Krishna, considered a god in his own right, is an avatar of Vishnu.
Krishna, considered a god in his own right, is an avatar of Vishnu.

All the gods of the Hindu trimurti -- Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva -- are compassionate, but the most compassionate is Vishnu. He is the sustainer of the universe, and Vaishnavists, who form a distinct sect within Hinduism, worship him as the personification of love. Hindus believe compassion and forgiveness motivate him to incarnate at various times to restore the balance of the universe. According to Hindus, Gautama Buddha, the embodiment of compassion, was his most recent incarnation.

A Story

Sri Chinmoy, the Indian spiritual master who conducted regular meditation sessions at the United Nations in the 1960s, relates a story to describe the compassionate nature of Vishnu. In the story, a sage, seeking to test his compassionate nature, begins unjustly criticizing Shiva. He is met with anger. He then happens on Vishnu fast asleep and, wishing to conduct the same test, places his foot in the middle of the god's chest. Vishnu awakens and grabs the sage's foot, and then begins massaging it, apologizing for having such a hard chest and causing the sage discomfort. The sage naturally decides Vishnu is the more compassionate.

Iconography

Classical depictions of Vishnu usually show him with four arms, two of which signify activity in the physical world and two in the unseen world. One arm holds a conch, which he blows to remind his devotees to live in wakefulness and compassion. One arm holds a chakra, or wheel, which he uses to defend his devotees, and one arm holds a mace to signify energy. Finally, one arm holds a lotus to bestow blessings and peace on his devotees. Vishnu is often flanked by his two wives, Saraswati, goddess of art, and Lakshmi, goddess of wealth.

Avatars

The avatars of Vishnu are arguably as important in Hinduism as Vishnu himself, and some are considered gods in their own right. The oldest are the fish Matsya, who saved the Vedas, or original Hindu scriptures, and the turtle Kurma, who holds the world on his back. The most recent are Rama, who slew the devil king Ravana; Krishna, whose teachings are contained in the Bhagavad-Gita; and Buddha, the Enlightened One. The final incarnation of Vishnu, Kalki, in which he will come as a man riding the white horse, will signify the end of the Kali Yuga and all evil in the world. It has yet to occur.

Vaishnava Jan Tho

Vaishnava is a separate denomination within Hinduism that emphasizes the worship of Vishnu. It is a cult of devotion and love, which is called bhakti, and Mahatma Gandhi was an adherent. The singing of bhajans, or sacred chants, is important to Vaishnavists, and Ghandi's favorite was Vaishnava Jan Tho. In extolling the traits of the Vaishnavist, it says that a Vaishnavist "is one who knows the pain of others, who does good to others who are in misery and does not let pride enter his mind." That is the self-effacing quality of compassion that Vishnu symbolizes to followers of this branch of Hinduism.