I don’t suppose you know who Maitreya is. The first time I heard the name was 25 years ago, when I became friends with Saryu and Vinod Doshi. Vinod is head of the Walchand Hirachand industrial family and Saryu is India’s leading art historian. They were my neighbours on Carmichael Road in Mumbai in the 1980s and they were the classiest, most generous hosts you could imagine. So, I spent many evenings at their huge apartment at Neela House.
And their son was called Maitreya. I said then—and I am happy to repeat this—that it was a foolish name imposed on a defenceless baby by an arty mother and her fond husband.
“Your son will end up with a pet name that does not reflect his real name,” I complained. But Saryu—who was, and continues to be, one of my favourite persons in the world—violently disagreed. And so, their son was brought up, went to university in the US, grew up to be a brilliant young man, married the gorgeous Rohita and was—and still is—known by his pet name of Mithu. If you know anybody who calls him Maitreya, write in to us, and Mint will give you a prize.
But at the end of the 1980s, long after Saryu and Vinod had become my closest friends, I discovered where my arty pal had found the name.
It happened this way. One summer, I was in London on one of those holiday-cum-work trips that were common in the pre-liberalization era (your company paid for you to go abroad on holiday. You did some token bit of work and it was shown as a professional trip for the benefit of the auditors and the revenue authorities).
In London, late that summer, desperate for a story to write, I bumped into the investigative journalist Duncan Campbell. I explained my predicament to him and Duncan, no stranger to the expense account scams that still dominate British journalism, said to me, “How about Benjamin Crème?”
“Benjamin who?” I asked.
“Oh, there’s this guy who claims to have found the messiah.”
“Sure. And there’s an Indian angle too. He is known as Maitreya.”
Intrigued by this apparent reference to the Walchand family, I pushed for details. Duncan gave me a phone number. I called. Crème answered. I fixed a time and went off to see him the next day.
Crème turned out to be a rather nice old man with a fringe of white hair. He would be happy to tell me his story, he said, beaming.
He believed in the great masters. High on the top of the world (Lhasa? Shangri La? Who knows?) lived the holy hierarchy who ruled earth. Among the masters were the Buddha, the “Master Jesus” (his phrase) and various others.
Between them, the masters constructed what we think of as God. Periodically, various masters would drop in on earth and found the odd religion (Christianity, Buddhism, etc.). But the big boss was always Maitreya. And so far, at least, he had never walked among us, leaving all this messiah/prophet stuff to lesser masters.
Now, said Crème, he had been approached—on a spiritual level, of course—by Maitreya himself, who said the age of religions was over. He himself was going to come down to earth and reveal himself to the world.
So far, so good. Just another nutcase, I thought. Except, said Crème, Maitreya was now already here. He had taken the form of a human and was trying to gain support for world peace, love, understanding, etc. etc.
But surely, I protested, if this guy was God (or near enough), all he had to do was walk across the swimming pool, turn Perrier into Romanee Conti. Or do the odd trick to convince us of the Second Coming.
Not quite, said Crème. Had we forgotten the story of the birth of Christianity? Jesus had only a few followers in his lifetime. The religion itself only took off a century or so later. What about Buddhism? In his lifetime, the Buddha was a cult preacher and the head of a small sect. His religion conquered the Far East centuries later. So it was with Maitreya.
There was no doubting Crème’s sincerity. But I began to question his credibility when he suddenly went into a trance and claimed that he had been “overtaken” by the power of Sathya Sai Baba who, while not a master, was still a holy magician.
It would take two decades or more, said Crème with complete confidence, but the world would recognize Maitreya as the saviour. The Master Jesus would come down to earth and would take over from the Pope. The Buddha would return to Asia and reclaim his rightful place as the head of his own religion.
I came back to India and checked up on all the Maitreya stuff. Crème had not made it up. It was the basis of the Theosophical Society’s version of religion (you’ve heard of Annie Besant, right?).
For more than a century, theosophists have been waiting for Maitreya’s appearance on earth. At first, they thought Krishna Menon was the new saviour (I kid you n ot) and then, they settled on Jiddu Krishnamurthy till finally, the old boy, without denying the fundamentals of theosophical belief, told his followers that he was not Maitreya after all (at which stage, he parted company from the theosophists and gained his own disciples).
So, there is a historical basis to Crème’s beliefs. And as the years have gone on since our meeting in London, I’ve waited either for Maitreya to appear or for Crème to be exposed as a charlatan.
In fact, neither has happened. Crème has a steadily growing bunch of followers. They meet once a week in London and he has enough money to put ads in the British papers announcing their meetings and carrying “photos” of Maitreya (who looks like a Parsi doorman or Freddie Mercury in a particularly daring video).
I’ve waited long enough. On my next trip to London, I’m going to track Crème down and find out where his cult is, two decades on. Perhaps he’ll introduce me to Maitreya.
And, with a bit of luck, the messiah will not be called Mithu.
(Write to Vir at email@example.com)