, the reluctant messiah, set for Hollywood treatment
Economist named as messiah by spiritual group and ensuing internet mayhem declares he's just 'a very naughty boy'
The life of the London-born economist and author Raj Patel, who was hailed on the internet as saviour of the world for his indictment of capitalism, may become a Hollywood film.
Patel has become the subject of a blog and YouTube frenzy over his book on the "abject failure of western capitalism".
Supporters said his television promotion of the book was the "most important day in history" and called him the "master of masters".
Patel responded by using a clip from the Life of Brian in his blog and wrote: "Sadly, I'm not the Messiah. I'm just a very naughty boy."
The eulogising of Patel began with an announcement by Benjamin Creme, 87-year-old mystic and founder of Share International, a spiritual group. For decades he has forecast the imminent "most important day", the day of global recognition of the "Maitreya" who was already living quietly in our midst.
In January he announced that the Maitreya had just made his first appearance on American TV without revealing his true identity. Creme did not reveal which programme or channel and the internet began to hum with speculation. It zeroed in on two interviews by Patel, plugging his book The Value of Nothing, a scathing analysis of western capitalism and the global financial crisis.
Here's what Bobbie Johnson had to say:
I'm not the messiah, says food activist – but his many worshippers do not believe him
Members of religious group believe London-born author has come to save the world
The trouble started when Raj Patel appeared on American TV to plug his latest book, an analysis of the financial crisis called The Value of Nothing.
The London-born author, 37, thought his slot on comedy talkshow The Colbert Report went well enough: the host made a few jokes, Patel talked a little about his work and then, job done, he went back to his home in San Francisco.
Shortly afterwards, however, things took a strange turn. Over the course of a couple of days, cryptic messages started filling his inbox.
What he had written off as gobbledygook suddenly turned into something altogether more bizarre: he was being lauded by members of an obscure religious group who had decided that Patel – a food activist who grew up in a corner shop in Golders Green in north-west London – was, in fact, the messiah.
Their reasoning? Patel's background and work coincidentally matched a series of prophecies made by an 87-year-old Scottish mystic called Benjamin Creme, the leader of a little-known religious group known as Share International. Because he matched the profile, hundreds of people around the world believed that Patel was the living embodiment of a figure they called Maitreya, the Christ or "the world teacher".
His job? To save the world, and everyone on it.
Patel's career – spent at Oxford, LSE, the World Bank and with thinktank Food First – has been spent trying to understand the inequalities and problems caused by free market economics, particularly as it relates to the developing world.
His first book, Stuffed and Starved, rips through the problems in global food production and examines how the free market has worked to keep millions hungry (Naomi Klein called it dazzling, while the Guardian's Felicity Lawrence said it was "an impassioned call to action"). The Value of Nothing, meanwhile, draws on the economic collapse to look at how we might fix the system and improve life for billions of people around the globe.
While his goal appears to match Share's vision of worldwide harmony, he says the underlying assumptions it makes are wrong – and possibly even dangerous.
"What I'm arguing in the book is precisely the opposite of the Maitreya: what we need is various kinds of rebellion and transformations about how private property works," he said.
"I don't think a messiah figure is going to be a terribly good launching point for the kinds of politics I'm talking about – for someone who has very strong anarchist sympathies, this has some fairly deep contradictions in it."
To say Patel – with his academic air, stammer and grey-flecked hair – is a reluctant saviour is an understatement. In fact, he rejects the entire notion of saviours. If there is one thing he has learned from his work as an activist in countries such as Zimbabwe and South Africa, it is that there are no easy answers.
"People are very ready to abdicate responsibility and have it shovelled on to someone else's shoulders," he said. "You saw that with Obama most spectacularly, but whenever there's going to be someone who's just going to fix it for you, it's a very attractive story. It's in every mythological structure."
Unravelling exactly what it is that Share International's followers believe, however, is tricky.
The group is an offshoot of the Victorian Theosophy movement founded by Madame Blavatsky that developed a belief system out of an amalgam of various religions, spiritualism and metaphysics.
Creme – who joined a UFO cult in the 1950s before starting Share – has added a cosmic take to the whole concept: he says that Maitreya represents a group of beings from Venus called the Space Brothers.
This 18m-year-old saviour, he says, has been resting somewhere in the Himalayas for 2,000 years and – as a figure who combines messianism for Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims alike – is due to return any time now, uniting humanity and making life better for everybody on earth.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that Creme refuses to categorically state whether or not he believes that Patel and Maitreya are one and the same. He suggests that it is not up to him to rule either way, instead blaming media coverage, rather than his own mystical predictions, for making people "hysterical".
"It is not my place," Creme told the writer Scott James, a friend of Patel, recently. "People are looking to Mr Patel because they are looking for the fulfilment of a story which I've been making around the world for the last 35 years."
It is not the first time that Creme, an inscrutable guru with a mop of curly white hair, has courted publicity with his wild pronouncements of a messiah. In 1985 he made another prophecy: that Maitreya would reveal himself to the press in London.
A gaggle of journalists gathered in a Brick Lane curry house for the main event. In the end, the promised saviour failed to materialise. (One candidate, "a man in old robes and a faraway look in his eye", turned out to be a tramp begging for cigarettes, our correspondent wrote at the time).
Unlike some who have the greatness thrust upon them, though, Patel's greatest hope is that Share will leave him alone so that he can get back to normal life.
Raj Patel himself has written this:
We don't need a messiah (and anyway, it isn't me)
Coincidence led to my being hailed as a prince of peace. But change will come from our own hard work, not a deity
As the Guardian reported, the deluge began after a number of coincidences seemed to match me up with the man foretold by followers of a group called Share International, founded by Scottish mystic Benjamin Crème. I'd done little to earn the title of Maitreya, though I admit some parallels between my life and that described in the prophecy.
Have I lived in London? Yes. Am I interested in social justice and sharing the world's resources? Indeed I am. Do I care about feeding the world? Certainly. Was I on American television soon before Crème announced the arrival of Maitreya? Sort of. On 12 January, I appeared on a spoof rightwing talk show called the Colbert Report. I'd also been on BBC World, CNN, Democracy Now and al-Jazeera before then, but it seems you can't be a deity unless you do Comedy Central.
So what, according to Share International, does Maitreya do? Through a doctrine of sharing, fraternity, social justice and co-operation, he (and it does seem to be a he, not a she) brings humanity back from economic and ecological collapse through new forms of spiritual community. As it happens, I do think that sharing, fraternity, justice and co-operation are terrific things. I also think that prioritising the needs of the poor, hungry and oppressed is a non-negotiable part of a sustainable future.
Unfortunately, I think that's where the resemblances end. It frustrates me only a little less than it might disappoint those looking for Maitreya that, in fact, I'm just an ordinary bloke.
In part, I suspect the reason the story isn't going away – the New York Times just ran a followup – is because it fits a narrative in which we're steeped from birth. From the Bible to Knight Rider to The Matrix, the story's the same: in crappy times, a single person will emerge to make all the difference and turn everything around. Although it makes for great viewing, it makes for a bad society. Ultimately, tales about messiahs are bedtime stories steeped in power. They're debilitating soporifics, inducements to be passive as we wait for social change because, some day, our prince will come.
Why wait, though? If the world is to transform, faith in politicians offering hope and change is a recipe for disappointment. Ask almost anyone who voted for Obama. Change happens through millions of acts of rebellion and mutual aid, not through faith in one great leader. What's depressing about this whole Maitreya thing is that it is a sign that we've given up on ourselves, that we need to depend on The One rather than finding the means to fix our own problems directly.
The thing is that there are millions of world teachers already. I've been lucky enough to report what they're teaching: from former petrol-pump attendants in South Africa to masked women in Mexico, leaders are subjecting themselves to democratic control, and messing with the boundaries of private property so that everyone gets to share the world's resources.
This, at least, is the world I'm keen to live in: one without princes but with billions of world teachers, in which we live under neither God nor Master. It's a recipe for change that makes for poor storytelling but great politics.
The only problem is how to condense it so that someone can chisel it in stone.
Benjamin Creme has written this:
Raj Patel is not Maitreya, but the World Teacher is here – and needed.
This is no mystical bedtime story but a profound part of the history of the world
Raj Patel writes about how a series of coincidences led to his receiving "a trickle, then a flood, of email" asking whether he was Maitreya, the World Teacher, whose coming I have been predicting for 35 years [We don't need a messiah (and anyway, it isn't me), 12 April].
I would like to make clear that we at Share International have absolutely nothing to do with this mistaken identity and that we regret the inconvenience caused. Patel accepts that he does have much in common with Maitreya: "As it happens, I do think that sharing, fraternity, justice and co-operation are terrific things. I also think that prioritising the needs of the poor, hungry and oppressed is a non-negotiable part of a sustainable future." This is part of the reason for this silly misidentification.
Patel writes: "In part, I suspect the reason the story isn't going away … is because it fits a narrative in which we're steeped from birth … in crappy times, a single person will emerge to make all the difference and turn everything around … Ultimately, tales about messiahs are bedtime stories steeped in power … inducements to be passive as we wait for social change because, some day, our prince will come."
However, I have never presented Maitreya as a messiah figure who comes to make all things bright and beautiful for a supine humanity. Maitreya himself is at pains to clarify his position that every stone and brick of the new civilisation must be put in place by humanity itself; humanity's free will is sacrosanct.
To my mind Patel leaves out a huge and irreplaceable dimension. Why do we think that over the centuries, people like Confucius, Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad have come into humanity's midst? Over and over, the doctrine of a World Teacher has manifested to aid humanity in times of crisis.
I am not a "mystic" as Patel suggests, and this is not a mystical "bedtime story" but a profound part of the history of the world. The role of World Teacher is now held by Maitreya; the previous holder of the office was the Buddha. This is an office in our Spiritual Hierarchy of Masters, who are gradually returning to the everyday world where once they lived as men.
Maitreya is not a religious teacher but a spiritual teacher in the broadest sense. He is really speaking about freedom: freedom for each of us to be ourself, and he has come to show humanity how to attain this freedom from indoctrination, conditioning, poverty and want.
The world is already awakening and growing in understanding through the energies and ideas released by the man who Patel thinks is irrelevant to our needs. Incognito, Maitreya is already speaking to millions on US television, and his ideas and energies are inspiring many with new hope, and the resolve to change their lives for the better.