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.[Previous TGIS]
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.
"It was just really weird," he said. "Clearly a case of mistaken identity and clearly a case of people on the internet getting things wrong."
What started as an oddity kept snowballing until suddenly, in the middle of his book tour and awaiting the arrival of his first child, Patel was inundated by questions, messages of support and even threats. The influx was so heavy, in fact, that he put up a statement on his website referencing Monty Python's Life of Brian and categorically stating that he was not Maitreya.
Instead of settling the issue, however, his denial merely fanned the flames for some believers. In a twist ripped straight from the script of the comedy classic, they said that this disavowal, too, had been prophesied.
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).
02 April 2010
TGIS: Thank God It's Schadenfreude! (264)
This week's joy in the misfortune of others comes courtesy of The Guardian (from Tuesday, March 30; link good at time of posting):