It was more than Oscar night humility that prompted the triumphant makers of ''Gandhi'' to shift the honor of eight Academy Awards from themselves to the man celebrated by their film. The meaning of Mohandas K. Gandhi more than three decades after his assassination rises above debate over the degrees of cinematic excellence in a strong field of Oscar nominees.

Gandhi recognized that he did not always live up to his ideals of truth and love and nonviolence. Yet his effort to do so was so uncompromising, and his success so considerable, that he remains an inspiration to a whole new generation of people seeking peace.

Even a lengthy film cannot do much more than outline Gandhi's struggle for what would today be called human rights in South Africa and then in his native India. He did not fail to see the link between the large scale of politics and the conduct of personal lives. He preached the need to understand the view-points of one's opponents in the world, even to seek every opportunity to serve one's opponents. And: ''How much more then should we apply this law in our homes, in our relations, in our domestic affairs, in connection with our own kith and kin.''

Gandhi was constantly resisting the temptation to use unjust means for just ends. He cited the Golden Rule. He saw any short-term gains from violence not to be worth the long-term costs. ''As the means, so the end.''

Yet Gandhi's ''nonviolent noncooperation'' with repression could be met with violence, as the film starkly shows. What sustained him in his belief that what was right would finally win? It was fundamentally a religious view of what was true and not true. He noted that in his language the word for untruth meant ''nonexistent'' and the word for truth meant ''that which is.'' He declared:

''If untruth does not so much as exist, its victory is out of the question.''

As for truth, being ''that which is,'' it can ''never be destroyed.''

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