NO FILM SINCE David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia 20 years ago has kindled more serious biographical interest than Richard Attenborough's Gandhi. The nine books reviewed here, most of them reissued, are typical; and there are doubtless others to come.

The Lawrence literature is, of course, far richer; but the coincidences are suggestive. Both shattered empires--Lawrence the Turkish empire in Arabia, Gandhi the British will to rule India. Both were magnetic figures of the imperial twilight who combined idealism and personal asceticism with the life of action.

In the end both were unhappy with the results of their rebellions--Lawrence guilt- stricken over his services to the British imperial design in Palestine; Gandhi disillusioned by the tragedy of partition and sectarian bloodshed between Moslem and Hindu. Appalled and saddened, Gandhi on Indian independence day in 1948 fasted and prayed, refusing to be jubilant over divisions he hated.

Gandhi claimed that British rule had "ruined" India, devastating her village life and culture. Yet, as with so many Indians, England had indelibly stamped him. One affecting anecdote (not shown in Attenborough's film) has Gandhi making his way at the outbreak of World War II to the summer capital at Simla to express his "humanitarian" sympathies to the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, and in his presence weeping at the vision of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament in ruins.

The same breadth and generosity of spirit had prompted the British magistrate who sent him to prison for sedition in 1922 to rise and bow to him in the courtroom. It had inspired the poet Tagore to call him "Mahatma" ("great soul"), an unofficial title for which Gandhi had little but scorn.

Unlike Lawrence, the Oxford classical scholar and archeologist, Gandhi was not literary. His formal education was largely confined to three years of reading for the bar in London, commencing in 1888 when he was 19. His character lacked that patina that literary associations can confer. Its magic lay in the life he lived so artfully, one of the most inventive of all time.

He was, as George Woodcock says, "a completely unofficial man . . . (who) made and kept himself one of the few free men of our time." His force is hard to encompass, especially in the words and categories of Western thought; but if sainthood there is, Gandhi was a saint.

Yet he was entirely free of cloying piety and seems almost to have stumbled upon his insurrectionary role, like an actor groping about a darkened stage set when the lights go up and a script full of improvisations is handed to him sight unseen. Until the London interlude, he had never read the Bhagavad-Gita, the Hindu scripture that inspired him. Friends among the British Theosophists induced him to read it in translation.

Later, he became by chance and default the leader of Indian protest against legal disabilities in South Africa. What was to have been a short stay of a year or two on legal business lengthened into a quarter century.

He was, by his own witness, a man of powerful sensual appetites. His renunciation of sex at the age of 36 was the measure of his self-discipline. He was a jolly ascetic, a witty moralist, an irreverent saint (especially about himself). He was blessed with a saving humor. When proper Englishmen wondered that he would call on the King of England clad only in his homespun dhoti (loincloth) in 1931, he observed: "The king was wearing quite enough for us both." He took up the cause of India's untouchables, "the children of God." Yet he could defend the caste system on the selective ground-- historically but not functionally true--that it merely differentiated trades and professions. He promoted the primitive spinning wheel as the answer to India's bondage to British textile imports. Yet he was not against machinery per se, only--with keen foresight--when machines threatened to become masters. He was, finally, a queer combination of rationality and supernaturalism--a prophet who ordered his photograph removed from about the neck of a man claiming to have been healed by him who yet, to the chagrin of followers like Nehru, declared earthquakes to be divine punishment for the treatment of untouchables.

His public life, commencing with the demonstrations in South Africa before the Boer War, can be seen as a steadily deepening search for simplicity of life. The search was eclectic, drawing upon Western sources (Christianity, the writings of Tolstoy, Ruskin and Thoreau) as well as on the passive traditions of Eastern mysticism.

He cultivated a radical and fearless detachment from possessions and superfluous wants. His doctrine of Satyagraha (sometimes miscalled "passive resistance," but far from passive) drew its power from this radical personal freedom. He gave no hostages to fortune, human or material.

But in its effect on others, the Gandhian gospel was not, as he seems to have thought, free of coercion. As Woodcock acutely comments, his frequent fasts "succeeded against Indians not from the power of truth, but because they could not bear the guilt of causing Gandhi's death, and against the British because they feared the consequences in public disorder if they did not give in."

One signal flaw of the Attenborough film is that it insufficiently explores the peculiar vulnerabilities of the British in India, without which the Gandhi story is but half told. As empires went, the Raj in India was among the more admirable and responsible. It was not without its brutal side, as the Jallianwallow Bagh massacre (graphically shown in Attenborough's film) suggests. But it was civil, ordered and lawful.

Gandhi understood how, by a kind of moral jujitsu, a people capable of shame and justice could be moved to renounce an unjust dominion. Such was Gandhi's genius at finding the vulnerabilities that both followers and foes were often mystified. The movie is, for instance, accurate in showing the British baffled by the news of his "salt march" of 1930.

Gandhi, after long reflection, had grasped that a seeming trifle--the official monopoly on the making and sale of salt, so vital to life in a hot and humid country -- could, if challenged, be made a chink in the imperial armor. Since the British would go only so far to defend dubious practices, Satyagraha was not wasted on them, as it would have been on rulers with the will to be ruthless.

How completely Gandhi understood the uniqueness of British vulnerability to his techniques is uncertain. He shocked admirers like William L. Shirer when he counseled the Jews of Europe to test Satyagraha against the Nazis. It only "sounded inane," Shirer writes in Gandhi: A Memoir, "to those actually facing the fascist tyrants."

Most of the books that Attenborough's film has summoned forth are reprints. Of these the most informative is the panoramic Freedom At Midnight, the moment by moment account of the last stages of the independence movement by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. In it, Gandhi shares top billing with Nehru and Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy, whose greatness in its way rivaled Gandhi's own.

Apart from Gandhi's episodic but interesting An Autobiography (first published in the 1920s, therefore incomplete) the best of all the Gandhi books is Ved Mehta's Gandhi and His Apostles, a retrospective on the Mahatma through the eyes of his associates, wise and silly alike.

For a keen critical appraisal of Gandhi's philosophy-- unsystematic, hence not really detachable from the life story--one might follow Mehta with George Woodcock's excellent study, Mohandas Gandhi, in the Modern Masters series (alas, no longer in print).

Representative of the work of American journalists who sought Gandhi out at critical intervals, and gave his movement important publicity in the West, are the memoirs by Shirer and by Louis Fischer. Fischer's Gandhi: His Life and Message for the World, is the more thorough. Both Shirer and Fischer visited the Gandhi ashram (community) and interviewed him in his own element. Both tend to sharpen the profile by playing him off against the brutal figures (Hitler, Stalin, et al.) who were also shaking the world, to its ill, in his time.

Of distinctly secondary importance are the three books spun off from Attenborough's film, and Calvin Kytle's Gandhi, Soldier of Nonviolence, originally conceived as a book for young people, and a portrait that tends to see Gandhi very much through Western political eyes.

And how much of biographical value, books apart, is to be gleaned from Attenborough's film? Quite a lot, in fact, within the limits imposed by a dramatic form in which much is telescoped and foreshortened.

Ben Kingsley is a wholly believable Gandhi. But the film is evasive to the point of squeamishness about some matters of central concern to Gandhi--diet, hygiene, sex. Gandhi practiced what Woodcock calls a "tantalizing candor" about all things, even the most private and intimate. But in the movie his long Brahman abstinence from sex is only hinted at in a giggly, schoolgirlish scene. There is no reference to the shock that swept his disciples when it emerged that, in old age, the Mahatma regularly "tested" his freedom from sexual temptation by bedding nude with his teen-aged grandniece, Manu. The very thought of it makes the otherwise laudatory Shirer sputter. There are only glancing references to the dietary fetishes, and none to the daily salt-water enemas by which he set so much store. Gandhi was in many ways a very strange person.

One can argue, of course, that such matters, dramatically peripheral at best, would have been mystifying distractions; yet they were of central importance to Gandhi.

Finally, among the supporting characters, John Gielgud is grossly miscast as Lord Irwin, the dedicated high- church Anglican who as viceroy first made a conscientious effort to understand and negotiate terms with Gandhi. (It was Irwin's willingness to treat lengthily with the Mahatma in 1929-30 that fetched Winston Churchill's memorable growl of outrage-- he was, he said, "nauseated and humiliated at the spectacle of this religious fakir, of a sort well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace to treat and parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor." Churchill, wrong about few things, was certainly wrong about Gandhi.)

Yet in many powerful scenes, none of which does violence to history, the film conveys the essence of Gandhi and Gandhism.

And what was that essence? Any Westerner probing the secret of Gandhi will find that George Orwell has anticipated most discoveries. Orwell knew India; and he had a genius of his own for epigrammatic insight into those areas where moral example and political will intersect.

"In this yogi-ridden age," Orwell wrote soon after Gandhi's assassination, "some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings."

Gandhi was a saint who seems to have felt every temptation to be human and did not scorn the temptations. His warmth, his wit, his power to make others respond to the better angels of our nature, is undiminished after four decades. Orwell put it in a way that Gandhi, the obsessive hygienist, would have liked: "Compared to the other political figures of our time, how clean a smell he managed to leave behind!" Indeed!