Raj Patel has found himself in an unusual position -- having to deny he's a god. Patel, a 38-year-old economist from San Francisco, has been hailed as the Messiah by a religious group called Share International.
After the New York Times first reported Patel's strange story on February 4, the economist has received a whirlwind of publicity.
Patel was the guest star on "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central. Colbert bantered with Patel about the release of his newest book, "The Value of Nothing." The TV appearance served as Share International's sign that Patel is their next "Maitreya" or World Teacher, similar to Buddha, Christ, Krishna or the Messiah.
Share International is a religious group based out of London and Amsterdam, led by the Englishman Benjamin Creme. For the past 30-plus years, Creme has prophesied the emergence of Maitreya. In the early '70s, he announced that Maitreya would leave his home in India in 1977 and move to London. In 1977, Patel left his home in India and moved to England where he later attended the University of Oxford and London School of Economics.
In the 1990s, Creme also prophesied that "A major American television network has requested an interview with Maitreya, and he has accepted the offer."
Thus, Share International followers saw last week's episode of "The Colbert Report" as prophesy come true. And this divine happening has created a modern-day Internet firestorm.
"Just two days after the show, my inbox flooded with e-mails from people all over the world asking me if I was Maitreya," Patel said. "I got e-mails from people I've never heard of."
In fact, just days after his national television debut, two people from Detroit flew out to one of his book signings in San Francisco.
"They were really nice," Patel said. "They said, 'We've come from Detroit to see you. You appeared in our dreams and we're really excited to see who you are.' It broke my heart to have to tell them that I'm not the Maitreya and that they've wasted their time and money."
Patel is a writer, activist and academic focusing on world hunger and economics. He currently works with the activist group Food First, trying to eradicate hunger in Africa and figuring out why there is continual hunger in America.
According to Share International followers, Patel's activism fills the bill. Followers believe Maitreya is currently here to "inspire humanity to see itself as one family, and create a civilization based on sharing, economic and social justice, and global cooperation." They believe the next God's priority will be to "launch a call to action to save the millions of people who starve to death every year in a world of plenty," and that he will solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, global warming and world greed as well.
Patel says at this point, he just wants the whole Maitreya craze to go away.
"There are millions of people that have similar views. I'm not the only one that thinks there's something dodgy that even here in the United States, 16 million people are going hungry. There's something wrong with that picture. I'm surely not the only one, so this is just a weird coincidence."
And his common beliefs aren't the only thing that make him fall short of Maitreya-ship.
"I'm not 95,000 years old. I did not make my body out of clay. Really, I'm not the Maitreya," he said with exasperation. "Usually for you to be a Messiah, you have to check every box. Me, I'm just another bloke."
While Patel says he can't wait for the whole affair to blow over, he says his family and friends are getting a hoot.
"My parents bought me stuff saying, 'He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy.'"
While the Maitreya business has been elevated by hype and comedy, Patel says there is a sadder element to it.
"I think it's important actually that I'm not the Messiah," he said. "It's not good that Share International is waiting to see change. Activism will make more happen than waiting."
Despite the high level of spirituality of the entire episode, Patel says it hasn't changed his own spiritual life.
"I don't have a religion. Organized religion hasn't really been a good thing. I know people that have faith and I'm not one of those people," Patel said. "And I don't believe in an afterlife. I believe we've got one shot."
He echoes Graham Chapman's Brian from Monty Python's "The Life of Brian," proclaiming that we're all individuals and don't need a leader to tell us what to do.
"I'm excited to share the idea that people don't have to wait for the Messiah. You can save yourself. We can make things like hunger go away. And that's really cool," he said.