The Maitreya or Lord Maitreya is described in Theosophical literature of the late 19th-century and subsequent periods as an advanced spiritual entity and high-ranking member of a hidden Spiritual Hierarchy, the so-called Masters of the Ancient Wisdom. According to Theosophical doctrine, one of the Hierarchy's functions is to oversee the evolution of humankind; in accord with this function the Maitreya is said to hold the so-called Office of the World Teacher. Theosophical texts posit that the purpose of this Office is to facilitate the transfer of knowledge about the true constitution and workings of Existence to humankind. Humanity is thereby assisted on its presumed cyclical, but ever progressive, evolutionary path. Reputedly, one way the knowledge transfer is accomplished is by Maitreya occasionally manifesting or incarnating in the physical realm; the manifested entity then assumes the role of World Teacher of Humankind.
The Theosophical concept of Maitreya has many similarities to the earlier Maitreya doctrine in Buddhism. However, they differ in important aspects, and developed differently. The Theosophical Maitreya has been assimilated or appropriated by a variety of quasi-theosophical and non-theosophical New Age and Esoteric groups and movements. These have added, and advanced, their own interpretations and commentary on the subject.
The first mention of the Maitreya in a Theosophical context occurs in the 1883 work Esoteric Buddhism by Alfred Percy Sinnett (1840–1921), an early Theosophical writer. The concepts described by Sinnett were amended, elaborated on, and greatly expanded in The Secret Doctrine, a book originally published 1888. The work was the magnum opus of Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891), one of the founders of the Theosophical Society and of contemporary Theosophy. In it, the messianic Maitreya is linked to both Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions. In the same work Blavatsky asserted that there have been, and will be, multiple messianic (or messianic-like) instances in human history. These successive appearances of "emissarie[s] of Truth" are according to Blavatsky part of the unceasing oversight of Earth and of its inhabitants by a hidden Spiritual Hierarchy, the so-called Masters of the Ancient Wisdom.
Following Blavatsky's writings on the subject, other Theosophists progressively elaborated on the Spiritual Hierarchy. Its members are presented as guardians and guides of Earth's total evolutionary process, known in Theosophical cosmology as the doctrine of Planetary Rounds. According to Theosophists, evolution includes an occult or spiritual component that is considered of a higher order of importance than the related physical evolution. The Hierarchy presumably consists of spiritual entities at various evolutionary stages – these stages correspond to ever increasing ranks within the Hierarchy. Lower ranks are populated by individuals who can function more or less normally on the physical plane, while in the highest known rankings are highly evolved beings of the purest spiritual essence and consciousness.
According to the Theosophical exposition, in the current stage of Planetary Evolution the position of Maitreya in Earth's Hierarchy is that of the so-called Boddhisatva, originally a Buddhist concept. Since this position is thought to be at an exalted state, the Maitreya may have no direct or sustained contact with the physical realm. At this evolutionary level he is below only two other beings in the current Hierarchy: at its apex, the Sanat Kumara, (also referred to as The Lord of the World), followed by the Buddha; as such the Maitreya is held in high reverence and regard by Theosophists. He is additionally described as having among other duties overall responsibility for humanity's development, including its education, civilization, and religion.
Blavatsky held that members of the Hierarchy, often called the Masters or the Mahātmās in Theosophical literature, were the ultimate guides of the Theosophical Society. The Society itself was said to be the result of one of the "impulses" from the Hierarchy. These "impulses" are believed to be a regular occurrence. Furthermore, Blavatsky commented in her widely read 1889 work The Key to Theosophy on the next impulse, the "effort of the XXth century" which would involve another "torch bearer of Truth". In this effort the Theosophical Society was poised to possibly play a major role. More information regarding the future "impulse" was the purview of the Theosophical Society's Esoteric Section which was founded by Blavatsky and was originally led by her. Its members had access to occult instruction and more detailed knowledge of the "inner order" and mission of the Society, and of its reputed hidden guides.
Blavatsky also elaborated on a so-called Christ Principle, which in her view corresponds to the spiritual essence of every human being. After Blavatsky’s death in 1891 influential Theosophist Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854–1934), whose knowledge on occult matters was highly respected by the Society's leadership, formulated a Christology in which he identified Christ with the Theosophical representation of the Buddhist deity Maitreya. He maintained that an aspect of Maitreya was the prototype for the Christ Principle described by Blavatsky. Leadbeater believed that Maitreya-as-Christ had previously manifested on Earth, often through specially prepared people who acted as the entity's "vehicles". The manifested Maitreya then assumed the role of World Teacher, dispensing knowledge regarding underlying truths of Existence. This knowledge, which according to Theosophists eventually crystallized in religious, scientific and cultural practices, had been reputedly disseminated to groups as small as a few carefully selected Initiates and as large as Humanity as a whole.
In Theosophical texts, the Maitreya is said to have had numerous manifestations or incarnations: in the theorized ancient continent of Atlantis; as a Hierophant in Ancient Egypt; as the Hindu deity Krishna; as a high priest in Ancient India; and as Christ during the three years of the Ministry of Jesus.
Annie Besant (1847–1933), another well-known and influential Theosophist (and future President of the Society) had also developed an interest in this area of Theosophy. In the decades of the 1890s and 1900s, along with Leadbeater (who became a close associate) and others, she became progressively convinced that the "next impulse" from the Hierarchy would happen sooner than Blavatsky's timetable. These Theosophists came to believe it would involve the imminent reappearance of Maitreya as World Teacher, a monumental event in the Theosophical scheme of things. Besant had started commenting on the possible imminent arrival of the next "emissary" in 1896, several years before her assumption of the Society's presidency in 1907. By 1909 the "coming" Teacher was a main topic of her lectures and writings.
After Besant became President of the Society the belief in Maitreya's imminent manifestation took on considerable weight. The subject was widely discussed and became a commonly held expectation among Theosophists. However, not all Theosophical Society members accepted Leadbeater's and Besant's ideas on this; the dissidents charged them with straying from Theosophical orthodoxy and, along with other concepts developed by the two, Leadbeater's and Besant's writings on the Maitreya were derisively labeled Neo-Theosophy by their opponents. The Adyar (India)-based international leadership of the Society eventually overcame the protests and by the late-1920s the organization had stabilized, but in the meantime additional World Teacher-related trouble was brewing.
In 1909 Leadbeater encountered fourteen-year-old Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986) near the Theosophical Society headquarters at Adyar, and came to believe the boy was a suitable candidate for the "vehicle" of the expected World Teacher. Soon after, Leadbeater placed Krishnamurti under his and the Society's wing. In late 1909 Besant, by then President of the Society and head of its Esoteric Section, admitted Krishnamurti into both; in March 1910 she became his legal guardian. Krishnamurti was subsequently groomed extensively for his expected role as the future World Teacher, and a new organization, the Order of the Star in the East, was formed in 1911 to support him in this mission. The project received widespread publicity and enjoyed worldwide following, chiefly among Theosophists. However it also encountered opposition within and without the Theosophical Society, and led to years of upheaval, serious splits within the Society, and doctrinal schisms in Theosophy. The German branch of Theosophy led by Rudolf Steiner seceded from the movement and became the Anthroposophical Society. Additional negative repercussions occurred in 1929, when Krishnamurti repudiated the role the Theosophists expected him to fulfill, and completely disassociated himself from the World Teacher Project; soon after he severed ties with the Society and Theosophy in general. These events reputedly prompted Leadbeater to declare, "the Coming [of the Maitreya] has gone wrong", and damaged Theosophical organizations and the overall standing of Theosophy.
Following the Krishnamurti debacle, major Theosophical organizations and writers became increasingly muted, at least publicly, on the subject of the reappearance of Maitreya and on the possible next "impulse" from the Spiritual Hierarchy. However the concepts of World Teacher, of a hidden Spiritual Hierarchy, and of Masters of Occult Wisdom as described in Theosophical literature, continued to have vocal supporters. These were found among Theosophical Society members and increasingly, among near-theosophical and non-theosophical New Age adherents.
A major proponent was Alice Bailey (1880–1949), who left the Theosophical Society in the 1920s to establish the quasi-theosophical Arcane School. She expanded Leadbeater's work and his Christology, and referred to Maitreya as the Cosmic Christ, claiming his Second Coming would occur sometime after the year 2025.
The Theosophical Maitreya also holds a prominent position in the so-called Ascended Master Teachings. These encompass original Theosophical literature, as well as later additions and interpretations by various non-Theosophical commentators and groups – such as the I AM Activity, and Elizabeth Clare Prophet (1939–2009); however, the validity of this later commentary has been disputed by Theosophical writers.
Benjamin Creme (b. 1922), a follower of Alice Bailey and founder of Share International, an organization whose doctrines have similarities with those of mainstream Theosophy, is a later promoter of the Maitreya. In 1975 Creme claimed to have started to telepathically channel the Maitreya. Creme stated that Maitreya communicated to him that he had decided to return to Earth earlier than 2025. Other claimed communications from the Maitreya followed, and Creme eventually announced that Maitreya materialized a physical body for himself in early 1977 in the Himalayas and then moved to London. Creme has made a number of extraordinary statements and predictions based on reputed telepathic messages from the Maitreya that have failed to come true; as a result he has been considered a figure of amusement in the press.