Robert Persson wrote to me about a quote that aroused his suspicions: “To those in whom love dwells, the whole world is but one family.”
This sounded odd to him because he thought Shakyamuni didn’t talk a lot about love in this way. I thought he was right to be suspicious, although to me the thing that stood out was the reference to the whole world being one family. I don’t think the Buddha of the Pali canon would ever have said anything like that.
There’s a fuller version of this quote from 1890, in J. H. West’s Character and Love: Responsive Readings for Sunday Schools and the Home, where it’s not attributed to the Buddha. In fact it’s not attributed to anyone, although West’s book is intended as a compilation of prayers and sayings from various religious traditions, intended for liberal Christians. There, the saying in full is:
The narrow-minded ask, “Is this man a stranger, or is he of our tribe?” but to those in whom love dwells the whole world is but one family.”
A decade or so later it was cited as a “Hindu” saying. Early in the 20th century it had become a saying of “the Buddha.”
A few years before West’s book, in 1885, the quotation is slightly different, and attributed to a specific Hindu scripture, the “Hitopadessa” (sic):
The narrow-minded ask, is this man a stranger, or is he of our tribe? but to those who are of a noble disposition the whole world is but one family.”
The Hitopadesha is a compilation of fables involving birds and animals, that was translated into English as early as 1787. A later translation by Edwin Arnold, who is well known to Buddhists as the author of “The Light of Asia” (a biography of the Buddha in poetic form), was published in London in 1861 under the title The Book of Good Counsels.
And in fact in an 1830 translation of the Hitopadesha, edited by Lakshami Nārāyan Nyālankār, we find the following:
To say, This is one of us, or this is a stranger, is the mode of estimating practised by trifling minds. To those of more generous principles, the whole world is but as one family.
I haven’t been able to track down the equivalent passage in Arnold’s translation. Perhaps there are variants of the original Sanskrit text…
The punchline of the quote — “The whole world is but one family” predates Nyālankār’s translation of the Hitopadesha. In fact it seems to be quite a common saying. In an 1825 copy of the Methodist Review, for example, we read a quotation from a Rev. Dr. Morrison: “The Chinese, among whom I spent so large a portion of my life, affirm that ‘the whole world is but one family.’”
According to Ruchira S. Datta, in a comment below, the Hitopadesha quote is actually originally from Mahā Upaniṣad, Chapter 6, verse 72:
ayaṁ bandhur ayaṁ neti gaṇanā laghuchetasāṁ
udāracharitānāṁ tu vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam
“Counting this one as a friend and that one as not–this is small mindedness. But to those of noble character, the whole world is one family.”
“The Hitopadeśa story quotes this saying which was already widely known at the time,” says Datta.
The Buddha sometimes regarded the family, at least when he was talking to his monks, as an encumbrance, rather than as an ideal to be strived for. He said things like “The household life is confined and dusty, going forth is in the open…” We should remember that he abandoned his own family and named his son “Fetter” (Rahula).
On the other hand he also said “The Tathagata in many ways praises kindness, protection, and sympathy for families,” so he certainly wasn’t entirely anti-family. In fact he praised families in which skillful qualities flourished: “Living with Brahma are those families where, in the home, mother & father are revered by the children.”
When he described families in negative terms, this seemed to be when they acted as an obstruction to those who yearned to become monks or nuns.
I don’t think he ever talked in terms of the whole world being “one family.” The closest I can think of to this metaphor is a sutta of which I was reminded by Bhikkhu Yuttadhammo (see the comments, below) in which the Buddha says:
From an inconstruable beginning comes samsara. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating and wandering on. A being who has not been your mother at one time in the past is not easy to find… A being who has not been your father… your brother… your sister… your son… your daughter at one time in the past is not easy to find.
The Buddha is certainly making the point here that we are all one family, although his point is mainly to emphasize the immenseness of time over which humans have been reborn and to encourage dispassion. He doesn’t explicitly make the point that we should treat others as if they were family members, but it’s possible that he had that in mind when he picked that image. However, given that the passage ends with a reminder of how painful samsara is and how the immensity of time we’ve been suffering here should lead us to dispassion, it’s more likely that he had in mind the many times we’ve experienced the loss of family members. He’s more likely encouraging his followers to disengage from their affection towards their families. He’s in effect saying something to the effect of, “Look, your current family is just one amongst an infinite number you’ve had over the eons, and you’re going to lose them like you’ve lost the rest, so don’t be too emotionally entangled with them and get on with your practice!” This sutta is in fact one of many detailing the many pleasurable and painful things that have happened to us in samsara; each one ends with encouraging dispassion.
Nevertheless, Buddhism does encourage us to be kind to everyone, not just those we’re biologically related to. And so as with many Fake Buddha Quotes, “To those in whom love dwells, the whole world is but one family” is very much in line with Buddhist principles. It’s just not, as far as we know, something the Buddha happens to have said.