He who beholds inaction in action, spotlessly pure
is the Dharma of such a Vaishnav (sggs 549).

So long one is living, action (or work) is inevitable; because life expresses itself in action. Therefore, avoiding actions in life is not possible. Body may get tired and rest (sleep etc.), but the mind never gets tired. Even when the body rests and sleeps, the mind still keeps acting or working (dreams etc.). Also, depending upon man's thought-condition (Vaasnaas or mind set), the quality of actions varies from person to person.

  • ਬੈਸਨੋ ਸੋ ਜਿਸੁ ਊਪਰਿ ਸੁਪ੍ਰਸੰਨ ॥ ਬਿਸਨ ਕੀ ਮਾਇਆ ਤੇ ਹੋਇ ਭਿੰਨ ॥ ਕਰਮ ਕਰਤ ਹੋਵੈ ਨਿਹਕਰਮ ॥ ਤਿਸੁ ਬੈਸਨੋ ਕਾ ਨਿਰਮਲ ਧਰਮ ॥ ਕਾਹੂ ਫਲ ਕੀ ਇਛਾ ਨਹੀ ਬਾਛੈ ॥ ਕੇਵਲ ਭਗਤਿ ਕੀਰਤਨ ਸੰਗਿ ਰਾਚੈ ॥ ਮਨ ਤਨ ਅੰਤਰਿ ਸਿਮਰਨ ਗੋਪਾਲ ॥ ਸਭ ਊਪਰਿ ਹੋਵਤ ਕਿਰਪਾਲ ॥ ਆਪਿ ਦ੍ਰਿੜੈ ਅਵਰਹ ਨਾਮੁ ਜਪਾਵੈ ॥ ਨਾਨਕ ਓਹੁ ਬੈਸਨੋ ਪਰਮ ਗਤਿ ਪਾਵੈ ॥੨॥: Baisno so jis oopar suparsann...: The true Vaishnav (the word "Vaishnav" literally means the one who worships Vishnu - the Supreme, All-pervading God - out of pure love, expecting nothing from Him in return) is the one with whom God is thoroughly pleased. He dwells apart from Maya. He who beholds inaction in action, spotlessly pure is the Dharma of such a Vaishnav. He has no desire for the fruits of his action. He is absorbed in the Bhagti (devotion) and Kirtan. Within his mind and body, he meditates (Naam-Simran) on God. He is kind to all. He holds fast to the Lord's Name (Naam) himself, and inspires others to chant it. Says Nanak: such a Vaishnav obtains the Supreme Status (sggs 274).

Furthermore, on the surface, the statement "inaction in action" sounds paradoxical as well. That is, how can there be inaction in action or action in inaction? What does it really mean then? Another point: in the foregoing Shabad, although the Guru Sahib seems to be addressing a Vaishnav, but the underlying gist of the Message, Instructions or Teachings is for everybody, including the Sikhs as well!

Human activities lead either outwardly to sensory (worldly) consciousness (Manmukhtaa) or inwardly to Soul Consciousness (Gurmukhtaa). Thus the person in worldly consciousness performs his actions to gratify his senses, and consequently reaps a little fleeting pleasure mixed with much restlessness and sorrows. Whereas the Gurmukh (spiritual being) or the Mahaatamaan (Great Soul) employs his time and energy in meditation (Naam-Simran), introspection, and spiritual service (Nishakaam Sevaa) to others, and thus reaps permanent Peace and Soul Happiness. "Inaction in action" emphasizes inward Soul aloofness from the activities of the body-consciousness (Haume). It also signifies that while a Gurmukh or a Mahaatamaans is aloof, acting in God-consciousness, he is not working robotically like a machine, but is carefully proceeding with the business at hand (in subjective aloofness and objective enthusiasm) even while he inwardly "has no desire for the fruits of his action."

  • ਕਰਮ ਕਰਤ ਹੋਵੈ ਨਿਹਕਰਮ ॥ ਤਿਸੁ ਬੈਸਨੋ ਕਾ ਨਿਰਮਲ ਧਰਮ ॥ ਕਾਹੂ ਫਲ ਕੀ ਇਛਾ ਨਹੀ ਬਾਛੈ ॥ ਕੇਵਲ ਭਗਤਿ ਕੀਰਤਨ ਸੰਗਿ ਰਾਚੈ ॥ ਮਨ ਤਨ ਅੰਤਰਿ ਸਿਮਰਨ ਗੋਪਾਲ ॥: Karam karat hovai nihkaram...: The true Vaishnav, the devotee of Vishnu, is the one with whom God is thoroughly pleased. He dwells apart from Maya. He who beholds inaction in action, spotlessly pure is the Dharma of such a Vaishnav. He has no desire for the fruits of his action. He is absorbed in the Bhagti (devotion) and Kirtan. Within his mind and body, he meditates (Naam-Simran) on God (sggs 274).

Our True Self — "Joti-Svaroopa" — ever remains Undisturbed, Unconditioned, Pure, Changeless etc. — which is not doing anything at all. For example, the True Gurmukhs or the Mahaatamaans are always active. But since they are constantly established in their True Self within, they behold inaction in their action. However, the opposite is true in the case of the majority of us (the 99.9%+ category). Our body-mind-intellect apparatus or personality (Haume or ego consciousness) is acting all the time — always in the state of flux. For example, even if we are sitting still in a Gurdawaaraa or in a Satsang somewhere else, thoughts continue to rise in our mind and churn us (work on us). In other words, even to sit still for a short while, we have to make conscious effort (work or action). Thus, although superficially we may be in the state of inaction but we are still acting on different levels. But the True Gurmukh or the Mahaatamaans remain in the transcendental position, although engaged in activities. This is action in inaction. This is the difference between the Mahaatamaans and the majority of us — they see inaction in their action and the action in our inaction!

A true Gurmukh or a Mahaatmaan, being established in His True Self, always acts selflessly, without expectation or attachment to the results of their actions. They are devoid of Haume or false ego-sense. Thus, all their actions are Shubh (good, pure, auspicious, righteous, truthful etc.). Shubh actions bring no reaction and thus are non-binding to Sansaar or the cycle of repeated suffering. "Mohammad" or "Akarama" simply means without reaction to work or Karma (Nihkarma); without desire for personal sense gratification; or without "desire for the fruits of his action". They are unaffected by the pairs of opposites (Doojaa-Bhaav or duality); their wisdom stands unclouded by the latent tendencies (Vaasnaas); they are as free as the space; they are living liberated (Jeevanmukta) from the cage of the false ego-sense or Haume; and remain detached whether in action or inaction. They perform good actions (performed in an Enlightened Consciousness), without attachment or seeking rewards. As the above Shabad puts it, such person "has no desire for the fruits of his action."

  • ਸਾਧ ਨਾਮ ਨਿਰਮਲ ਤਾ ਕੇ ਕਰਮ ॥: Saadh naam niramal taa ke karam: He is called a Holy person; whose actions are immaculate and pure (sggs 296).
  • ਦੇਹ ਸਿਵਾ ਬਰ ਮੋਹਿ ਇਹੈ ਸੁਭ ਕਰਮਨ ਤੇ ਕਬਹੂੰ ਨ ਟਰੋਂ ॥: Deh Sivaa bar mohi ihai subh karaman te kabahoon na taron: O God, grant me this that I may not hesitate from performing Shubh (good) actions (Guru Gobind Singh Jee, Chandi Charitar).
  • ਸੋ ਕਿਛੁ ਕਰਿ ਜਿਤੁ ਮੈਲੁ ਨ ਲਾਗੈ ॥ ਹਰਿ ਕੀਰਤਨ ਮਹਿ ਏਹੁ ਮਨੁ ਜਾਗੈ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥: So kish kar jit mail na laagai. Har kirtan mahi eh manu jaagai ||1|| ||Rahaaou||: Make only those efforts by which the "filth" (fith of Bikaars: lust, anger, greed, attachment, pride and their countless variations) may not stick to your mind; and your mind remains awake (alert or aware of the pull of Bikaars) through the Lord's Kirtan (ਪਰਮਾਤਮਾ ਦੀ ਸਿਫਤਿ-ਸਾਲਾਹ) ||1|| ||Pause|| (sggs 199).
  • ਅਕਰਮ ਹਰੀ ॥: God is free from Karma (Guru Gobind Singh Jee, Tavprasaad).
  • ਕਰਣੀ ਬਾਝਹੁ ਤਰੈ ਨ ਕੋਇ ॥: Karanee baajhahu tarai na koi: Without the good actions, no one crosses over (sggs 952).

However, the majority of us act in Haume or false ego-sense (lust, anger, greed, attachment, pride, enviousness, stubborn mindedness, selfishness, expectations, and so on). Hence every action we perform becomes Ashubh, thus binding (Kaarmic) or reactionary. Simply put, a person who performs all actions for God only, not for the gratification of his false ego-sense or Haume, satisfies the Divine Plan (Hukam).

  • ਹਉਮੈ ਕਰੈ ਨਿਹਕਰਮੀ ਨ ਹੋਵੈ ॥: Houmai karai nihakaramee na hovai: Those who act in ego do not go beyond Karma (sggs 128).

The life is a series of different situations and related challenges and experiences, demanding appropriate response from individuals. When the response to a given experience is righteous, the challenge is met and the problem is removed. Consequently, there will be no accounting for that action since there is no reaction to righteous Karma. But if the response to a given situation is unrighteous or selfish, there will be accounting of that Karma; because the challenge is not met and the problem remains. The edict of the SGGS is to respond to situations and related challenges righteously (truthfully), which will set us free from the Karmic reactions, resulting in seeing inaction in our action.

Everyone of us in this human form is given the invitation to end the vicious cycle of repeated suffering. The answer to suffering-free life lies in living a Karma-free life. However, as the life is nothing but a series of actions, how can one possibly live a Karma-free life? The Gurbani shows us the simple and sure way. By the inner surrender of the falsehood unto the True Self, and thereby engaging in Shubh or God-centered activities, one becomes free from the effects of Karmic reactions. To put it otherwise, for one who acts for the Satguru or God, there is no accounting of Karma. In other words, by becoming the Gurmukh by submitting to God's Will or Hukam, by becoming Shabad-Conscious, introspection, spiritual service (Nishakaam Sevaa) to others, by keeping the Holy Company, etc., one ceases to create new Karmic actions.

  • ਸੋ ਨਿਹਕਰਮੀ ਜੋ ਸਬਦੁ ਬੀਚਾਰੇ ॥: So nihakaramee jo sabad beechaare: Those who reflect upon the Shabad are beyond karma (sggs 128).
  • ਚੂਕਾ ਭਾਰਾ ਕਰਮ ਕਾ ਹੋਏ ਨਿਹਕਰਮਾ ॥ ਸਾਗਰ ਤੇ ਕੰਢੈ ਚੜੇ ਗੁਰਿ ਕੀਨੇ ਧਰਮਾ ॥: Chookaa bhaaraa karam kaa hoi nihakarma. Saagar te kandhai charre gur keene dharamaa: With God's bleesing, I have crossed the world-ocean, and reached the other shore; the load of my Karma has been removed, and I am now Karma-free (sggs1002).
  • ਜਿਸੁ ਸਾਧੂ ਸੰਗਤਿ ਤਿਸੁ ਸਭ ਸੁਕਰਣੀ ਜੀਉ ॥: Jis saadhoo sangat tis sabh sukaranee jeeou: Sublime are all the actions of those who join the Saadh-Sangat (sggs 217).

Thus, clearly, "inaction" does not mean to be an idler, a free-loader, or a do-nothing-person in life. In fact, it's the opposite that's true. The indication here is towards spiritualizing our actions. When our actions are Shubh (devoid of false ego-sense or Haume), then everything becomes Shubh. In other words the Dharma is sustained by not just good Karma, but by renouncing one's false ego-sense or Haume (the sense of "I-ness" or doership) in doing that Karma.

  • ਤੀਰਥ ਬਰਤ ਅਰੁ ਦਾਨ ਕਰਿ ਮਨ ਮੈ ਧਰੈ ਗੁਮਾਨੁ ॥ਨਾਨਕ ਨਿਹਫਲ ਜਾਤ ਤਿਹ ਜਿਉ ਕੁੰਚਰ ਇਸਨਾਨੁ ॥: Teerath barat ar daan kar mann mai dhari gumaan. Nanak nihphal jaat tih jiyu kunchar isnaan: Those who make pilgrimages to sacred shrines, observe ritualistic fasts and make donations to charity while still taking pride in their minds - O Nanak, their actions are useless, like the elephant, who takes a bath, and then rolls in the dust (sggs 1428).

Apparently, the law of Karma kicks in or become effective when the false ego-sense or Haume arises. Although actions and thoughts are unavoidable in life, however, we can spiritualize them or make them "right". An action becomes Spiritualized only if the mind has got a correct vision and purpose of life coupled with a sense of eternal servitorship to God. Which makes one immune to all sorts of reactionary elements of Karma, thus one enjoys only transcendental happiness in the discharge of such service. In other words, any work done with focus on God (without the rise of the ego or Haume) becomes Shubh Karma and all such actions performed by one are factually inaction. Then one realizes that all actions performed are actually performed by the Supreme Being Himself. Such person is spiritually intelligent, situated in True Wisdom. Because such a person is verily one with the Supreme Truth and even when this person is not performing any actions, he should be understood to be performing all actions and the knower of all actions.

  • ਗੁਰ ਕੀ ਕਾਰ ਕਮਾਇ ਮਹਲੁ ਪਛਾਣੀਐ ॥: Gur kee kaar kamaai mahal pashaaneeai: By doing the Guru's Kaar (work, service, Will, Rajaa, Gurmat or His Teaching), one realizes (All-pervading God's) Presence (sggs 420).
  • ਗੋਬਿੰਦ ਕੀ ਟਹਲ ਸਫਲ ਇਹ ਕਾਂਇਆ ॥: Gobind kee tahal safal ih kaanyaa: Working for God, the body becomes fruitful (sggs 202).
  • ਇਹੁ ਤਨੁ ਧਰਤੀ ਬੀਜੁ ਕਰਮਾ ਕਰੋ ਸਲਿਲ ਆਪਾਉ ਸਾਰਿੰਗਪਾਣੀ ॥ ਮਨੁ ਕਿਰਸਾਣੁ ਹਰਿ ਰਿਦੈ ਜੰਮਾਇ ਲੈ ਇਉ ਪਾਵਸਿ ਪਦੁ ਨਿਰਬਾਣੀ ॥੧॥: Ih tann dhartee beeg karmaa karo salil aapaau saaringpaanee. Mann kirsaan Hari ridai janmaai lai iyu paavasi pad nirvaanee ||1||: Make this body the field, and make your daily Karma (actions) the seed. Water (ਸਿੰਚਨ) it with God's Name. Let your mind be the farmer; Sprout (God) in your Heart, and you will attain the state of Nirvaanaa (ਉਹ ਆਤਮਕ ਅਵਸਥਾ ਜਿਥੇ ਕੋਈ ਵਾਸਨਾ ਪੋਹ ਨਹੀਂ ਸਕਦੀ) ||1|| (sggs 23).

Not only the bad Karma (actions or work), but also the good Karma performed in Haume- or false ego-consciousness are binding. The only difference is that one binds with the iron chain and the other with the golden chain, per se! Nonetheless, both bind us to the Sansaar. There is the third kind of Karma: good actions performed in an Enlightened Consciousness. These Karma are non-binding, for such good Karma (Karanee or Kaar) performed in an Enlightened Consciousness or the right spirit are free of any reaction of the Haume or false ego-sense. Only the True Gurmukhs or Mahaatmaans perform such good Karma in an Enlightened Consciousness at all costs with conviction and selfless dedication despite all hurdles that come in the way. This is why the SGGS repeatedly urges us to become the Gurmukh!

  • ਕਉਣ ਕਰਮ ਕਉਣ ਨਿਹਕਰਮਾ ਕਉਣੁ ਸੁ ਕਹੈ ਕਹਾਏ ਜੀਉ ॥੨॥ ... ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਕਰਮ ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਨਿਹਕਰਮਾ ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਕਰੇ ਸੁ ਸੁਭਾਏ ਜੀਉ ॥੬॥: Kaounu su muktaa kaounu su jugataa...: Who is subject to Karma, and who is beyond Karma? The Gurmukh performs Karma (ਮਾਇਆ-ਰਹਿਤ), and the Gurmukh is beyond Karma (i.e., he does not get involve in Mayaic efforts...). Whatever the Gurmukh does, is done in good faith (ਆਤਮ-ਗਿਆਨ ਵਿਚ ਟਿਕ ਕੇ). ||6|| (sggs 131).
  • ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਕਰਣੀ ਕਾਰ ਕਰਾਏ ॥: Guramukh karanee kaar karaaye: By becoming the Gurmukh, (he) does good deeds, and inspires others to do so (sggs 942).
  • ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਸਾਚੀ ਕਾਰ ਕਮਾਇ ॥: Gurmukh saachee kaar kamaai: By becoming the Gurmukh, one practices Truth in action (sggs 942).
  • ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਕਾਰ ਕਰਹੁ ਲਿਵ ਲਾਇ ॥: Guramukh kaar karahu liv laai: By becoming the Gurmukh, act in God Consciousness (sggs 1174).
  • ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਅਹੰਕਾਰੁ ਜਲਾਏ ਦੋਈ ॥: Gurmukh ahankaar jalaaye doee: By becoming the Gurmukh, burn away egotism and duality (sggs 230).

— T. Singh